Islington clown: The legacy of Joseph Grimaldi
Joseph Grimaldi hasn’t taken the stage in almost 200 years, but the actor and comedian was once the most popular entertainer in the kingdom. With a new show reviving his spirit in Islington, we set out to find if the man is still remembered today
His face is hauntingly pale. Blood-red diamond shapes adorn his cheeks, creating a permanently distorted grin. An elegant white ruff spirals around his ghostly-looking neck, as if to portray him as some sort of Elizabethan nobleman. His striking crimson sleeves protrude out of a bib-like vest. He has the audience unequivocally gripped in the palm of his hand, with his strangely youthful presence. This man is the most famous comedian in the country. This man is Joseph Grimaldi.
But this isn’t Sadler’s Wells or Drury Lane. The year is not 1809. And the man that stands before me is not the true Grimaldi.
This is in fact Islington: The Opera, a new stage show performed by the Young Actors Theatre that pays homage to one of Islington’s most famous souls. And it isn’t long before it has erupted into song:
“The greatest clown that London town has known or shall yet know.”
If you trust this show, it appears Grimaldi remains important today. However, is he really of any significance now?
Mark Aston, of the Islington Local History Centre, says: “I believe that Grimaldi is probably more important to the local area nowadays, as a famous historical character who lived in Clerkenwell, rather than when living.
“In the world of clowning, he is very much revered. Grimaldi Day is celebrated each year at Holy Trinity Church in Hackney.
“Grimaldi was buried at St James’s Street Chapel, Pentonville Road. The graveyard has since been turned into an open space and because Grimaldi is buried there it was fitting that it should be called Grimaldi Park.”
Grimaldi Park is the next place I visit. I arrive on a warm day, the sun is shining and Grimaldi Park is a huge juxtaposition to the beautiful spring weather that surrounds it. It looks uncared for, gnarly and unwelcoming.
A woman sits on a bench beside a dishevelled play area, watching her children run around.
“Do you know who Grimaldi was?” I ask.
“I know there’s a school that’s named after him,” she says. “Was he a saint?”
A young man is stood beside the gate to the park.
“I’ve never heard of him,” he says.
Another man is walking beside the railings, this time an older gentleman.
“He was a famous comic who invented the joey character,” he tells me, before sheepishly admitting: “I just read that placard. I hadn’t a clue who he was before.”
“Do you know the name Grimaldi?” I ask another man who is walking past. He nods and my eyes light up.
“Of course,” he says, in an Italian accent. “It’s a very common name where I’m from.”
“Do you know the name Joseph Grimaldi?” He shakes his head. It’s becoming quite clear that this man is no longer remembered. The only remaining people in the park are a middle-aged couple, stood beside Grimaldi’s tomb.
“Tell him the joke,” he says.
“I’ll tell him the joke,” she says. “There was a man who went to the doctor and said ‘I’m depressed, what should I do?’ The doctor said, ‘Go to see Grimaldi.’ The man said ‘I am Grimaldi.’
“Apart from that I know he was a performer from this area.”
“Aren’t you gonna tell him the juicy bit?” he says.
She looks at him, then at the grave, then at me: “We’re related.”
This descendant of Grimaldi, who tells me her name is Sarah Colquhoun, looks around and sighs.
“He was extremely important but I suppose most have forgotten him. I don’t know why he’s been taken up by circus clowns,” she says, with obvious reference to Grimaldi Day.
“He was a serious performer. He popularised that sort of makeup but he had to do that in order to be seen by the audience because of the lighting. But people aren’t remembered, are they?”
Andrew Harries, director of Islington: The Opera says: “He was first and foremost a comic performer, his forays into other types of performance sidelines at best.”
I tell Sarah that not even Sadler’s Wells, Grimaldi’s favourite venue, knew enough about him to comment.
She looks down at the plaque commemorating her ancestor and simply says: “That really is very sad.” Then, with Grimaldi’s glint in her eyes and his wit in her voice, she adds: “Well, all they care about is ballet anyway.”
Grimaldi may be long forgotten, but his soul certainly lives on.
Follow Jack Fenwick on Twitter: @Jack_W_Fenwick