“If you ask my mum, she’ll say I’ve been clowning for 46 years,” says Andrew Davis, better known as Andy the Clown. His life of playing around has not been misspent, however. Last year, the British entertainer was elected president of the World Clown Association, which represents 2,000 performers worldwide, and he begins his two-year term of office at the WCA’s annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico this week.
When he takes over from Pam Moody, Davis will be the first Brit to head the organisation since Arthur Pedlar in 2004. Coming from a background in retail management, Davis got into clowning by chance while working as assistant manager at Cantor’s Theatre School and Centre for Performing Arts in Lowestoft in 1998. When resident entertainer Kenny Cantor was unable to perform at a children’s birthday party, Davis was asked to step in.
“I didn’t know anything about clowns and clowning, I had no make-up or costume,” he recalls. “But I popped on a red nose and afterwards a couple of the mums said: ‘That was really good, can you do our children’s birthday parties?’ They asked my name and when I told them it was Andy they said: ‘Oh, Andy the Clown’ – and the name stuck.”
Davis wasn’t entirely without performing experience, having been a part-time DJ since he was 13. “I could never have stood on stage in front of anyone and sung,” Davis says. “But I was always confident as a DJ because there was a barrier between me and the audience – you can hide behind the record decks and speakers. When I started clowning, my red nose became my barrier between me and the audience. It gave me confidence.”
Davis’ signature turquoise outfit was found in the theatre school’s wardrobe. “I looked at various costumes, like for a pirate, and there was a set of six baggy flannelette clown suits in different colours. I chose one in blue and orange. I thought the colours clashed well and it was only later that I discovered that’s because they’re on opposite sides of the colour wheel.”
More recently, Davis has adopted a new look – yellow dungarees – in tribute to the oilskins worn by fishermen in his hometown of Lowestoft.
‘There aren’t many imaginary characters you can meet – you can’t meet a fairy or a gnome, but clowns are kind of real’
Davis’ comedy heroes include Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer as well as the cartoon characters he grew up with: Johnny Bravo, Ren and Stimpy, and Pinky and the Brain. In his view, the appeal of clowns is that they resemble living cartoon characters. “There aren’t many imaginary characters you can meet,” he says. “You can’t meet a fairy or a gnome, but clowns are kind of real.”
As a self-taught clown, Davis joined the WCA to meet his peers. He took on the posts of European director and then alley director, for which his responsibilities included organising the competitions and awards at the annual convention. The title ‘alley director’ comes from the American circus term Clown Alley – the clowns’ dressing area in a big top.
The WCA was formed in 1982 and held its first convention in Atlanta, Georgia, the following year. The conventions, which attract about 200 clowns, are held in a different American city each year and in an international location every fourth year.
“The conventions are primarily for education. There are more than 40 hours of classes on all aspects of clowning from make-up and costume through to performance and play,” says Davis, who also runs Clown Gathering UK each February.
In recent years, the image of clowning has been tarnished by media coverage of pranksters dressing up as scary clowns. Davis is pleased that the negative publicity seems to have petered out. “There was very little in the newspapers last Halloween,” he says.
Another issue for clowns is TV talent shows inviting professional entertainers to make a fool of themselves for no pay. “If they want me to go on TV to boost their show, I want to get paid,” says Davis.
“I don’t want to be rubbished by Simon Cowell. If I were doing a new act and wanted to get noticed, that kind of show would be a good medium, but as fast it could promote an act, it could destroy an act as well.”
Generally, Davis says these are good times to be a clown. “I’ve been clowning full-time since 2007 and this past year was my busiest ever,” he says. “I was doing three shows a day at least four days a week through the summer, then weekends, festivals and theatre shows on top of that.
“It was reported in the papers that the number of clowns was at an all-time low, but I counted 260 professional clowns in the UK among my Facebook friends alone. They work across the whole spectrum of clowning, including circus, theatre, churches, hospitals, parties and burlesque. So I challenge anyone to say clowning is becoming more difficult. There will always be work for good clowns.”