Obituary: Yuri Nikulin

Not only was Yuri Nikulin one of the most-honoured artistes of the Moscow State Circus, he was also a film star in his native country, and was eventually appointed director of the circus, a position he held from 1984 until his death.

In the ring, Nikulin presented a phlegmatic character, slow and unsmiling, and to many in the West his personality was reminiscent of the great silent film comedian Buster Keaton. Rich in mimicry, doleful of expression, Nikulin was hailed as "a brainy clown" outside Russia, simple in style and gentle with children, with a reddened nose and eyes lined in black his only vestiges of make-up, so different to the grotesques of Western circuses.

Although he worked extensively in Western Europe and America and Canada, his one appearance in England was from 20 May to 1 July 1961, when he was featured in the Moscow State Circus staged at the Wembley Empire Pool by the impresario Tom Arnold. Nikulin, along with his partner Mikhail Shuidin, assisted the favourite clown of the Soviet Union, Karandash.

Karandash, who held the title of "People's Artiste of the USSR", had led the development of Russian clowning away from the coarse buffoonery generally expected, to a simpler and more naturalistic form of humour. Both Oleg Popov, now the most famous of all Russian circus clowns, and Nikulin started their clown careers as assistants to the great Karandash.

Nikulin, who was born in Smolensk in 1921, studied to be a clown at the famous Moscow State Circus school and like Popov joined the circus itself under Karandash's guidance in 1950. Popov had the distinction of being in the very first Russian circus to tour the West in 1956, being hailed as a young comic genius following his appearances in Manchester and London.

Nikulin followed in 1961, and was so highly regarded by the Soviet authorities that he was allowed to go on tours of the Russian circus to Australia and New Zealand (in 1965 and 1974), to the United States and Canada (1967/68), France (1969/70) and even to Finland (1977).

Nikulin's path to fame was a long and difficult one. He had once dreamed of becoming a cinema actor, but had not been accepted by the Institute of Cinematography in Russia. When he became a clown, he teamed up with Mikhail Shuidin and they together revived the popular comic characters Pat and Patashon in the ring.

Nikulin and Shuidin first met each other after the Second World War. Nikulin spent part of the time during the war on the border with Finland, as senior sergeant in artillery reconnaissance, and was awarded some of the Soviet Union's highest honours, among them the Hero of Socialist Labour and the Order of Lenin. Shuidin was the commander of a T-34 tank, and both of them had seen hard fighting and gained valuable experience of life at its most tough.

When they met at the circus clown studio at the Moscow Circus, they found it staffed with excellent trainers who passed on to pupils all the creative experience and traditions of the Soviet circus, learning most from Karandash. Nikulin and Shuidin were quick to master the main principals which Karandash stressed in his teaching - that a good clown must first and foremost be a skilled dramatic actor, sincere and honest in his art.

From their debut in the autumn of 1950, they were established as a popular clown duo, and Nikulin's own personal popularity grew immensely when he made a successful screen debut in the film A Girl with a Guitar, playing the comic role of a pyrotechnist, in 1958. This was followed by roles in Yasha Toporkov, Nadya's Charges, The Dog Barbos and The Unusual Cross, Men of Affairs and other films. His roles in the films When the Trees Were Tall and Hore, Mukhtar!, showed new facets of Nikulin's talents as an actor. In 1967 he starred in Caucasian Prisoner, playing the leader of an incompetent trio of crooks and in Diamond Arm (1968) he played a mild-mannered man who gets caught up in a diamond- smuggling scheme. He also starred in the gloomy - yet widely acclaimed - film, Twenty Days Without War, in 1977.

His typical film roles portrayed him as a slightly silly, average person, witty but never mean-spirited, and in the West he has been compared with Cantinflas and Fernandel as well as Jacques Tati. He was also to become the star of many television shows and to children in the Soviet Union he was known simply as "Uncle Yuri". Many of his most famous lines in films became part of the national culture. He had a vast private collection of jokes, with newspapers frequently printing the best of them.

Nikulin's popularity from the circus ring to the big screen and television spanned the generations, from little children to their grandparents, helping to create for him a universal appeal considered rare in the Soviet Union. Earlier this summer, Nikulin himself said: "I'm sure that humour helps people survive the difficulties of life. Laughter helps those who are suffering."

Despite his film success, Nikulin returned to the Old Circus Building in Moscow to become its Artistic Director from 1982 to 1984, after which he was appointed its overall director, working hard to reinvigorate the popularity of the most-loved of Russian entertainments. He remained in this post long after most would have retired and last December, the circus held a grand celebration in honour of his 75th birthday. A sprained ankle prevented the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, from performing a planned trapeze act in homage to Nikulin.

Nikulin and Shuidin enriched the art of contemporary circus clowning in the Soviet Circus through their skills as satirists, mastering the techniques and skill of the dramatic actor to reveal the inner world, the psychological depths of human characters. This was the distinctive and novel feature which gave their duo in the arena such impact and appeal not only in Russia but around the world.

D. Nevil

Yuri Nikulin, clown and actor: born Smolensk 18 December 1921; married (one son); died Moscow 21 August 1997.

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