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Obituary: Annie Fratellini

Circus is one of the oldest and most popular of theatre arts. During the last hundred years or so, it has helped to revolutionise "straight" theatre by bringing back "theatre in the round" and introducing clown and music-hall techniques.

The Italian futurists Marinetti and Bragaglia adopted circus styles and characterisations. Mayakovsky wrote for the clown Lazarenko, and his plays Klop ("The Bedbug", 1929) and Banya ("The Bath-House", 1930) employ pantomime satire. Early in the century, the French were enthusiastic about music- hall and circus arts, as in Cocteau's Parade (1917) for the Ballets Russes, and his play to music by Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit ("The Ox on the Roof", 1920) played by clowns. Jacques Copeau admired the Fratellini trio as models for acting based on improvisation, and this trend was carried on by Jouvet, Dullin and Jerome Savary's Grand Magic Circus (De Moise a Mao - "From Moses to Mao") as well as in the work of Dario Fo and Raymond Devos.

Annie Fratellini, the first female clown, descendant of the great circus dynasty, soon saw that circus, too, needed to be renovated and with her circus-trained husband Pierre Etaix founded the first circus school in Europe in 1975.

She was herself a clown of genius, with jaunty bowler screwed on her ginger fright wig, a big crimson plastic nose, cheeky grin, two stylised black tears, paillettes on her eyelids, boat-like boots and baggy pants. She was the type of country bumpkin buffoon known by the incongruously high-toned name of "auguste" who takes the mickey out of the silk-clad, bespangled "white-face" clown, to the delight of the audience. The auguste cannot be kept in control even by the ringmaster, known to the French as "Monsieur Loyal".

Little Annie was the first of the Fratellini offspring ever to attend school. But her real education was the family circus, where she learned all the classic disciplines. Her uncle, Albert Fratellini, taught her acrobatics, the basis of all good clowning, and her father, Victor, the trapeze and the art of the clown. Her mother, Suzanne, taught her music: she was the daughter of Gaston Rousseau, fabled director of Le Cirque de Paris. Annie played soprano sax, clarinet, vibraphone, accordion, violin and piano. She made her circus debut at the age of 13 at the Medrano, after a trial run at the family circus balancing on a huge beach-ball and playing the saxophone.

Annie was practically born in a props basket while her parents were on tour in North Africa. But at 18 she turned away from circus life and started her own Dixieland jazz band that made the rounds of all the music halls at home and abroad. She was in several films, including Louis Malle's Zazie dans le metro (1959), Rene Clair's Tout l'or du monde (with Bourvil and young Philippe Noiret, 1961), Le Grand Amour, made with her second husband Pierre Etaix in 1968, and Fellini's Clowns (1971).

Pierre had been successful, too, as an actor - he can be seen in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) - and as a clown, partnering Nino. He had been assistant to Jacques Tati for Mon Oncle (1958) and directed several movies including Le Grand Amour, starring Annie. But they were both nostalgic for the circus and that is what prompted them to perform together with the Cirque Pinder in 1971. Annie played in her husband's play A quoi on joue ce soir? ("What are we Playing Tonight?") at the Theatre Hebertot in Paris in 1973. But that was virtually the last of their theatre ventures. The circus school took all their time and energy.

The Ecole Nationale du Cirque had its permanent chapiteau or Big Top at the Porte de la Villette. Students were not drawn from circus families, another aspect of the school that was to help to bring new blood into the business. They were all given basic training in dance, acrobatics, high wire, trapeze, juggling, clowning and souplesse (contortionism). At the same time, taking their cue from Annie, they learnt courage and imagination, how to take initiatives in emergencies, how to improvise, how to cover up faults and accidents and, most important, how to take a bow.

Annie started a new Fratellini ("little brothers") trio with Pierre and Valerie, her daughter by her first husband, the film director Granier- Deferre, who had starred her in his comedy Metamorphose des cloportes ("Metamorphosis of the Wood-Lice") in 1965. Valerie and Pierre were the "white-face" elegants Annie's auguste always got the better of in hilarious slapstick fashion.

Annie Fratellini's last appearance was in April in Concerto pour un clown at the Cite de la Musique in Paris, with a host of her pupils past and present. To music by Piazzolla, Milhaud, Bach, Trenet, Satie, Nino Rota and Gershwin she helped them to illustrate and illuminate every discipline. This summer, as always, their summer festival of circus acts and films, "Les Arts a la Rencontre du Cirque", will be held at Nexon in the Limousin.

Annie Fratellini, actress, circus artiste and clown: born Algiers 14 November 1932; married 1954 Pierre Granier-Deferre (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1969 Pierre Etaix; died Paris 1 July 1977.