Born to an Italian father and an English mother in 1778, Joseph “Joey” Grimaldi lived and worked in the world of London theatre. Borrowing liberally from the commedia dell’arte tradition of comedy and lampooning, he also invented whiteface clown makeup, and essentially devised the groundwork for what we now think of as clowns today.
His talent for physical comedy made him a massive superstar of his age, though Grimaldi’s life fell into a predictable pattern of tragedy, and he died broken and crippled in Islington, age 58.
Since the war, British clowns have been holding a special memorial service each February to celebrate the life of this founder of British clowndom. And since the 60s Holy Trinity Church in Hackney has permitted them to attend in full clown regalia. The event is organised by the Clowns International group, who also maintain a small clown museum in Wookey Hole.
Now I can’t say that I’m a major clown aficionado. I vaguely recall seeing children’s entertainer clowns when I was little, but that’s about it. But neither do I suffer from coulrophobia.
But when I was a kid back in the 70s and early 80s my grandmother would buy me the Blue Peter Book each year. (these were large annuals published as tie-ins to the popular BBC children’s show, for those who didn’t grow up in Britain) And I remember reading Grimaldi’s biography of in one of them.
And clowns represent a pretty important subcultural tradition. There’s something undeniably fascinating about the whole notion of clowning, or the related world of circus carny culture... the freaks and misfits of the world, capering on the fringes of society while mocking its absurdities.
So in celebration of British Prime Minister Cameron’s denunciation of multiculturalism, my wife and I decided to spend a little time exploring the city of London in which we live. And that involved attending the annual Grimaldi memorial service, and checking out Chinese New Year, on 6 February 2011.
After the clowns’ service we went down to Chinatown for Chinese New Year. Happy year of the rabbit.