Andrew McConnell Stott starts The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi a little inauspiciously. He attends a church service held by clowns every February and concludes that he doesn’t really like clowns and finds them drab and uncanny. Luckily for the reader, this dislike doesn’t translate into what is a fascinating history of Joseph ‘Joey’ Grimaldi, the ur-clown. Even more lucky for this reader is that Joey wasn’t a Victorian figure, he was a late-eighteenth century/ Regency figure, ensuring that his story is filled with larger than life characters, improbable events and sheer fun.
It doesn’t start fun though. Joey’s father, also called Joseph is a true monster of a person. Descended from a long line of performing Grimaldis, including ‘Iron Leg’ Grimaldi who caused an international incident when he vaulted from a stage into a box and accidentally broke a chandelier over a visiting dignitary, the young Joey had a lot to live up to and his dad made sure he did by using terror as his chief encouragement. The older Joseph was also a choreographer in Drury Lane which gave him access to lots of pre-pubescent girls he forced himself on, including Joey’s mother. The older Joseph locked children in cages when they got their steps wrong as well as beating them, that young Joey was a prodigy in clowning was not really an option for him. (Interestingly, one of the father and son’s early acts involved older Joseph comically beating Joey and swinging around by a chain - an act very close to one that young Buster Keaton had with his own dad. Though Buster claimed he loved every minute). Old Joseph was also a creepily morbid person, pretending to lay dead to see the reactions of his sons, leaving tuppence to the children who had disappointed him, and including a stipulation in his will that his daughter should cut his head off to ensure he was dead before being buried.
When old Joseph finally did leave this mortal coil, young Joey could really begin to make his own way. He secured contracts in Drury Lane and the summer season of Sadler’s Wells and married a woman he was besotted by after an awkward romance. She died only a year later and although Joey did remarry, it seemed to be out of gratitude to a nurse then love to a wife. On stage he was a star, possessing a comic talent that everyone seemed to recognise but no-one could explain, off stage he was a depressive, convinced that any good part of his life would have to be paid for somehow.
With daring and creative show-writers he changed the character of clown, adding the now recognisable make up and costume. He was a huge success, replicated in china, in print and in imitation. Navigating the tricky politics of regency theatre he played stints at all the main theatres, running from one to another to play two houses a night. All this took a heavy toll on his body, notwithstanding accidents (of which there were many, including accidentally shooting himself in the foot with a prop gun), his act was punishing and he was crippled by his mid-forties. Left to the mercies of theatrical charities and well-wishers, he had hope in his son, another promising clown. However, that son, JS was haunted by the ghost of his father’s act, he was always good but never quite as good. He fell into drink, drugs and epileptic fits which started after he fought a policeman and was hit on the head with a truncheon. He died before Joey, while getting ready for a performance, possibly poisoned by a jealous husband. A truly pathetic story tells of Joey and his wife Mary agreeing to kill themselves, taking pills and laying on the bed asking each other if they were dead yet. They didn’t need to try, they both died shortly after.
After a story so grim, how could I describe this book as sheer fun? The fact is, that although this is a biography of Joseph ‘Joey’ Grimaldi, he often fades into the background. His wishes and aims, a comfortable and stable family life and a successful career based on hard work, were simply more pedestrian than many of the exaggerated events and people around him.
There’s the tale of Sadler’s Wells, a theatre whose USP was a free pint of port with every ticket, which later redirected a river to make a huge water tub in which they held ‘aqua-dramas’. These including miniature recreations of naval battles with children manning scaled down man o’ wars, or melodramas where drowning children were saved by ‘Carlo, the Wonderdog’. There was also the dog ‘Moustache’, who was dressed in military uniform and led dog armies in battle recreations. Incidentally, Sadler’s Wells had a backstage code of conduct that included a fine for farting.
Other near-unbelievable stories include the one about the French clown who single-handedly sailed a ship through a storm from Ireland when the sailors all gave up, or the strong-man who became the British Museum’s main agent in Egypt, stealing all the treasures for them. Not to mention the circus proprietor who was on the wrong side of the channel during the French Revolution, escaped prison by swimming down the Seine and retired back to England where he wrote poetry about how much he hated his wife and kids. Or the story of William Betty, the twelve year old boy who became a huge star for a year playing leading Shakespeare roles in adult companies, including Macbeth and Richard III - a career which lessoned off after his voice broke. Even the relatively staid Joey and wife, Mary, found themselves being wined and dined by highwaymen posing as rich theatre fans.
There’s a lot more, this is a packed book and surprisingly, it all hangs together very well. It also explains what the original pantomime actual was and makes an attempt to explain what made Joey such a star.
The pantomime was a form of afterpiece played after the main performance and originally based on Italian commedia dell’arte, though it had been going its own direction for some time. In a pantomime, the audience were given a situation, usually from folk-tale, though it could be inspired by other stories and even topical happenings. The characters had large immobile masks on during this part. Then, one of characters is given a magic sword (the original slap-stick) and the masks are taken off, revealing the four main characters to be one of four stock figures (This is when the Clown usually said ‘here we are again’.. meaning back as these stock figures. A catchphrase later associated with Dan Leno). The stock figures were; Harlequin, originally a trickster but increasingly a lover, Colombine, his beloved and Pantaloon, the old father/rival lover of Colombine. Finally there was Clown, a country rustic who worked for Pantaloon. This part of the pantomime was called the Harlequinade and it sounds nuts. Harlequin uses his magic wand to transform items to create chaos and outwit his rivals to Colombine.
Joey’s big revolution was to detach Clown from the country bumpkin servant role, to make him colourful and otherworldly and make him a figure of pure chaos, as unhelpful to Pantaloon as anyone else. Another skill Joey had was to perform slowly and carefully, with a wide-eyed, childish innocence. Some of his gags of transformation reminded me of Chaplin, who could transform shoes into a delicacy. In one pantomime, Joey made a snowman figure out of vegetables that then tried to box him with turnip hands - I’d love to have seen that.
McConnell Stott has a real skill at describing the ludicrous without losing the general plot of things, which makes me really excited that he wrote a book about Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee - I think he’d handle that story very well.