Alison Steadman and Andrew Sachs read poetry and prose exploring clowns as mysterious constructs that evoke an array of emotions: from laughter to tears, happiness to fear, and wonder to pity. Clowns are seen as solitary, innocent, terrifying, malevolent and sometimes even evil.
The programme captures the many guises of clowns and begins with a homage to Joseph Grimaldi, considered to be the most famous English Clown. On the first Sunday of every February, clowns gather in the National Clowns' Church (Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, East London) to celebrate the life of Grimaldi, so the beginning of the programme recreates the Grimaldi Service with stanzas from an ode by Thomas Hood read over Stravinsky's Circus Polka arranged for organ.
Then enter the clowns: Verlaine's Parisian circus clown, the foolish country clowns of John Clare and Henry Parrot, Simon Armitage's Clown Punk, Shel Silverstein's tearful, unfunny 'Cloony the Clown' and Heinrich Boll's naive clown in the confusion of post-war Germany. The familiar figures of the Commedia dell'Arte - Pierrot, Harlequin, Columbine and Pantalon - also begin to emerge from the beginning of the programme and are characterized in Schumann's Carnaval, Op.9, the Pierrot of Bantock and Reger, plus Telemann's Columbine from Ouverture Burlesque.
In the middle of the programme, the 'Clowns' Prayer' recreates the central part of the Grimaldi Service accompanied by Britten's Village Organist's Piece. The darker side of clowns is revealed through Stephen King's 'It' with Respighi's horrifying depiction of death in the Roman circus (Feste romane), Shakespeare's clown gravediggers from Hamlet over Charlie Chaplin's 'Clown's Last Crazy Act', and Betsy Sholl's ghostly 'saddest man in the world'.