When I was a kid I used to collect clowns. It was one of those fascinations that was adopted from someone else. My cousin Emma, who I worshipped – a year and two days older than me, my hero and role model – had a big pierrot doll. Satin suit and a big painted on tear. Why on earth was this clown, this beautiful colourful man, as otherworldly as a fairy or an angel, so sad? Of course I didn’t know the history of clowns, or that Pierrot was a character from Commedia Dell’Arte, theatrical stock characters that encapsulated the trials and tribulations and aching messy comedy of being human. I just saw someone that lived for giving pleasure, who was tortured by a sadness he would not speak of. It seemed so unjust to my child’s mind.
Perhaps our regard for clowns is one of the earliest empathies we form as children – these strange creatures in make-up and costume – showmen for the world who want nothing but to raise a smile, while emitting to some degree, in many cases, their own deep inner sadness. Perhaps we pick up on some of the innate tendrils of loneliness, and though we have not experienced those things yet, somehow bookmark them as some of Life’s Big Things. Even the jolliest of clowns still carry around that potential for sadness. We know, at some point, alone, they take off their make-up, and are just the human underneath.
From that Pierrot onwards, I began collecting clowns. Porcelain ones from gift shops, dolls, stickers, whatever I could get my magpie hands on. I even had one that roller-skated along. I remember the smell of its plastic face, the brittleness of its bright curly hair, and the whirring of its mechanics as it stiffly crawled the floor.
Then I saw IT. A sucker for Stephen King books and all the horror films I could get sneak into sleepovers, I thrilled to be scared. But that film cured me of my hobby. The child-murdering paranormal freak who dwelled in drains was absolutely terrifying; a work of iconic genius from actor Tim Curry. So I no longer collected clowns. Perhaps I just grew out of them, or perhaps it’s because nothing sticks in your head quite like a homicidal children’s entertainer with fangs and drippy eyes, but from then on clowns were never the same.
This weekend I stumbled on a beautifully shot film about a clown and it reminded me of everything I used to feel about them as a kid. Most of us Southenders will know of Salvo – one of the regular characters about town, often seen in the high street, fashioning balloon shapes for passing children.
The film is by a Film student called Natalie Hazelden from Thundersley. She has known of Salvo for years and decided she wanted to make a film about him. The film she created lasts 7 minutes, had me crying for ten, watery eyed for another hour, and thoughtful for the rest of the day and beyond, and here I am now writing my column about it. What an art to capture someone’s life in seven minutes. It’s not my place to pass on the story. But it reminded me of the hidden pain of a clown. How too easily we choose not to see people while we’re in the bustle of our own lives, how seldom we consider the man behind the make-up.
It’s a valuable beautiful film. I hope you watch it. Next time I see Salvo I am going to go up to him and say hullo. I can’t believe I never have.