Anyone who listens to The Archers will know that the Ambridge Christmas panto this year is Mother Goose – which got me thinking about Joseph Grimadi who starred in the first production of this classic on the 29 December 1806 in Drury Lane.
As it happens, The Archer (as in the local newspaper not the radio series), recently reported that the comedian Griff Rhys Jones unveiled a commemorative plaque to Grimaldi in Granville Road, organised by the Finchley Society.
The famous clown worked at Drury Lane, Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden and chose to live in Tippity Cottage at Fallow Corner for several years when his son was growing up so that the lad could ‘benefit of the country air’. Ann Bronkhorst of The Archer writes that Joe would travel to town from Finchley by gig, down The Great North Road for rehearsals and performances , braving the highwaymen of Finchley Common (now East Finchley) and Highgate Hill.
So what was so special about Joseph Grimaldi? Well, it seems that he pretty much invented the figure of the classic clown that we know today, both in his dress and larcenous antics and in the sadness behind the mask.
Around 1803, already a star of the London stage, he perfected his look, creating the figure of “Joey”. The clothes were an outsize, wildly patterned version of the shirt, ruff and pantaloons he had worn at school, with child’s slippers and a tower of coloured wigs. Then came the face, with its red mouth, rouged cheeks and curving eyebrow. His life was not an easy one and he had to face many personal and professional problems. His brother went to sea when he was only eight, returning for one solitary day many years later only to disappear for good. He married his ‘true love’ Maria only to loose her a year later in childbirth , along with his first child. He remarried and had a precious and beloved son whom he tried to keep out of the family business but failed. Young Joseph Samuel was wild and became a horrible drunk, dying at the age of twenty-one, probably from alcohol poisoning.
Grimaldi never had much to smile about. As author Jenny Uglow writes, he ‘ never really prospered. Hopeless with money, he was constantly defrauded by colourful con men. His demanding act also took its toll, mentally and physically. He met with terrible accidents, perhaps engineered by resentful stage carpenters, and by his 50s was in constant pain’.
By 1828 he had become penniless, and a benefit performance was held at both Sadlers Wells, and Covent Garden. In his farewell speech he told his audience ‘Like vaulting audition, I have overleaped myself and pay the penalty in advanced old age. It is four years since I jumped my last jump, filched my last oyster, boiled my last sausage and set in for retirement’.
If you would like to know more read: The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, by Andrew McDonnell Stott.
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