Giffords Circus: Clowning around with Tweedy
PUBLISHED: 17:25 21 May 2018 | UPDATED: 17:26 21 May 2018
© Thousand Word Media
Tweedy the clown is (as always) one of the stars of Giffords Circus, beginning its annual tour of the Cotswolds on May 4 in Stroud. So how easy is it to be a clown? To do a bit of juggling, comically ride a miniscule bike, and balance on a rolling plank? Can't be much in it, thinks Katie Jarvis, as she heads for a special Tweedy clowning workshop...
“What kind of kit do you think I need to be a clown?” I ask Daisy, the photographer, when I bump into her the day before my circus-skills workshop.
“Aarrgh!” she says. Helpful.
Some of it’s obvious. A jacket and bowler hat, because Tweedy (I’ve conscientiously studied photos as part of the research-process) always looks nattily dressed.
The hair is tricky. I could dye mine orange at the front – to match Tweedy’s trademark tuft - though I’m suspicious this might rob me of gravitas for other interviews. But! Unbelievably luckily, I find in a Nailsworth gift-shop an Alice band with a fluffy da-glo orange pompom in the centre.
“Exactly what I want!” I exclaim - beyond thrilled - to the shop-owner, accidentally giving her unrealistic ideas for her next big stock order.
And then there’s Ian the Iron, a Morphy Richards, who normally spends most of the day hanging round in my utility. This is his moment! I’m defo taking him to meet Keef, Tweedy’s pet iron, who often stars alongside him in shows. So I’m fully equipped! Everything I need to be a clown. What could possibly go wrong...?
“Hey, Daisy!” I say next day, as I bustle into the Scout Hut at Leckhampton, where Tweedy is rehearsing his latest show.
“Aarrgh!” Daisy says. She’s here to take photos of me – as is Antony, the other photographer – as I learn how to be a clown. (Antony doesn’t need to be here but feels he’d never forgive himself, should he miss seeing me fall from a dangerously high trapeze.)
I can’t see a trapeze - best news I’ve had all year. But there are lots of other concerning things, such as musical car-horns; a bicycle of approximately new-born baby size; a tickling stick; and thin tubes of varying length and unknown usage.
And there’s Emma, who works for Giffords Circus.
“What do you think, guys?” I ask, putting on my orange tuft.
“Aarrgh!” Daisy says.
“Oh!” I say, as the penny drops. “Coulrophobia! Look – it’s just an irrational fear of clowns.”
“Not just an irrational fear of clowns at all!” Daisy corrects me, with dignity. “I’ve got an irrational fear of stilt-walkers, too.”
“So, Katie,” Emma says, as tuition begins. “The first thing you’re going to do is be fired from a cannon towards a rope, which you’ll need to grab. It’s about a three-metre flight, using an electric winch and bungee straps.”
There’s a pause… followed by gales of laughter – or sniggering, as I prefer to term it - during which I eventually regain control of my facial (and other) muscles. “Joke!” Emma says.
Tweedy was actually, genuinely fired from a cannon once. Giffords 2015. Three metres along the ground and three metres up in the air.
“It a funny one,” Tweedy tells me, unexpectedly bopping me on the head with one of the sticks of varying length and unknown usage – while I inadvertently produce a note in the key of D minor. “I came up with the idea of being fired from a cannon. Then, when it turned up, I thought, ‘What have I done!’ That’s clown enthusiasm for you,” he says, inadvertently producing a slightly higher note, as I whack him back in retaliation with a different-length tube I’ve found.
“So is there an art to falling?” I ask. Whack. D
“Yeah. I’ve learned to naturally relax when I fall. The problem with the cannon is that you have to stay really tight and tense. But as the countdown began – 5-4-3-2-1 – my body would always naturally start to relax.
“And that meant I hit the inside of the cannon. Which hurt quite a lot.” Whack. E
“Did that alter your angle of emergence?” Wallop. E
“No, but it can slow you up, which means you have to catch the rope on the way down, rather than up, which is harder, ” he explains, as I realise we’ve been simultaneously chatting and producing a deeply moving version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy all at the same time. It’s a first for me.
“Oh yeah… What are these sticks of varying length and unknown usage?” I ask.
“Boomwhackers. Sort of percussion tubes,” Tweedy says, giving me a final blow on the bounce, which produces a startlingly high C. “A lot of schools have them. But you normally hit the desk, not each other’s heads.”
So what led to you becoming a clown, I ask, as I do what I often do during interviews; ie ride an 18-inch two-wheeled bike around the room. (If I say ‘It’s harder than it looks’, I’d be lying. I also make it look very hard.)
(…Seriously, though, even the tricycle my grandpa bought me when I was two was about twice the size.)
(“Put that foot on the pedal first; keep your toe on the floor… Yes! That’s good… Ohhh…”
“You have to be careful not to tip over backwards… Obviously, that’s too late now.”
Tweedy’s background is surprisingly ordinary, in the nicest possible way; no history of fire-eating in the family at all. In fact, his dad was an electronics engineer, and his mum worked at the local swimming pool. “But my dad did a lot of amateur stuff: loads with the Scouts – the gang shows – so I definitely picked up a lot from him.”
Perhaps the biggest influence on his future career, though, was out of anyone’s control: his size. Although Tweedy shot up to normal height at age 16, he spent most of his childhood pint-size. Did it bother him?
