Clapham Common Clowns. Photo: Tim Marshall, text: Katy Evans-Bush. (3/4)

Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. © Tim Marshall 1984

Katy Evans-Bush writes:

‘This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man’s art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.’

London Town is in a Shakespeare frenzy, as we approach th’Olympic Games: at this moment when bread itself is the issue, as well as the games themselves we have a military circus, with daily helicopters already circling, rooftop-mounted missiles on promise, and warships planning to swan along the Thames; as well as the bicentenary of one quintessentially London writer (and who knows that Dickens edited the memoirs of the great Grimaldi?) we have a months-long festival, with worldwide contributions, of the most London writer who ever lived: Shakespeare.

Consider the players of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men: hardworking, jobbing actors prepared to dress as women, as kings and queens and harlots and slaves and witches and knaves. As the prince, as the chorus, as the fool. For an audience who were prepared to suspend disbelief, to enter into the mystery and believe the magic. And in the early days of course they’d perform anywhere, innyards and palaces – the first theatres were open to the sky, and were big events. Almost Big Tops.

London isn’t where the theatre was first born, but it is where, in a great golden age not so far removed (really) from our own, which defined both its era and its city, a theatrical tradition was born that has spawned several others in its wake. One of those was the Fool, who could say things no one else dared – who could do things no one else dared – who was recognisable because he wore things nobody else dared, and whose folly hid a – or THE – truth, whether it was seen by the king he usually served (in the play) or only by the audience. Even the penny-a-place crowd in the pit could see his truth.

He was the transgressive twin – as Comedy is of Tragedy – of the chorus, of the announcer of – say – Romeo and Juliet‘s Prologue. He summed up the play, he explained it, he finished it, he was the relief within it and became the entertainment after it.

He disappeared, and came back in whiteface. He grew up in Clare Market (now under Aldwych), he played in Drury Lane, he played in music halls. He gave his name to the others: Joey. He consorted with trapeze artists and mimes, and when he lost his tragic ‘Shakespeherian’ context he learned to encompass his own tragedy.

He brought out his dresses again and was the Dame. He’s Pantaloon, and Pantomime, and Panto. He’s Pierrot, he’s the Kid, he’s Harlequin. Look out, he’s behind you.

He learned to use his body. He’s a cousin of Houdini. He gave us ‘slap’ for make-up and  ‘slapstick’ for the kind of knockabout that makes your make-up come off. He grew out of the Old Kent Road, he foraged in Kennington, he was the Great Dictator, he played with his food, he shambled with a child, he wore old shoes.

He sits on straw so we don’t have to, and has elephants for company.

A little old woman
her living she got
by selling hot codlins,
hot, hot, hot.
And this little woman,
who codlins sold,
tho’ her codlins were hot,
she felt herself cold.
So to keep warm,
she thought it no sin,
to fetch for herself
a quartern of ……..

‘Oh, for SHAME!’

London made him. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you –

… for The London Column. © Katy Evans-Bush 2012.


Clapham Common Clowns. Photo: Tim Marshall, text: David Secombe. (2/4)

Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. © Tim Marshall 1984.

From The Greatest Show on Earth, director: Cecil B. DeMille, 1952:

BUTTONS’ MOTHER: They’ve been around again, asking questions

BUTTONS: I know Mother. They’ll never find me, behind this nose.

From Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, 1892:

Bah! Sei tu forse un uom? Tu se’ Pagliaccio!
(Bah! Are you not a man?
 You are a clown!)

David Secombe writes:

Clowns always make good subjects for photographers – the ‘tragic’ ones, that is, the sad clowns of popular cliché: gentle misfits of the travelling show, forever on the move, ageing into a fragile future. ‘I am Grock’ – that sort of thing. The quintessential clown photo remains Bruce Davidson’s unforgettable image of a dwarf clown in a bleak field somewhere in America. After Waiting for Godot, this image has become a different sort of cliché, foregrounding a forbiddingly grim-faced little clown against a drab urban wasteland. It’s a clown out of Beckett, a vertically-challenged Pagliacci for a nuclear world.

Tim Marshall’s clowns are a little more nuanced; for a start, they are full-size, but the gentleman who features in three out of the four pictures in this week’s series has impeccably tragic eyes – like a refugee from a silent film, we feel we know this clown’s backstory: the unfaithful wife, the vanished child, the dying mother … but it’s all conjecture, based on our cultural preconceptions and his amazing face. In a theatre or a circus tent we aren’t guaranteed a close look at the performers’ eyes – but in Tim’s portraits this gent becomes an archetype, as timeless and monumental as Nadar’s study of that ur-clown, Debureau, inspiration for the greatest film about the theatre (perhaps the greatest film about anything anywhere) Les Enfants du Paradis. We don’t have to know what this clown was like as a performer, we don’t need to see him working a Bank Holiday crowd (“the smell of wet knickers and oranges”) to decide whether or not he was any good: Tim’s picture immortalises him as one of the greats. He has the look of tragedy all about him.

… for The London Column.


Clapham Common Clowns. Photo: Tim Marshall, poem: Tim Turnbull. (1/4)

Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. © Tim Marshall 1984

Clown Rapture Imminent

See them assemble under tarpaulin,
raggy-arsed, rowdy, dim-wit conventicle,
googling their eyes, goofing and pratfalling,
red-nosed and panstuck, no two identical.

The Jingles and Joeys, Buttons and Beppos
stream, in their thousands, the dusty back roads
trudging with bindles and holes in their boot toes,
arrive in jalopies which promptly explode,

but nobody’s certain why they are here –
on the ramshackle outskirts of showbiz –
none of them has the remotest idea
who ought to feed, what, even, the joke is.

So, on they caper, cavort through the night,
dance by the light of a torched charabanc,
engaging in ever more savage pie-fights
with nail-studded slapsticks and ironwood planks.

They wake where they fell, spent and depleted,
clown-pants beshitten, all covered with flies
as Weary Willy, throwing back his head,
howls ‘We are forsaken!’ to an empty sky.

… for The London Column. © Tim Turnbull 2012.