Ever wondered what sort of funny business you can expect at the annual Joseph Grimaldi Service? Natasha Polyviou gets a couple of real clowns to spill the beans.
Spotting a posse of clowns isn’t unusual in Dalston, where the fashion pack’s outlandish outfits frequently verge on the comical. But every year on the first Sunday in February (ie this weekend), the area’s genuine comedy quotient rises sharply.
Dressed in full costume, dozens of real clowns gather to honour the father of modern clowning Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), whose style of performance and pioneering use of distinctive make-up have influenced generations of funny folk. The service usually takes place in Holy Trinity, but as that is temporarily housing a school, this year it’s at All Saints Haggerston, the sister church a few streets away.
The event is so popular that the church usually fills to capacity and some audience members have to watch on screens outside. However, All Saints is larger and boasts a balcony, so this year no one should be left out in the cold. But what kind of antics go down at the clowns’ gathering?
‘It’s normally a service followed by a performance spot,’ explains Mattie Faint (pictured above left), curator of the Clowns Gallery- Museum, ‘but this year I’ve put the show into the service.’ Expect lots of ‘slosh’ (piein- the-face mix), big bubbles from a clown called… Bubbles, gospel songs from married duo Eek and Elsie Fanackerpants, and Bible stories told with puppets operated by puppeteer-turnedvicar Simon Buckley, who will lead the service. Mattie the Clown himself will be singing ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’. It’s all fantastically family-friendly, and children even get to participate in one of the more moving parts of the day, when they carry a candle for each of the funsters who has laughed their last in the past year. ‘Plus one candle for the unknown clown,’ adds Mattie. ‘And cake! We have a special Grimaldi cake on the altar.’ What’s a wake without food, after all?
The clowns’ service has been held in London since 1947, originally at St James’s on Pentonville Road, where Grimaldi is buried, until the church was gutted by fire in 1959. Holy Trinity later stepped in, explains Tony Eldridge, aka Bluebottle, taking up the tale. ‘The tradition continued to be very formal with the clowns who attended dressed in their lounge suits and trilby hats until the mid-1970s, when the vicar of the day agreed to the clowns attending the service in motley (or costume). From then on it became the bright and breezy event that it is to this day.’
Holy Trinity, now known as the Clowns’ Church, features a stainedglass window depicting Grimaldi as well as the very compact Clowns Museum-Gallery. The archive was threatened with closure last year, but – in part thanks to Time Out taking up the cause – is now happily ensconced in a permanent spot with its own entrance on Cumberland Close to the rear of the church. It will be open from 4.30pm after the service on Sunday February 1.
On show are the famous eggs painted with the individual faces of 35 clowns (an unwritten law prohibits the duplication of another joker’s distinctive make-up), as well as a tiny showcase of thimbleclowns which must have been painted with pins. In a glass case hangs one of Coco the Clown’s last costumes. A London curio worth checking out? I should Coco!
Grimaldi Service All Saints Church, Livermere Rd, E8 4EZ. Head to trinitysaintsunited.com for more info. Haggerston Overground. Sun Feb 1, 3pm. Free.