Cotswold Life interviews Tweedy The Clown of Giffords Circus
PUBLISHED: 15:29 13 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:05 08 December 2014
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Tweedy the Clown is starring in Sleeping Beauty, this year’s Everyman Theatre pantomime. With his physical skilfulness, comic wit and Peter Pan qualities, he appeals to audiences across the generations. Katie Jarvis shared a banana milkshake with him
You know, the funny thing is this. I meet Tweedy the Clown at the Everyman Theatre, where he’s about to appear in pantomime (Sleeping Beauty, as a kind of Tweedy/mad-inventor, as you ask; but please don’t interrupt again). And I find out everything I can about him. Where he was brought up (Aberdeen – pretty middle-class, actually); about his schooling (his elder brother, who had already been at secondary school for two whole years, was disgusted when, a couple of weeks after this young whippersnapper joined, he suddenly found himself known as Tweedy’s brother). I ask about his circus career; his two years touring America with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey (which Cecil B DeMille span as The Greatest Show on Earth.) And tons else besides.
But - *slaps forehead hard with over-sized squirty flower* - I leave the interview and suddenly realise the one thing I haven’t asked… Der! His real name! If he were the kind of clown who wore two-foot yellow shoes or drove a pedal-car, maybe I’d be able to dash down the road and catch him.
But he’s not. So my only option is to lay in front of you the suggestion that Clown is genuinely his surname, and that his given name is Tweedy. (‘The’, obviously, being the middle-name his parents lovingly bestowed on him, probably in honour of an illustrious ancestor.)
But come on. It’s not that wild an assumption. Because although there’s nothing ostensibly clown-like about Tweedy (his distinctive red tuft is hidden under a trilby today), there is an endearing Peter Pan quality.
“Banana milkshake, please.”
So how does he do that? How – in a world that forces men to wear Brut aftershave and supportive underwear, to save for their pensions and be genuinely interested in life insurance; a world, moreover, that rejects men who cry during screenings of ET – how has he retained that childlike quality?
“I’m very lucky in what I do,” he says (quietly spoken; soft Scottish accent). “In my job, I get to play every day and that keeps that side of me alive. It is very difficult for other people, who have a regular job, to do that. I think if you can hold on to that sort of childlike quality, it keeps you young and it keeps you happy.”
Well, yes and no. I mean, of course it does. But there’s far more to being a clown than ordering amusing drinks that come with bendy straws. Anyone who’s seen him at Giffords Circus, or in his one-man show, will know: here is a performer whose physical skills are legend. Doing no more than taking off his coat (a coat with great straight-man potential), he can tie himself in knots and the audience in stitches. It’s a long way from the red noses of yesteryear.
“I think clowning and circus in general in this country went through a phase in the 80s, where the standard dropped a bit,” he says. “To be a good clown, you have to have lots of different skills. A lot of people think you put on a wig and make-up and you’re there.
[NB: Please do not read this next paragraph if you’ve any tendency to coulrophobia.]
“In fact, the exaggerated make-up was for a reason. Just after the war, when they had huge circuses like Bertram Mills’ and Billy Smart’s, the lighting wasn’t what it is nowadays. So they had to find some way to make sure people at the back could see. But put that exaggerated face-paint in a small environment and it does look grotesque and scary.”
The names of historic clowns and circus acts trip lightly off his tongue - Grimaldi, the Napoleonic clown, whose act was considered as skilful as ballet; Grock, who was forced against his principles to perform for Hitler. And film clowns, such as Norman Wisdom and Buster Keaton. “I remember, at a very young age, watching Laurel and Hardy and thinking I wanted to be Stan Laurel.” He also mentions Samuel Beckett as a playwright he loves... Which is probably a good reminder that he wasn’t born to a bare-back riding mum and a dad who juggled fire.
“No - my dad was an electronics engineer and my 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.”
In fact, the defining characteristic of his childhood was not so much depth as height. Until he was 16, he remained pint-size – so much so that, at one point, he spent a week in hospital having tests. “But 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.”
