Send in the clowns

DICKIE FANTASTIC on the schmooze
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The Independent Culture
It is Thursday, Dalston, backstage in a small church at the press call for the fourth annual Clown Parade. On Sunday, the clowns will march on Hackney, and attempt, through leafleting and falling over on banana skins, to woo children back to church. I am surrounded by 40 clowns, honking their horns, falling over banana skins, and so on. Forty clowns and 10 photographers, crowded into a tiny back room. It is a media circus (honk! honk!), a frenzy of organised pathos. The local vicar - cum organiser - is attempting to smile amiably through the chaos, but the tension on his face is palpable.

"Excuse me," he announces. "Um. Excuse me. I have an announcement to make..." "Announcement! Announcement!" yells Fizzy-Lizzy the Clown, honking her horn.

"Anouncey-nouncy! Mousey Mousey Mousey!" screams Billy the Clown, his bow-tie flashing.

As impressive as the turnout is today, however, the numbers are down on last year, which was, in turn, way down on the year before. Like the Armistice Day commemorations, this venerable event is tinged with woeful statistics. The clowns are dying off, and those that are left are almost certainly crying on the inside. The main photo-opportunity, in fact, is reserved for the very old and very ailing Smokey the Clown, whose attendance here succeeds in single-handedly personifying the lamentable demise of a cherished British tradition: a very old clown sitting in a church while clutching a Union Jack in his timeworn, grease-paint splattered hands - if only someone had thought to bring along an end of a pier with them, the set would have been complete. Consequently, the photographers flock.

"Ooh," he wheezes, attempting to cover up his shakily drawn black-ink Smokey-the-Clown tattoo. "I'm afraid I can't do somersaults anymore. But hang on..." He fumbles around in his pocket for an age, and eventually retrieves a small plastic comedy spider.

"Ooh," he says, waving it in front of the cameras. "Scary. Ooh." And then he stares forlornly into space for a long time, to the palpable delight of the photographers.

It wasn't always this way, of course. As the century began, clowns stood at the very apex of comedy. There was nothing funnier than falling over, and those who fell over in a professional capacity were rewarded handsomely. As the decades progressed - sadly - the backlash began. First Smokey Robinson suggested that the smiles on their faces were only there just to fool the public (a trivial yet potent slur). Thereafter, Ronald McDonald created a terrifying link between red noses and the bloody genocide of countless clowns, and John Osborne successfully implied that they all went home, drank a bottle of whisky, and shouted at their wives. The final nail in the coffin, however, arrived with the awful discovery that the serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, dressed up as a clown (big shoes, bow-tie that lit up, and all) when he viciously butchered his young victims. It proved to be an irreparable setback.

"We're doing this," explains the vicar, "to show that God can have a jolly good laugh too. We all slip on banana skins in our lives, and when we want to throw a brick-bat at someone, we should stop and put down that brick-bat and lob a well-aimed custard pie instead."

All metaphored out, I quietly take refuge in a pew near the altar. Suddenly, there is a tap on my shoulder.

"Excuse me," says a fierce looking lady. "Are you a clown?"

Shocked, and slightly upset, I look down at my carefully selected casual jumper and trousers.

"No," I reply, lamely. "I'm from the Independent."

"Well go and sit somewhere else," she snaps. "This is for the clowns. It's not very fair, you sitting in a clown's seat, is it? It's not very funny, is it?"