Tears of the clowns: Have the number of Norfolk’s funnymen started to dwindle?
09:00 05 April 2014
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2011
Organisation Clowns International say their membership numbers have dropped from 1,000 to 100 in the past 30 years. Sabah Meddings spoke to two local acts about whether the world of clowns is all smiles.
The friendly clown with his traditional blend of magic tricks and slap-stick comedy is a character many people remember from their childhood.
Big shoes, a red nose and Charlie Chaplin style hat bring memories of children’s parties, the circus and summer holiday camps.
But with the news Clowns International has seen its numbers drop from 1,000 to 100 in the last 30 years, there are fears the profession could become a lost art.
Cromer clown Malcolm Emery, who performs with his partner Pearl Bishop in their act as Razz the clown and Auntie Pearl, said stricter school holidays, more advanced technology and youngsters growing up faster were to blame for the decline.
Charlie Chaplin was an English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the silent era. He was known for his distinctive hat, moustache and slap-stick comedy and became a worldwide icon through his screen persona the Tramp.
Krusty the Clown from the animated series The Simpsons is cited as having given the profession a bad name. The character was a cynical, heavy smoker who was made miserable by showbusiness.
American circus performer Emmett Leo Kelly, who lived from 1898 to 1979, created the memorable-clown figure Weary Willie who was based on the hobos of the Depression era.
Joseph Grimaldi was one of the greatest English pantomime clowns. He first appeared in England in 1805. His clown, called Joey, specialised in the classic physical tricks, tumbling, pratfalls, and slapstick. Grimaldi was famous and influential in his time.
The former fisherman said: “There has been a big problem in the last six years in entertainment in general.
“You wouldn’t want to be coming into the business now – if you have half the amount of work as a few years ago then you are lucky.”
Both Mr Emery, a member of Clowns International, and the organisation itself said the portrayal of clowns in film and television had not benefitted the profession.
The grandfather-of-two said: “Movies did not do us any favours but I hardly ever meet people who are afraid of clowns.
“Everything is against us and people have become addicted to technology – I once had someone answer their phone on stage when she was helping me with a magic trick.”
The 64-year-old clown and entertainer has spent the last 31 summers performing at Trimingham Holiday Park, but said he had seen the season squeezed from 20 weeks to six or seven.
While Clowns International said the average age of clowns was steadily growing, with fewer younger people choosing to take it up as a career, Mr Emery said he was unafraid of losing business due to his versatile act.
And reports of Kings Lynn pranksters dressing up in clown costumes to frighten passers-by in the dark was blamed for threatening to damage the good reputation of Norfolk’s professional clowns.
But 24-year-old circus clown Alex Morley, who has been in the trade for eight years and performs with Russell’s International Circus, was unworried and said a circus would not be a circus without a clown.
And he said it was important for today’s clowns to change and evolve with the times. He said: “I think all those clowns that are being portrayed as scary are over the top – if people come to the circus now you don’t see clowns like that anymore. I think as long as you are a good clown there is nothing for people not to like.”
He said unlike clowns in films such as Funnyman and Zombieland, today’s modern clown has very little make-up on.
He said: “People say I am not like other clowns but there are still a certain amount of people that portray themselves in that image and hide behind a mask and a wig.”
Clowns International, set up in 1946, claims to be the oldest clown society in the world. It has a museum of memorabilia, and allows members to copyright their distinctive makeup within the organisation.
What do you think about the decline in clowning? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to the Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE, giving full contact details.