This isn’t just any Sunday service at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, East London. Today, it’s packed. Children’s shouts reverberate around the chamber, and a demented mash-up of circus show-tunes and instrumental hymns is being hammered out by an organist wearing a fake nose and fright wig.
Soon, the doors at the back of the church will burst open and 30 clowns – in full Technicolor, costumed glory – will gambol up the aisle, before plopping themselves in front of the altar.
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This is the Joseph Grimaldi Memorial Service – or Clown Service. It started in 1946 as an informal gathering of Christian clowns that met to worship God, then morphed into an annual event in honour of Grimaldi, the 19th century London harlequin who pioneered modern clown clobber, comedy, and acrobatics. Today, people have come to celebrate clowning around, and to pay homage to fellow jesters who’ve recently died.
The first Clown Service was held at Grimaldi’s burial place in St James’ Church in Islington, and even though ‘Joey’s’ still there, the church was demolished in the 1950s, so the event moved to Holy Trinity.
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It used to be a dour affair, but in 1967 (when Dave Davies from the Kinks released the song ‘Death Of A Clown’), a fool called Smokey thought events should be more true to the profession, and got folk to attend in full slap and ‘motley’, giving the service its surreal edge.
“It used to be so formal,” says Tony Eldridge, AKA Bluebottle the clown, who’s about to get changed in a primary school across from the church – their dressing room for the day. “But now it’s a light-hearted bit of fun. During the ceremony, the clowns will come up the aisle juggling, and last year someone went up on a unicycle.”
Bluebottle’s curator of the Clown Museum at Wookey Hole in Somerset and an expert in UK clown history. He’s also secretary of Clowns International, a club that promotes clowning, helps jesters keep in touch with each other, and organises this event. Bland-looking, grey and middle-aged, wearing a plain blue cardigan, Bluebottle’s easier to spot with his clown kit on. In a hurry to get ready, he slips into a huge red and white checked jacket, oversized red bow tie and fake buck-teeth and spectacles while he talks.
“There’s a lot of religion in clowning,” says Bluebottle. Many of the people at Holy Trinity today are members of the Salvation Army, or other religious organisations. “I’m not into the spiritual side of things,” he shrugs. “But many of us are.”
This can be a drooping flower in comedy. When Bluebottle hired two clowns he hadn’t seen before to play at the Showcase in Milton Keynes, their act led into a sermon about the Bible. “It’s not unusual for that kind of thing to happen,” he says. “They were rubbish clowns.”
Moving through the school corridor, the classrooms are filling up with buffoons sitting in front of large portable vanity mirrors, transforming their faces with the precision of a Renaissance painter. Tom Fun (below) has just put the final touches to black painted tears on his cheek, and has climbed into a red and white striped bodysuit that looks like an infant’s onesie. Tom explains that his sad clown character doesn’t speak… or do kids.
“I just don’t like children,” he says firmly. After reconsidering, he adds: “Well, I can deal with them, but I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I was put in a room with them.”
Instead, he entertains adults with a three-part act – as a clown, a dramatic performer and a stand-up comedian. “I’ll make you laugh, I’ll make you cry, and then I’ll make you laugh again,” he says in a Welsh lilt. But Tom’s not going to perform today. His friend and mentor, Ian ‘Taffy’ James, died recently and he’s come to pay his respects.
In a corner, Pandromini – who performs in theatres – applies slap inspired by Joseph Grimaldi. With large red blushes on both white cheeks, he’s an elder statesman of the clowning world, and he commands the room with a booming, classically trained voice that could smack any sleeping audience member awake.
Outside, a street show is in full swing. Zaz the clown unicycles alongside a police car. Others blow bubbles and play air guitar to rockabilly tunes pouring from a van stereo. Let the ceremony begin.
‘Lord Of The Dance’ strikes up. Everyone sings, ‘Dance, then, wherever you may be / I am the Lord of the Dance, said he…’ Clowns troop down the aisle, jostling each other, performing and gurning all the way. It’s a free-for-all and police clown, PC Konk – wielding a toy truncheon and sporting a bobby’s hat with a built-in siren – threatens a guy with furry handcuffs for bumping into him.
Adults lucky enough to have secured a seat are perching their bum-cheeks on primary school chairs designed for five-year-olds, craning to get a look. When the clowns’ve finally made it to the front pews reserved for them, the parish vicar, Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin – Adults lucky enough to have secured a seat are perching their bum cheeks on primary school chairs designed for five-year-olds, craning to get a look.
When the clowns finally make it to the front pews reserved for them, the parish vicar, Reverend Rose Hudson-Eilkin – who’s also the Queen’s chaplain – greets everyone. Her loud hello elicits a muted response. “I can’t hear you,” she hollers. “I said hello everyone!”
Her ordained assistant, and clown, Reverend Roly Bain, plays a feather duster like a trombone, while the audience join together in prayer: “For the times when we have failed to see the joke… for the times we have laughed at others instead of with them.” “Lord have mercy,” the congregation reply.
The first part of the service features Bible readings and a performance of Grimaldi’s song ‘Hot Codlins’, delivered by Pandromini, who expertly conducts the congregation through the refrain: ‘Gin! Oh for shame!’
So far, so informal, but there’s an uneasy peace between jokers and reverent worshippers. Some struggle to be sombre, and during the first reading from Corinthians, one clown grabs the long ponytail reins of a costumed fool in front and pretends to ride him like a horse.
But everyone unites for the second half – a tribute to clowns who’ve gone to the big top in the sky in the last year. Tom Fun faces his fear of kids and leads a procession of the nippers, each holding a candle. It’s moving.
After the service, clowns gather to catch up with old friends. For Bluebottle and Eek, a huge 6ft6in bearded clown – who looks more like a Hell’s Angel than a custard pie-thrower – it’s a chance to talk official business. “So, did you receive the minutes of the last meeting?” asks Eek, Clowns International’s press officer, stroking his braided beard. “Yeah,” mutters Bluebottle. “Remind me later, but we need to discuss the slapstick skills weekend…”
Clown administration is no laughing matter. It’s a tough job trying to organise this motley crew. But Eek wouldn’t change a thing. He was bored to painted tears as a project manager for his local council before he started fooling around five years ago, and he’s much happier in his new job. “I’m really lucky because now I just ride the wave and see where it takes me,” he says, as his voice starts to echo around the church. “Clowning’s easy – it’s just dicking around.”
Behind Eek, Jolly Jack is showing off his bottle-levitating trick beside the baptismal font. Pandromini chats with a vicar under the shadow of a large crucifix. The man of God’s white vestment and the jester’s costume look weirdly similar. Who says God’ll strike you down for laughing in church?