The life and times of east London’s most colourful clown

clown lead

Mathew Faint, aka “Mattie the clown” runs east London’s clown museum and gallery. Pic: Amalia Illgner

Mathew Faint’s tiny Clerkenwell kitchen feels more like a dressing room. Snapshots of make-up, dress-ups and close-ups compete with exotic postcards to frame an overwhelmed mirror. His windowsill is a jungle of succulents, ferns and vines. Soft gold light shines on a jolly bronze Buddha.

Faint is “Mattie the clown”. Matto means fool in Italian; Matti, many fools. “Being a clown,” he says, “is like putting lovely love dust over everything. You put on a red nose, an old coat and you become a performer. Clowning allows us to be mad. Controllably mad.”

He started clowning in July 1971 with a troupe at Syon House garden centre in west London. His first “motley” (clown costume) was stitched by Lindy Hemming, the then wardrobe mistress at Hampstead Theatre Club who would go on to win the 1999 Academy Award for Costume Design for film Topsy-Turvy.

Now, nearly 45 years on, he is the trustee of the Clown Museum in Dalston. The joy of seeing children having a good time fuels Faint – but his career has taken many colourful twists and turns to get him where he is today.

Faint’s father Frank was a commercial artist, sign writer, poet, musician and painter. Frank would watch his five-year-old son as he tied table legs together with string and then fling a napkin over the top to make a his own puppet stage. For his son’s seventh birthday Frank made a puppet theatre, complete with a fly-tower so he could add scenery.

Clown 2

Mathew Faint once operated stage spotlights for The Rolling Stones. Pic: Amalia Illgner

“By 16 I knew I wanted to join the theatre, so I left home in Plymouth took the train by myself for the first time and went to Bristol to audition for the National Youth Theatre.” He had prepared a Mark Antony speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He thought it would add drama if he borrowed founder of the National Youth Theatre Michael Croft’s coat to swirl around. He said the speech. He swirled the coat, only for all of Croft’s change to spill onto the stage at the critical moment. “Croft told me he’d never seen it done like that before,” Faint says. He was accepted straight away.

A few months after graduating from the youth theatre he secured a sound production role on Anything Goes, Cameron Mackintosh’s first-ever production. It closed after just a fortnight, but 18-year old Faint soon got new work as a spotlight operator for a band by the name of The Rolling Stones. It was 1969. There probably wasn’t anything that could have been cooler for a teenager from Plymouth. There probably wasn’t anything that could have been cooler for anyone, anywhere, at any time. Except maybe one thing.

After the Stones’ tour Faint went on holiday to St Tropez, he was playing monopoly on a second world war minesweeper run by “a friend of a friend of a friend” Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, sixth Earl of Minto, when he got a telegram asking him to become company manager for the rock musical Hair. And the rest, as they say…

We often think of glamour as being the domain of the rich, the well turned-out, or the beautiful. But it’s more than that. It’s someone who radiates excitement and enchantment with, perhaps, just a little bit of mischief. Someone like Matthew Faint.

Tonight he will polish off a gin and tonic in his kitchen. He’ll then think about creating a clown face for actor Simon Callow, whose great-grandfather was a clown. Callow is making a television segment about clowning for the BBC. Incense will waft in, then out again, while bronze Buddha will lend a watchful eye. And his greenery will surround him, like a prima donna’s roses on opening night.


The London Clowns’ Gallery is open on the first Friday of the month, 12 – 5pm, or by appointment.
Holy Trinity Church Beechwood Rd, London E8 3DY

Follow Amalia on Twitter: @amaliaillgner

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