Saturday, 26 May 2018

Clowns (2008)


Daisy Asquith's 2008 documentary which sheds light on the world of children's entertainers is the kind of documentary I wish we made more of. It's intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive and sympathetic and offers no easy ins for audiences unfamiliar with the documentary as a genre (ie there's no voiceover from 'ooh what's he been in?' actors and no popular soundtrack laid over the scenes) It is resolutely Asquith's work, though it helps of course that she has some brilliant characters to observe at close quarters; Tommy Tickle, Potty the Pirate, Mr Pumpkin and, most tantalisingly of all and standing more or less on the periphery of the film, The Great Velcro. 



Understandably dominating the proceedings is the subversive and likeable figure of Tommy Tickle (no performer's real name is ever properly alluded to throughout the film), a bald headed and bespectacled man who works as a clown in West Sussex. Tommy is TV Gold; dressed in full clown gear, Asquith catches him downing two pints at once and smoking one of his 40 a day outside a pub, where he cheerily tells her that he embraces oblivion after the stresses of a working day filled with three or four children's parties. Although a family man himself, he has no rosy allusions about the kids of today; largely because his own estranged thirteen-year-old daughter is a problem child who has been expelled from school for attacking a teacher. He wears a cricket box to protect himself from children who find the humour in punching the clown in the balls and carries a baseball bat because, "it's better to have one than not have one". He is occasionally surprised to find his opinion of modern kids incorrect however - such as the moment when, outside the pub, he tries to cadge a light of some kids walking home from school; "None of you smoke? What's wrong with you, call yourself kids?" he chides, with his tongue firmly in cheek. Clowning is clearly just a job for Tommy, though it's one he is surprisingly very good at. He makes both the kids and adults alike laugh with his jokes about Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe's name being 'Ee By Gum Trebor' backwards for instance. 



Potty the Pirate is a God fearing bachelor who entertains children with his sea shanties and general tomfoolery across Brighton. He loves children, but he sometimes feels they aren't paying enough attention to his act and will stop on such occasions to instruct they do or simply to change tack. This utter attention to detail and perfection carries across to his domestic life too; a cleanliness freak, he achieved his high standards working on the cruise ships rather than on a pirate's galleon. Now he's ashore, this true romantic he wants to find love, but he's afraid that most women today don't take love seriously enough and are only interested in sex. His mother, who he calls 'a religious nut', would dearly like to see him settle down, but  the truth of his bachelorhood may lie in the scars of a childhood dominated by a severely alcoholic father. For now, Potty gives himself 100% to his work and to such an extent that one lady friend is convinced that he is unable to divorce himself from his job role; "He makes pirate noises at inappropriate times" she confides to camera after a date at a burlesque club is cut short by Potty's desire not to appear hungover for the children in the morning. Standing just a few feet away, Potty cannot understand the criticism, answering that Potty is him. For him, it's only natural then that any facet of his clown should appear in any given situation.



Mr Pumpkin is a children's entertainer of great sensitivity. He doesn't wear the traditional clown make-up that the likes of Tommy wear because, as he says, some of the smaller children can get upset and scared by it. It's an unusual step for a man who spent most of the 1980s singing in a band dressed up in 'full on gay' make-up and attire like Julian Clary, which saw him attract the attentions of many male admirers despite being happily married to 'Mrs Pumpkin' whom more often than not, helped him with his stage costume. This lack of a clown 'disguise' does mean that he is instantly recognisable outside of work hours and he must confess to the pitfalls and suspicious glances gained from children greeting him as an old friend when out shopping. It's hardly surprising they are so warm to him though; he's been a clown for twelve years and, as one adult is heard to remark during his Bodger and Badger style performance for the kids, "he earns every penny". The sensitivity he possesses is a mark of the man himself; as Asquith shadows him, she discovers that his beloved mum is in a home suffering with Alzheimer's and may not have long left. Understandably, the tears of a clown are routinely caught by the eye of her camera.



All three clowns know that their working environment is a pressure cooker, all three understand the importance of professionalism, and all three are acutely aware of what happens when you let the stress get to you. They each speak darkly of a fourth protagonist, The Great Velcro. A professional magician who entertained children for thirty years, The Great Velcro serves as a warning for anyone who gets too complacent in their work, for The Great Velcro committed the sin of giving one disruptive child 'a clip round the ear' (although it isn't mentioned in the film, subsequent research online shows that the child did in fact have Asperger's, which puts a wholly different light on the proceedings - and I wonder why Asquith chose not to present the child's side of the story, if only from her challenging Velcro's version of events during their interview?) Daisy Asquith tracks the man down to his bachelor home, a museum piece dedicated to the world of magic and filled with the sounds of Bardot, to find a man in his sixties facing up to a retirement that he did not ask for. He describes how he felt on that fateful day and the moment when, bungled into the rear of a police car, he realised his thirty year career had gone down the drain. He spends his days now performing his old fashioned and rather dated magic tricks in old folks homes where the audiences are, he admits, much quieter and more respectful. But the glint in his eye has all but gone, suggesting that this is a double-edged sword. The sense that this is both a wilderness and purgatory combined goes implicitly unspoken between subject, documentarian and audience.



Asquith chooses her subjects with great and satisfying care; from the irreverent (Tommy) through to the obsessively dedicated (Potty) and from family men at pain to singletons in a similar emotional state. It's a rewarding documentary that I wouldn't have minded a follow up to, or even a series. You could even dramatise this and make a dramedy sitcom of it - Perry Benson as Tommy Tickle anyone?

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