“I loved being small. I actually remember one of my friends saying to me, ‘You’re only funny because you’re small’. So then I had this fear of growing.
“I’d do silly things to exaggerate the effect, like ride tiny kids’ bikes to secondary school. And we didn’t have uniform, so I went through a phase where I’d sew big pantomime patches on my clothes,”
(Oh yeah. About that. How come he’s wearing a clown outfit of ridiculous pyjamas today instead of the usual Tweedy jacket and tie?
“It’s not a clown outfit. These are my normal clothes,” he says.)
He started appearing in school plays. Particularly impressive was his rendition of the night-watchman in a production of Oliver! His was the emotional scene when tragically murdered Nancy is discovered. Unfortunately, Tweedy’s version was so rip-roaringly funny, the teachers ordered him to discover her with his back to the audience the next night.
OK! Back to the challenge in hand. I feel I’ve done as much riding round on an 18-in bike as is normal for any grown-up who wants to avoid curvature of the spine.
“What’s next?” I ask.
“Plate-spinning,” Tweedy says, placing a plate on a long pole, flicking his wrist and persuading it to pirouette at speed.
I give it a spirited go but, in all honesty, I spend most of my time retrieving it from distances that encourage everyone else to stand well back.
“Dom Joly once asked me to teach him plate-juggling on TV,” Tweedy says. “He got the move wrong, smashed the plates above his head, and one bit flew down straight into me. Split my head open on live TV.”
“What do you put down on insurance forms?” Antony asks, appositely. “I can just imagine the conversation,” he enlarges. “‘Hello, this is Aviva. Can I take your profession, please...’”
The good news is that I DO have success balancing on a suitcase placed on a metal roller – success documented on film, no less! There’s an actual still of me in perfect equilibrium on a rolling suitcase high (to me) above the ground. No matter that Antony and Daisy – sheer jealousy, probs – feel obliged to point out they filmed it employing similar techniques to those used to capture split-second cellular division.
“Now try balancing while juggling!” Emma calls out.
“With knives,” adds Antony, for whom my continuing survival indicates he was mis-sold the whole experience.
So we move on in order that I can fail at juggling with balls. Fail at playing a miniature violin. And fail at rolling a top hat all the way from your raised hand, down your arm, and on to your head.
“You do have to let go of the hat as it rolls down your arm,” Antony points out. “Otherwise, it’s just called ‘putting a hat on.’”
If nothing else (and that’s an accurate summation, in my case), it shows how easy Tweedy makes things look; and how amazingly amazingly skilled he is. Like the WC Fields cigar-box act, where he juggles wooden boxes with incredible dexterity.
How long does it take to learn?
“I never really keep track but it’s a lot of hours. A few hours a day for a month, maybe.”
He’s forever inventive. While some of his routines are brilliantly simple – his trying and failing to answer a phone has children in stitches - there are others that probably will never see the light of day.
“I developed a routine I wasn’t allowed to do in the last show – health and safety. I have a box that the little bike comes in, with a fold-down ramp. And then I had a big hoop of fire. So I’d ride the bike out of the box, down through the hoop, and my helmet would catch fire.”
I look round warily; fortunately, I can’t see matches anywhere.
So. What have I learned?
I’ve learned the following. That I’ll stick with my current bike. That I’m better at washing crockery than spinning it. And that my inner clown is more Aldi than Grimaldi.
What has Tweedy learned?
That being a clown isn’t for everyone. (Me.) But, for him, it’s perfect. “It’s a bit like when I’ve spoken to gay friends,” he says. “That moment they realised they were gay – everything in their life made sense. And that’s how I felt. There are those that clown and those that naturally are a clown, and that’s what I feel I am.”
He’s loved beyond measure by thousands of children – and adults – who flock to his one-man shows; and who faithfully make their annual pilgrimage to the fabulous Giffords Circus, where Tweedy is one of the stars of the show. He even married into the profession – wife, Sharon, is a former trapeze artist, who took up the act because (of course) she was afraid of heights.
We’re about to pack up when I realise someone’s missing. “Where’s Keef?” I suddenly twig.
Because Ian the Iron has come all this way to meet him. Creases up every time he sees Keef (awkward for an iron). And Ian himself is very funny – highly ironic.
“Keef is a Morphy Richards as well!” Tweedy says. Except,” he adds, conspiratorially, lowering his voice so Ian can’t hear. “I do use different irons. When the kids noticed, I came up with this thing where Keef regerates himself. Doctor Iron. Exactly like Doctor Who… Except that Keef doesn’t travel through time and space… And except that he’s an iron.”
Tweedy shakes his head, sadly. “Poor Ian,” he says, compassionately.
“Maybe a selfie with you will make up for it,” I suggest, understandingly. “We’ll make it quick.” After all, Tweedy’s got to press on with rehearsals; while Ian and I, it goes without saying, have a whole host of other pressing engagements.
• Tweedy is one of the stars of this summer’s Giffords Circus show, My Beautiful Circus, celebrating 250 years since the first circus begin. In January 1768, near London’s Waterloo Bridge, Philip Astley filled a circle with jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strong men and bareback riders - and started a phenomenon. For details of dates and venues, and to book tickets, visit giffordscircus.com. You can also read our review here.
• For more on Tweedy, visit tweedyswebsite.com.