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Clowning glory

by
21 October 2016

Clowns are having a bad press, but they represent an ancient and holy tradition, Pat Ashworth discovers

Glorious company: Val Ashcroft, also a Methodist circuit preacher (clothed in purple); Stephen Ashcroft (with tambourine); Sister Hilda Mary, longstanding nun and clown (with green bow); Tom Morgan (white face with one black eye brow)

Glorious company: Val Ashcroft, also a Methodist circuit preacher (clothed in purple); Stephen Ashcroft (with tambourine); Sister Hilda Mary, longstan...

SO-CALLED “killer clowns” have been a sinister and unwelcome arrival in the UK in recent weeks — an import from the United States which has brought fear to the victims of their threatening behaviour, and distress to the legitimate clowns whose only purpose is to entertain.

Their hijacking of the ancient tradition of clowning could not be more obscene in its malicious intent. Clowns are holy fools, part of Christian tradition at least since medieval times. They prick the bubble of pomposity, turn the tables on the great and good, and — like Shakespeare’s Fools — combine comedy with acute perception. When Robert Hardy was consecrated as Bishop of Lincoln in 1987, a medieval fool was part of his procession into the cathedral. The purpose, the Bishop said in his address, was to remind him that he had feet of clay, and that the members of the congregation probably had, too.

Faith and foolishness go together, and fools could be heroes of the people: there are shades of Robin Hood in the cavorting Basil the Blessed of the Russian Orthodox Church, who stole from the rich and miserly to give to the poor, and confronted Ivan the Terrible with his sins. The fact that the Tsar is said to have ended up as a pallbearer at Basil’s funeral is a wonderful endorsement of the fool.

 

THE Revd Roly Bain, who worked full-time as a clown, and who died in August (Obituary, 16 September), was a holy fool par excellence; he was so well known and highly regarded for his ministry that even The Economist carried an obituary. Clowning was about comedy and tragedy, death and resurrection, laughter and tears, and there could not be one without the other, he suggested, which was what made clown humour so profound.

Dressed in a motley costume, with clerical cap, outsize clerical collar, and size 18 shoes, he is best remembered for the slack-rope act, a metaphor for faith. The rope was strung between two poles topped with crosses. His wobbling, wavering, toppling, and clambering on the rope again — finally succeeding in staying on it while juggling three rings — was wildly funny, but also profoundly telling.

A fellow fool of his early days, Sandra Pollerman, says: “He’d fall off, roll over, get up, say ‘Just keep going, get up, follow Jesus.’ It was a down-to-earth way of telling the story, and with a smile. And I suppose the focus of Christianity and spirituality is to follow God, no matter what. Fall down, and get up again. Fall down, and get up again.”

 

IN THE tradition of clowning, which goes back to Greek theatre, the white-face clown was the sharp one, the clever one, the one in control when performing with other types of clowns; the one who would throw the custard pie. The recipient of the pie would be the bumbling and inept Auguste, and Bain performed as an Auguste — the simpleton who beats the odds against him, and for whom the audience has the greatest love and affection.

The Revd Patrick Forbes was, with Bain and others, one of the co-founders of Holy Fools, a loose association of Christians of all denominations who work in the areas of clowning, mime, puppetry, and storytelling. He remains bemused at how he fell into clowning at all, finding himself speaking into a “deep and panic-filled silence” when asked by a prospective tutor on a clergy mid-service course at St George’s, Windsor, what area he would like to research for his 10,000-word essay.

“I’ve always wanted to study the connection between clowns, fools, and the gospel,” he told the tutor, “who was as surprised to hear that as I was. Honestly, I’d never thought that consciously in my life.” Clown ministry in the US turned out to be a fertile field in a younger country where traditional circuses, Mr Forbes suggests, were more likely to flourish than in the declining British scene. He found something in the region of 3000 groups there, and, although a planned return visit of American clowns to England did not materialise, a meeting and service at St James’s, Piccadilly, in 1981, set Holy Fools in motion.

On that occasion, Bain clowned and preached. There was also slapstick; and the Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, who (unknown to the group) was in the congregation, declared it one of the most moving services he had ever been to.

“My view is that the clown, in his or her best moments, is an exaggerated form of Everyman, Everywoman,” Mr Forbes, the author of two books on clowning, reflects. “Everything happens to the circus clown: his car blows up; he gets buckets of whitewash thrown at him; he trips over planks. In an exaggerated form, he is showing people the things that happen to them. They laugh, and, in laughing, they get to understand and cope with the way life is.”

 

HOLY FOOLS were well received in prisons, and Mr Forbes discovered a particular truth about the power of clowning on a visit to Wandsworth Prison with Bain and Ms Pollerman. Always preferring improvisation to working with a script, he was enjoying Ms Pollerman’s fire-eating act, and thinking about how he might follow it, when she asked him, in all sincerity, to get her a glass of water for her dry mouth.

