The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi : Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain's Greatest Comedian, Paperback

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi : Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain's Greatest Comedian Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)


The son of a deranged Italian immigrant, Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was the most celebrated of English clowns.

The first to use white-face make-up and wear outrageous coloured clothes, he completely transformed the role of the Clown in the pantomime with a look as iconic as Chaplin's tramp or Tommy Cooper's magician.

One of the first celebrity comedians, his friends included Lord Byron and the actor Edmund Kean, and his memoirs were edited by the young Charles Dickens.

But underneath the stage paint, Grimaldi struggled with depression and his life was blighted with tragedy.

His first wife died in childbirth and his son would go on to drink himself to death.

The outward joy and tomfoolery of his performances masked a dark and depressing personal life, and instituted the modern figure of the glum, brooding comedian.

Joseph Grimaldi left an indelible mark on the English theatre and the performing arts, but his legacy is one of human struggle, battling demons and giving it his all in the face of adversity.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 464 pages, Illustrations (chiefly col.)
  • Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Biography: general
  • ISBN: 9781847677617



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Showing 1 - 5 of 5 reviews.

Review by

This is a stunning biography of the father of all clowns. Joseph Grimaldi lived a life that even Dickens could not translate into fiction: it being so grim that it would appear unbelievable. Andrew McConnell Stott does an excellent job of bringing Grimaldi to life. He makes the eponymous hero into more than that; he becomes a living man. The life of theatrical people in the Regency period was even more frighteningly depressing than that of the ordinary man and we experience the pain along with Grimaldi.The most extraordinary statistic in this amazing book is that,"As he neared his forty-fourth birthday, he had already subjected his body to almost two hundred thousand performances." When one realises how physically draining each of those performances were, this is an incredible figure.This book is one of those that it is a pleasure, and an education, to read. It provides an insight into an age - thank you Mr. Stott.

Review by

One of the most colourful slices of London’s theatrical history must surely be this period between the late 1700s to early 1800s when pantomime, a staple fare presented by managers rather than a seasonal ritual, included dangerous and body-destroying nightly leaps and stunts, traps and pitfalls reliant upon often wilfully negligent scene-men, and behaviour from the audience that spanned the spectrum from adulation, through heckling and throwing objects, to outright rioting. Onto this stage springs Joseph Grimaldi (“Grim-All-Day”), who – fuelled by depression – reinvented ‘Clown’, the persona that would leap from the Harlequinade foursome into his own, often reviled, part of entertainment history. Stott tells the story of our original ‘sad Clown’, sometimes masking the richness and brilliance of his performing career in favour of a bleak bias towards his troubled psychology, but it's an honest approach, for Grimaldi’s life began in tyranny and ended in pain-stricken poverty, the fates of his peers being often not much pleasanter. This is a very focused history as well as a biography; comprehensively giving the reader all the context of the time, political atmosphere and people that touched Grimaldi’s life, but it is clear from the outset that the most relevant force, both personally and professionally, was his father, abhorrent and frightening and yet instilling in his son a love of the stage, a desire for the acclaim of the audience, their laughter and approval, and the mental anguish that fuelled his performances. Between this legacy and his natural talent, it’s no surprise that Grimaldi became a defining force of comedy, being likened by Stott to personality comics (Chaplain or Laurel and Hardy), rather than a mere purveyor of slapstick routine.I found this biography more interesting than enjoyable, on the whole, although the description of the first performance of Dibdin’s unexpected hit, Mother Goose (and full transcription of the play at the back) I found just as hilarious as the crowd apparently found the act itself. Grimaldi’s life may have been beset by depression and problems, but it was also full of spectacle and wonder, and had Stott included a little more of this, the biography might have transcended its lingering depressing aura.

Review by

After struggling to want to read any further than the first few chapters of this book, I persevered, and found myself becoming interested in the lives of the performers of the early 19th century. Having said that, I don't feel that I learned an awful lot about Mr Grimaldi's life. I don't think the book goes into enough detail about him as a person - although I accept that there may not be much detail around, but with the book title being about his life, I expected a little bit more. That said, it was an interesting book in that it described the times and some of the events of the day very well, and it was written in a way that was clear and easily understood.

Review by

A biography of one of the most famous of the United Kingdom's comedians and clowns. Well researched with pages of references and enriched with theatrical anedotes. It tells of Grimaldi's tough childhood and even tougher working life, when actors and performers were still near the bottom of the social pile.Worthwhile read

Review by

A comprehensive & well sourced biography of potentially the greatest clown ever. Not necessarily as sparse on the personal life of the subject as one might think, it does tell a story more of the theatre & the people within in it, in England, particularly London, at that time. A good overview of the subject would have been helpful in some ways, but this was attempted to be addressed by the author. At times lengthy, & the legal wrangles of all the various theatre houses, whilst necessary for accuracy & completeness I found wearing after a while. I felt that there could have been a. Lot more editing. I would not read it again, nor particularly recommend it, nor use it as a reference tome for the general reader. For specialist interest only, would be my thoughts.

Also by Andrew McConnell Stott