Documentaries featuring performers or celebrities plucked out of their natural habitat and thrust into a situation that is most certainly not their comfort zone are ten a penny these days. We can easily predict the 'journey' (now a heavily cliche loaded, stereotypical word for just such a programme) we are about to see the celeb experience across the course of the sixty minutes and, in some ways, share their highs and lows and find some sort of inspiration before, just when it seemed like the odds were stacked against them, they overcome every obstacle to prove themselves capable and prove something to you the viewer - especially if said documentary is associated with a charity, such as last Friday's Comic Relief which seems to trade almost solely now in celebs overcoming obstacles and achieving the impossible before basking in the collective glory and stirring the audience to 'do something'
So thank heavens for Nina Conti who managed to buck the formulaic trend here in much the same way she has so successfully bucked audience's expectations of the standard comic ventriloquist with her unique, extremely funny and bewitching act.
Because Clowning Around had nothing to do with Comic Relief - indeed this was a comedian very much without relief! - and nothing to do with the cliches of that kind of 'in at the deep end' documentaries.
Clowning Around is a documentary that is as deeply personal and unabashed as Nina's previous film Her Master's Voice, and concerns her desire and attempt to use her comic skills for a good cause by becoming a 'giggle doctor', working in children’s hospitals hoping to raise the morale of sick and terminally ill children. This was no brief 'do something funny for money', a short term stunt for a big impact; this was real life and a two year creative journey (in the truest sense of the word - sans quotations marks!) capturing the ups, downs and crises of the personal and professional kind on camera.
But charity was at the heart of this film, the Theodora Children's Charity is an organisation reliant on the goodwill of donors to send a hospital clown (though, as we came to see, clown proved a contentious word) on a tour of hospital wards to cheer up the very youngest sick and disabled patients with tricks and jokes, bringing a smile at a time when smiling seemed virtually impossible.
Filled with admiration and keen to do something philanthropic with her comedic gifts, Conti threw herself into the tow year training programme required to become a 'giggle doctor'. Originally, her plan was to use as much of her established act as possible, which meant Monkey, her puppet. But this plan proved untenable when the puppet fell short of the hygiene rules within the modern NHS. Undeterred, Conti launched into workshops run by the grand master of clowning, an impish Mike Leigh meets Dali alike called Philippe Gaulier (who has mentored the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Simon Munnery and Sally Philips - the latter two who are interviewed in the film) and on the ward training to find her new comic identity and inner clown.
Taken out of the equation Monkey becomes Conti’s confidante, a furry shoulder to cry on when the crises began to come thick and fast. It's all very well making drunk people laugh in clubs, but how do you fare emotionally when you have to try and get a child with a finite amount of time on this earth left to laugh? Perhaps unsurprisingly - for any Conti fans that is - Monkey opted for tough love “You’re not cut out for this shit, Nina!”
Surely all this is just preamble before Conti becomes the ultimate 'giggle doctor', the clown consultant perhaps? That's what our cynical minds consider when watching what we believe to be a formulaic against all odds documentary. But Clowning Around is much deeper, much more honest and real.
Coinciding with Conti's self doubts, the Theodora Children’s Charity struggle to ride the tide of self enforced change. Clowns, the feedback seems to claim, are considered by potential donors as creepy, unfunny and wrong. Clowns don't get sponsorship, which means clowns - or more specifically the charity - don't get money, which means that the ten pounds it takes to arrange a poorly child a visit from these mirth makers becomes harder to attain. The head honchos within the charity reach a hard decision - to ditch the red noses and the make-up and effectively make clown the new c-word. The team meeting of this development/rebranding is emotionally heavy as bitter disappointment is all too palpable from the 'giggle doctors'. These are people who work at the coalface, they see what their art and their skills can bring to a child and it's being taken away from them to appease adults with money to donate. One can't help feeling there's something terribly wrong and more than a little stupid there. Far more stupid than any clowning around.
In the end, as the charity begins its awkward step away from clowning, Nina finds herself more comfortable with being a clown, though her hopes of becoming a capable 'giggle doctor' have proved too much, she at least manages some job satisfaction working with Monkey in a hospice for children. As we come to realise the expected and contrived resounding success is not forthcoming, we can at least take solace and comfort from the fact that she has been on a genuine journey and that we have been privileged enough to be allowed to observe it warts and all.