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Sun, Nov 04, 2007 - Page 12 News List

Clowning around as a career has its highs and its lows

By Leo Benedictus  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

''Joy Joy'' the clown attends the third day of the annual International Convention of Clowns in Mexico City on Oct. 17.


My first meeting with Gingernutt, in an elegant central London cafe, is like a classic clown routine. I arrive on time, and begin to wait for him -- a man I have only ever seen wearing a red nose, wig, giant shoes and facepaint. After 10 minutes, I decide to give him a call. Immediately the peace is shattered by a loud ringing at the table next to me. Gingernutt unrecognizable out of costume, has been sitting beside me all this time wondering when I was going to turn up.

Off-duty, Ian Thom is a big, gentle bear of a man in a Red Nose Day T-shirt (which should have been my clue). He has only just got back from performing at an Eid al-Fitr in a Kuwaiti hotel.

"I got home about 14 hours ago," he says, his soft Scots accent reduced almost to a whisper, "so I'm still a bit bleary."

It was a tough assignment. After a spirit-breaking 36-hour journey fraught with cancelations and misunderstandings, Thom arrived in Kuwait only to discover that he would be performing on an open rostrum in 36oC heat and in direct sun. Furthermore, someone had walked off with his "appearing cane," the magician's stick that flashes into existence out of a clenched handkerchief. It was returned to him the following day, but he had to drop the routine from his act.

Suddenly, Thom changes gear. Instead of grumbling about the experience, a note of fondness creeps into his voice.

"When I finished the show," he says, "every kid was on the stage with me. I was swamped."

As with all special moments, he marks it with a mime, thrusting out his arms for a dramatic embrace.

Born on the outskirts of Glasgow in southwest Scotland, Thom trained as a puppeteer and turned professional a week before his 20th birthday. He enjoyed a successful career, working on films such as Labyrinth, The Little Shop of Horrors and The Muppets' Christmas Carol and on television programs including The Morecambe and Wise Show, Spitting Image and Fraggle Rock. A regular sideline, as for so many entertainers, was working on cruise ships. And it was on one of these voyages, through Scandinavia, that his life changed forever.

* Current position: Clown.

* Qualifications: Member of Clowns International, the World Clown Association and the Magic Circle.

* Career high: "Riding an ostrich around Wembley stadium, London, in front of 80,000 people was certainly an interesting experience."

* Career low: "Doing a show at the Serpentine gallery, London, when only a mother and her child in a pushchair turned up. That was a real challenge."

"If the cruise was longer than a week they had a fancy dress or masquerade party as part of the standard program and the entertainers were expected to join in," he says. "Every cruise I made a costume out of crepe paper and cardboard. One year I made a blackbird, which was huge, and so uncomfortable. I couldn't stand up properly; I couldn't sit down properly. That night I threw it over the side, and thought, I've got to get something more practical than this."

On a previous cruise, Thom had visited a circus and seen the Francescos, an Italian clown troupe. "I'd always liked clowns anyway, and I suddenly went `ping!'"

Another mime: the lightbulb illuminating above his head, Thom's face frozen in revelation. "That's it: a clown! I can do that every cruise. It was an epiphany, if you like. Ping!"

To this day, Thom keeps a framed poster of the Francescos above his bed.

"I had no idea that 30 years on I would still be doing it for a living," he says.

Deciding to become a clown, of course, is not like taking up accountancy or journalism. Beyond acquiring all the necessary skills, Thom had to develop a whole alternate personality for himself and dress it appropriately. And in clowning circles, such matters are not taken lightly.

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