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A Curious Calling: Martin Solity

Xanthi Barker clowns around with Rhubarb

Written by . Published on June 27th 2011.

A Curious Calling: Martin Solity

 HILARIOUS. Childish. Depressing. Creepy. Clowns are met with a whole battering ram of emotional responses. I have been wary of clowns since I was christened, ‘Drainpipe’, by one at a birthday party, aged five. I squirmed in humiliation whilst all these little party dresses shook with laughter. But the image of a clown, mute and face-painted, always struck me as heart-breakingly lonely. Someone who smiles that much has to be hiding a secret trauma. I went to meet Rhubarb to find out. Surrounded by a wall of puzzles and a huge, framed painting of Marcel Marceau, I found his make-up-free creator, Martin Solity, 64, a.k.a Rhubarb the Clown.

When did you become a clown?
Well, I gave up the day job in April 1975. But actually, I’ve always been a clown. I was one of these people who was laughed at and bullied at school and I suppose learning how to do it professionally was a way of dealing with that.

Occasionally, you get people who decide to bring in the clowns to cover up something that’s happening in the family. You can’t step in when people behave badly, which can be quite frustrating.

And you don’t mind being laughed at on stage?
My sort of clowning works through empathy – people sympathise with my failure. You clown around anything and the clowning is in the failure. I don’t talk at all. I grunt a lot. And play the nose flute. And ride several unicycles – a tall one, a very tall one and an even taller one. But the interesting thing is Rhubarb himself.

Did you go to clown school?
I had a day-job working in computers and that brought me to London. I had time in the evening but I didn’t know anybody – I’m from up North. I got involved with this alternative theatre group, where we did improvisation and mime and there was a clown workshop. But the biggest teacher is the audience. They teach you what’s funny and what’s not.

Have you ever really upset anyone?
There’s this big myth going around that there’s this group of people who are scared of clowns. But people’s experience of seeing clowns is very limited. The parallel would be someone who hears one piece of music in their lives, and then says ‘I don’t like music’ or ‘I’m scared of music’. What happens is that a child, when small, is curious, but also nervous of new experiences. So the child goes to mum and mum says ‘oh you’re scared of the clown are you?’ and cuddles the child, and the child thinks ‘oh yeah – I like this!’ But people don’t realise there are lots of different types of clowns. Like this guy Squirty-Whirty, who goes around squirting people in the face...

[I tell him my ‘drainpipe’ horror story and he shakes his head]

I personally have a profound dislike for that type of clown. Paul Daniels is the classic example. In his show he habitually would get people out of the audience and insult them. And people laugh because they’re relieved it’s not them. Your clown probably got lots of laughs calling you ‘drainpipe’, particularly because you were impressed. I want people to laugh at me. That’s clowning. I want to make a fool of myself, not of other people.

Is it true that every clown has to paint their make-up on to an egg so that no two clowns look the same?
I am a bit ashamed to say that even though I am a trustee of the Clowns Gallery, I never actually got round to doing the egg business. But they do exist. Really, though, your make-up has to work your face. It’s not about being distinct.


Have you had the same costume all this time?
I wish, but unfortunately they wear out. I actually need a new one, my current one is rather tatty. I’ve gradually developed it. Nowadays, I go for a spotted under-costume rather than stripes. I’m still using the same bow tie. It’s wood, so it’s lasted. I used to use black dinner suits, decorated. But now I’ve gone for the bright blue. It all goes into a blur!

It must be very physical and emotional...
In a way it’s like taking a thermometre with you. I can tell a lot about a situation from the way people react to Rhubarb. Things that aren’t being said. Occasionally, you get people who decide to bring in the clowns to cover up something that’s happening in the family. You can’t step in when people behave badly, which can be quite frustrating.

Have you learned a lot about kids?
I’ve always liked kids. It astonished me when I meet clowns who say they don’t. To be a clown just for the money is nonsense. You’ll end up doing things like that guy who called you ‘drainpipe’.  

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to become a clown?
Be prepared to make a fool of yourself.

Martin disappears to put his make-up on and leaves me with a scrap-book of yellowing newspaper cuttings. There are pages and pages of praise for Rhubarb, preserved behind brittle acetate. Then a huge painted grin appears around the door frame and Rhubarb toddles in. He tilts his head in that sudden, gentle clown movement. His presence is surprisingly soothing even though it’s making me giggle – bit like laughing gas. When I leave I am grinning like a kid with a toffee apple.

To read about more curious callings, please click here


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Lord of the PiesJune 27th 2011.

You should get this bloke on question time. I would love to watch him stare down Margaret Beckett.

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