Indeed, rather than demanding discreet platform shoes, the young Tweedy exaggerated the comic effect. “I’d do silly things, 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,”
Was he bullied ever?
He pauses, and I’m not sure why to begin with. It takes me a while to work out that (maybe) it’s because things happened to him which, under normal circumstances, would be classified as bullying. But, because he got on with pretty much everyone, they just… I don’t know… weren’t.
“There was one incident where a load of kids dangled me over second-floor bannisters. I’ve always had this ridiculous optimism, and I just imagined I was in Indiana Jones: ‘If they drop me, I’ll grab this and swing down here’. They were all a lot older than me and, the funny thing was, if anyone tried to bully me, they would come in and stop it.”
There are straight-forward hilarious stories, too. Such as the time he was pressganged into playing the night-watchman in a school production of Oliver, because none of the other boys could be coerced. His discovery of the slain Nancy – a scene designed to resound with pathos and tragedy – was so rip-roaringly funny, the teachers ordered him to discover her with his back to the audience the next night.
Despite his success, clowning was fine for his spare time, so the family thought. And he nearly thought that, too. He had every intention of going to art college… But something nagged. And when he eventually took the plunge and followed his tinselled-fringed star, well... “It’s a bit like when I’ve spoken to gay friends. 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 worked a long stint at Zippos, where he met his wife, Sharon, formerly a trapeze artist. They left after eight years, partly to have their daughter, Willow (now at Cheltenham’s high-achieving grammar school, Pate’s. Which is a daisy squirt in the eye for those who ever frowned on the family’s peripatetic lifestyle). And partly so that Tweedy could develop his own personal and wonderfully idiosyncratic act. “It was pretty hard, moving away from the circus to begin with,” he admits. “Sharon and I both missed the fact that there’s always a caravan light on, no matter what time it is.”
There have been lean times (though even those make for good material). Once, when he was bolstering his salary, delivering big water bottles for drinking-machines, he hit a particularly bumpy stretch of road outside Chichester. When he went to open the doors of his van in the town centre, “The bottles all just fell out. The top two hit the ground and soaked me. The rest just rolled away, causing chaos with the traffic.”
Did he find it funny?
“Generally, I do find things like that funny, but sometimes I think, ‘OH, NOT NOW! This would be hilarious, if only it was in the right place!’”
If times were once hard, he has no problem attracting work nowadays. Aside from his regular appearances in the Cotswolds’ own Giffords Circus, he’s appeared on CBBC, and performed that two-year stint in America to sell-out crowds of 10,000. As mentioned, he’s starring in the Everyman’s Christmas panto, as well as running his own magic show at the theatre. He’s even – a first for him – taken on a piece of ‘straight’ acting: a John Mortimer play in the Everyman’s Studio. “So many lines to learn,” he sighs. “But clowning is all about failing, at the end of the day. It’s better to try and fail than not try at all.” He’ll also be touring the country with Cirque Berzerk.
It’s a funny old interview, in the nicest of ways. We talk about odd moments in ordinary voices. And then there are ordinary things that happen in odd ways. (Such as when his phone alert goes off with a clown’s parp-parp but the message turns out to be about PPI claims. (Surely, mis-selling to clowns should be a capital offence?))
What’s more, it’s an interview that makes you think we should all have a bit of clowning in our lives. A bit of that childlike approach that turns disasters into scripts and recalcitrant coats into double-acts. Would the world benefit from that?
“Yes - it’s a terrible place, at the moment,” Tweedy concedes. “I feel so blessed when I look at all these other places people have to live. I often think about Patch Adams [the subject of a Robin Williams movie]. A fascinating guy. He’ll go to the most hostile environments and walk in as a clown. That, to me, is amazing, when there’s a chance of being killed.”
He reflects for a moment, before adding, “Raising people’s spirits and making them laugh. I think that’s brilliant.”
Yep. So do we, Mr Tweedy The Clown. And so do we.
Sleeping Beauty, the Everyman pantomime, runs from Friday, November 28 - Sunday, January 11. To book, visit everymantheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 01242 572573
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the Christmas issue of Cotswold Life, available this November 2014
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis