As a church in north east London gets ready for an invasion of hundreds of clowns in full costume, Sara O’Reilly explains the joke.
London has a wealth of unusual traditions, but few are as colourful or as poignant as the Grimaldi service. Held on the first Sunday in February each year, the event commemorates legendary clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837). Born into a family of performers, he made his debut at Sadler’s Wells, aged three, and went on to define the appearance and persona we associate with clowns today.
Grimaldi’s life was hard: he lost his first wife and child in childbirth; the son of his second marriage was an alcoholic who died young; and he and his wife made an unsuccessful joint suicide attempt at one point. But while the entertainer punned that his name was actually ‘Grim-all-day’, he has been the inspiration for countless funny men and women, and ‘Joey’ came to be a synonym for clown.
When the tradition of the service began in the 1940s, the venue was the now deconsecrated St James Pentonville Road in whose churchyard Grimaldi is buried, but since 1959 it’s been held at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston. Clowns of all ages and from all over the country converge here to take part in the service in full costume and make-up. Humour is the order of the day, but there’s a reverential aspect to the proceedings: people attend to show genuine respect, and as well as the giggles and guffaws, the day is about lost colleagues and much-missed friends. There’s a part of the service dedicated to those who have gone to the Big Top in the sky during the course of the past 12 months, fellow travellers in oversized shoes who have sadly performed their last pratfall.
But the clowns’ world is all about turning tears to laughter, and when the service ends, everyone adjourns to the local school hall for a performance. The annual commemoration is a hugely popular event that regularly overflows the church – if you’re hoping to take a pew, be sure to get there good and early.
The Grimaldi Service takes place on Sun Feb 3 at 3pm at Holy Trinity Church, Beechwood Rd, E8 3DY.