As hundreds of clowning performers from across Britain prepare for the annual Joseph Grimaldi memorial service, Edge Hill University performing arts students are studying the great entertainer’s legacy. 

This Sunday marks 179 years since Grimaldi’s passing, with the 19th Century London entertainer regarded as a trailblazer of the Arts, creating the modern clown’s comic clobber and antics.

By exploring the work of clowning practitioners such as Grimaldi, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Marcel Marceau and more, Edge Hill University performing arts students have the opportunity to learn about clowning history and physical comedy, and to incorporate valuable circus and clowning skills in their personal performance style.

Barnaby King, Edge Hill Lecturer in performing arts and clowning, said that Edge Hill students learn the political and personally vulnerable aspects of the art form that allowed Grimaldi to poke fun at the establishment, whilst making a point about complex social issues.

“There are sporadic examples of contemporary comedy that reflect political clowning. Sacha Baron Cohen, who was himself trained by French clowning instructor Gaulier, in his many inventive alter-egos often seeks to expose bunkum and hypocrisy. Stephen Colbert often seeks to critique the establishment and leadership, most famously to George W. Bush’s face at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

“While the performance component of clowning reflects the light and creative side of the industry, this ability to interpret issues of social and political importance to engage people in a unique way is the essence of Grimaldi’s legacy. I am proud to see a new generation of English performers keeping this important art form alive,” he said.

Mr King explained that Grimaldi’s memorial also provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of clowning in 21st Century culture.

“When we think of clowns, our minds often leap to the larger-than-life image of a clown with crazy hair, grotesque face-paint, big shoes, red nose and perhaps a tiny clown hat: think Bozo, Ronald Macdonald, or even Pennywise in Stephen King’s It.

“While such popular notions of clowning remain prevalent in the media, and at immersive Halloween scare performances such as ‘Farmageddon’ in Lancashire, the reality of clowning in the twenty-first century is a far cry from these stereotypical antics,” he said.

Edge Hill University has run modules in circus and clown performance as part of the Performing Arts degrees for the past five years with great enthusiasm and engagement from students.

Barnaby King is a performer, scholar and teacher with a special interest in clowning, comedy, circus and popular performance. He regularly performs in and directs his own work and is the founder and director of theClownencuentro Internacional, a foundation based in Colombia that promotes learning, training and research in the field of clowning, particularly focusing on Latin America.