Playing the fool; We talk to Tweedy the clown about cleaning whilst riding a unicycle, big breaks and how his trademark tuft came to be.
What was your first job?
After I left school I became a cleaner at school, which freaked the teachers out! I literally had left school for a week then went back and waltzed into the staff room to a chorus of “you’ve left!”, “what are you doing in the staff room?” This was around the time that I was learning circus skills and I’d unicycle down the corridors with the buffer machine!
My first professional job was in 1992 in pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk in a place called Haddo House Hall in Aberdeenshire, which was where I grew up, Aberdeen. It was then that I realised I could make money doing this! I’d already decided that I wanted to be a clown, but I didn’t know ‘how’.
I got a nice review in The Stage and made me think even more that I could make a career out of it.
Weren’t you also a red coat at Butlins?
I was then a red coat in Butlins in Ayr, Scotland. I used to help run the kids club and would get complaints every week. I’d get puled in to the entertainments office and I always had the response ‘have any of the kids complained?’ and they’d say ‘no’. When the kids complain that’s when we’ve a problem! I’d do things like ‘noisy time’ first thing in the morning, I’d get them all to bring pots and pans and we’d march down the chalet lines where all the hungover parents were, making as much noise as possible.
Where does a clown go to learn their trade?
I was planning to go to circus school, to Fool Time in Bristol, which was the predecessor of Circomedia, but it went bust the year I wanted to go!
I wrote a questionnaire to loads of different circus clowns just as personal research, as these were the days before you could Google ‘how do you become a clown?’ and one of the questionnaires that I received back was from Martin ‘Zippo’ Burton and he said the best way to learn is from other clowns and said I could join Zippo’s to do ‘publicity clowning’ and learn on the job.
In my first week, Martin got stuck in traffic and there was no one else to go on, so I stepped in and he caught the end of the performance and he gave me a job in the ring!
I was 19, it was 1994 and that was the start of my career.
How many years did you spend at Zippo’s Circus?
Eight I think, I used to wear all the big make up as it was very traditional clowning.
You don’t look like a traditional clown with a red nose and big feet now?
The clown look was never my intention as my heroes were Laurel and Hardy and people like that and I wanted to emulate their style.
I met Nell in 1996 when she was working on another circus and we became friends. I first saw Giffords Circus in 2002 and really liked it but I was already signed to go somewhere else in 2003 so then later in 2003 I approached Nell. She was interested but said ‘not with the traditional clown look’, which I said was perfect as I wanted to lose that look anyway.
If you come out fully dressed as a clown people have already decided what you are and what you’re going to do. People are scared or shrug ‘oh look it’s a clown, he’s going to try and be funny’ whereas if you come out as a character, the audience doesn’t have that preconception!
When did you first adopt the signature red ‘Tweedy Tuft’?
I first dyed my hair in 1996 bizarrely when I was in Gloucester doing a Christmas show in the Leisure Centre. The top was long, the back and side were shaved, and I wore it in bunches and it was red. I wore it like that for a year. The following year I was doing a routine with a birthday cake and it set fire to my hair, the tuft at the front was all that remained, and I just really liked it, so I’ve kept it since then!
I like to think of the tuft as a modern-day equivalent of the clown’s red nose.
People don’t necessarily know that behind the scenes you’re a family man, with a wife and daughter, who’s just left school, what are you like at home? How do you relax?
I find it really difficult to relax. I wish I could, but I always have so many ideas and just want to try so much and play every instrument, so I am constantly practicing. From the age of six my daughter Willow has described me as ‘an annoying little brother!’
This year we see you reunited with Nancy Trotter Landry who you’ve worked with now for years, how would you describe working with Nancy?
Nancy and I just laugh together pretty much all the time, she’s got the same absurd sense of humour! Nancy really is on her own little planet, I take the **** out of her, and she just laughs about it and you have to be close to someone to be able to do that. She really is in her own little world.
How would you describe the Giffords Circus audience?
There’s no other audience like a Giffords Circus audience but I suppose there’s no other show like Giffords. The audience are very warm, and you feel a real connection with them, they are with you all the way. They are so engaged with the show it feels as if they are part of it and not just spectating.
What advice would give to someone who wanted to join the circus?
It’s loads of fun but it’s also a lot of hard work. It’s not just a job as it takes over your whole life. It’s not something you can just switch off.
Find out more about Tweedy by visiting www.tweedyswebsite.com