“I whipped across the little stage in the chapel to get to the hand basin, under which there was a bucket,” he remembers. “I filled the glass with water, put it into the bucket, and walked back across the stage; at which point all the prisoners started laughing. So I took the bucket on stage, and played out the seven ages of man with it, from the infant sitting on the bucket to the older child putting it on his head and getting it stuck, and the rest. . . The more I did, the more the prisoners laughed.”

In the pub afterwards, he asked why the act had gone down such a storm, and was told: ‘You fooled. You helped the prisoners to laugh at something awful, which is slopping out.’

“And it suddenly occurred to me that laughter was a brilliant way of getting people to learn to cope with something which is not funny at all. I think there is a great and deep truth somewhere in that.”

 

THE willingness of the holy fool to do anything for the sake of the gospel, even if it makes him a laughing stock, leads many to see Christ on the cross as an example of the tradition. The clown is there to serve, and wants to give his complete self, Holy Fools emphasises. He imposes no conditions on the audience, and there is no demand on them to return the love he gives them. People can laugh and cry with him, and sympathise with him as he “suffers” on their behalf. He gives laughter, and sometimes insight into the human condition, in which all have a mutual interest.

“In a sense, Jesus on the cross is an extreme form of the holy fool, demonstrating the consequences of evil and what we can do to each other. I think there is a picture of someone going to the actual limit of suffering what is the consequence of evil for all; and, if we can begin to understand something of that, and something of the clown, we are on to something,” Mr Forbes says. “The whole history of the fool down the ages is a rich scene indeed.”

 

THE playwright Peter Barnes featured a cheery and outrageous band of fools, God’s Zanies, in his 1978 play Red Noses, the story of a maverick priest who travels around the villages of 14th-century France during the Black Death, to cheer people up in outrageous fashion. When the plague ends, the Church eventually reasserts its authority, unable to stand the subversion.

“It was a marvellous play,” Mr Forbes says. “There’s still a place for clowns and fools in today’s society, in the Church, and Parliament, and politics; and the sooner the better. Awful solemnity needs debunking.” He recalls a conference of university chaplains held at Nottingham University, which included a conference service heralded by a procession of the Church hierarchy in their finery. “I said we ought to process in behind them. I found a filthy old mop, and used it as a processional mop, and the fools processed in behind me.”

There is more to clowning than the odd titter, he says, expressing sadness that no one followed Bain in going to circus school and doing clown ministry full time. “I still take a lot of services, and laughter remains important. I try to bring the spirit of clowning to everyday life as best I can.”

 

THE chairman of Holy Fools UK, Neil Wilkin, dresses as a medieval jester. He wears a Beefeater hat and a rainbow-coloured wig for his Jester Jim act, and, like Bain, identifies with the Auguste clown, or the Character Clown — the hobo typified by Charlie Chaplin. He does not wear a red nose: he prefers two small crosses on the face; but he has a couple of traditional clown costumes, left to him by a friend, and he will sometimes wear these if asked.

These days, though, he would define himself more as a storyteller and puppeteer who, in his own words, loves “going out and sharing my faith in a simple way with as many people as I can. I always finish with the message of a God who loves you, and on whom you can always call.” Clowning is not first and foremost what Holy Fools now represents, he says, especially with Bain’s passing, but is more about Christian entertainers, a fertile field of ministry.

 

MS POLLERMAN, who comes originally from the US, fell into the clown business as accidentally as Mr Forbes, after she responded to an invitation at a Chicago workshop to “fall in love with the clown inside you, the clown inside me, the clown who calls all to come and play in the Kingdom”. The next morning, she signed up to learn fire-eating — a skill much in demand at Pentecost — and, when she came back to England, met the founders of Holy Fools.

“I had found my inner clown: a white-face clown, which was Nibbles, and Nibbles ate fire,” she says. “I was also a clown called Polo, who could blow bubbles the length of your living-room that kids could play around in; and I was a tramp clown, too, and used to go out and sit with the tramps who came into our church.” She trained a number of women, including Sister Hilda Mary of the Community of the Sisters of the Church, and taught clowning skills to the monks of Heythrop College.

Clowning is still celebrated in the annual clowns’ service, held in honour of Joseph Grimaldi at All Saints’, Dalston, in north-east London. Like Mr Wilkin, however, Ms Pollerman sees Holy Fools now as being as much, if not more, about storytelling, puppetry, mime, and dance.

She is outraged and alarmed by the phenomenon of the “killer clowns”. “Clowns only want to make people smile,” she says. “I think the heavenly angels are very happy to have Roly, because they’re laughing with him all the time.”

 

Clowning Glory by Roly Bain and Patrick Forbes (Church House Publishing, 1995; ISBN-13: 9780715143506; £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).

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