Dan Lees: ‘I want clowns to be proud of their heritage rather than embarrassed’

Fred Strangebone's Freakshow

Fred Strangebone's Freakshow - Credit: Archant

BRIDGET GALTON talks to a comic trying to reverse our negative image of clowning

Comic Dan Lees is trying to pinpoint just when the red-nosed clown became “a negative thing” in popular culture.

“Clowns are now considered scary, but when McDonalds chose one as a mascot clearly no-one was afraid of them,” says the Finsbury Park resident, who traces the phenomenon back to horror films like Stephen King’s IT.

“That imagery stuck. I’m afraid of a specific kind of mask-like make-up, but in olden times clowns wore that make-up so they could be seen in theatres from a distance.”

From medieval jesters to Shakespeare’s fools and the French Bouffon, the idiot who sends up the establishment and challenges hypocrisy is “as old as time” says Lees, who curates a festival of clowning at Hornsey Town Hall this month.

He traces its inheritors to more contemporary comedians such as Tommy Cooper, Rick Mayall, Ricky Gervais’ and John Cleese.

“We don’t consider Tommy Cooper or Rowan Atkinson as clowns but it’s that same essence of laughing at someone making a mistake, cringing at an idiot like David Brent, knowing he’s going to f*** it up.”

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Running over two weekends, the festival’s 34 acts range from Lucy Hopkins’ verbal and physical send up of pretentious artists, to Lee’s own satirical policitcal double act The Establishment, to Spencer Jones; “a modern day Tommy Cooper where you laugh at what he is rather than how clever his jokes are.”

Lee says clowning doesn’t just suffer from negative connotations but from an inability to categorise it.

“If you say there are clowns it puts off audiences, the press don’t know where to fit us into the general consciousness, people think of clowns as children’s performers but many of our artists have no make up or red noses, they are just using clown techniques. We want them be proud of that heritage rather than embarrassed. We hope to look after the grass roots of the London scene, bring these acts together under one umbrella and introduce audiences to work that doesn’t usually have a home.”

Unlike the stereotypical silent clown, most festival acts are verbal, as well as using trademark physical comedy.

Lees was already a comedian when a course with master French clown Philippe Gaulier changed his direction.

“When I discovered clown, it really affected my work. The qualities that set clowning apart from other theatre or stand up is there’s no fourth wall. The clown looks out to the audience and wants to make something happen with those people in the room. To a clown mistakes are a good thing. A stand up wants you to laugh at their funny jokes and ideas, but a clown allows you to laugh at them as a ridiculous idiot. That’s a bigger laugh.”

Last year the festival ran in a tent in a Manor House car park, but this year it has upgraded to Hornsey Town Hall.

“It’s a beautiful art deco building. We were keen to do it there before they turn the it into a luxury hotel.”

Lee also runs clown workshops which are proving increasingly popular.

“I teach students to find what’s ridiculous about people and what makes them ridiculous specifically.

“The first exercise is to find something funny about yourself that people can connect to. They play with that, learn to engage with it, heighten it and get comfortable being there.”

May 11-21 Londonclownfest.co.uk

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