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13 July 2022

The death of “Boris” the clown

All of a sudden nothing worked. The audience began to jeer. Yes, for the first time in his career, the crowd were booing, and it was only getting louder.

By Edward Docx

When did the booing start? He was never exactly sure. He had put on some of the most spectacular shows of the era. He had filled the big top over and over and over again. He had at least four masterworks to his name. And so, when his career ended so abruptly, he was as surprised as anyone. How did it happen?

“Boris” became the most famous clown of his time. And yet, when he started out, he would open his act as if from the public seats. He was not one of the people, of course; but he liked to sit among them, awaiting his moment. He would then clamber through the crowd to a plangent arrangement of the national anthem – a pale-faced jester, candy-floss hair, feigning to fall over, carrying buckets of confetti and his little plastic flags. By entering the ring in this way – and with great clatter and furore – he would subvert the expected order and contrive confusion in the expectation of the audience. For a moment, he appeared to come from the same place as the public and therefore to be their envoy among the other performers – whom he would proceed to lampoon and ridicule. At this he was always very successful.

His breakthrough show, “Mayor”, opened in 2008 and ran for eight exhilarating years. He was already highly accomplished at a kind of low moment-to-moment physical comedy and he would seek to engage the public with sudden calamities, tumblings, losing of directions. He would, for example, strand himself on the high wire and simply dangle there with his flags – oddly pointless, ever-present, grinning. Or he would pretend to juggle plates but instead allow each one to crash to the floor – sorry, not sorry. (At the famous clown-school that he attended; he had perfected an early routine in which he smashed up restaurants.) He would pickpocket a wallet from the crowd. Then he would affect to fall in love with someone and – when, inevitably, she resisted his overtures – he would pretend to bribe her with the wallet he had stolen.

By the time it closed in 2016, “Mayor” contained many of what were to become his most memorable leitmotivs. The way he would gesture at imaginary bridges or imaginary islands as if to conjure them into existence from the very air. The way he would forever be throwing confetti over the audience as though celebrating something – a birth, a marriage, a birthday party; none of these, all of them. The way he would ape great feats of fire-eating but somehow set his own baggy trousers alight so that the resultant peril appeared to be both an accident and a deliberate part of the act. And perhaps it was this double operation that was at the heart of his success as a clown – something that elevated him above the other more one-dimensional buffoons of his generation. Certainly, he was always smirking and winking and squinting at his audience as if to signal mockery of the roles he played even in the moment of playing them.

[See also: How Boris Johnson got found out]

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But what set him in the firmament was a third meta-operation to his act. For he alone would gloss and counter-gloss his own appearances. He would write his own previews, for example, saying that his coming show was both “the only way to go” and “the wrong way to go”. He would vehemently assert one and then the opposite and then both – trumpet his ability to do so – only to debunk himself by denying he had made any such statements at all. And it was this triple faux-Juvenalian layer to his work that surely made him one of the greatest buffoons of all time. He offered not just a unique Schrödinger’s clown of a performance – simultaneously serio-mocking and mock-serious – but he further placed the action beneath the proscenium arch of grotesque self-commentary. The audiences loved it.

Like many of the greatest clowns, “Boris” was also the perfect ambassador of meaninglessness. After “Mayor” came his widely celebrated follow-up “Brexit: The Referendum” (2016) – which he famously took on tour and which signalled his career-long thematic obsession with making fatuousness festive. While it is axiomatic that every clown needs to create a problem with which they can wrestle – comic drama needs impediment no less than tragedy – the imaginary problem that he came up with in “Brexit: The Referendum” was a truly epic work on a continental scale. Which is why, for many, this show will forever be his most abiding masterpiece. Yes, it is true that he piggy-backed some more lumpen-minded clowns to work up the performance’s themes and (absence of) ideas, but it was undoubtedly during this second major opus that his great cavort across the national stage really began in earnest and not in earnest.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

He would travel around the country in a big red clown bus, pretending to be a politician, pretending to offer an ingenious suite of pretend benefits, which he said would accrue if he fixed the big problem that didn’t exist. To his obvious relish and delight, millions showed up to participate in his haphazard improvisations and to be hypnotised by his fantastical retelling of old fairy-tales. (He was a great pusher-of-boundaries in terms of blending circus acts, too, and would often colonise other performer’s routines such as “the hypnotist” or “the knife-thrower” when he felt it suited his shows.) This was travelling circus at its best. The crowd loved him. They applauded their own impoverishment. They cheered his stoutly anti-intellectual demolition of their rights to free movement and free trade. They nodded when he proved to them how worried they should be about Turkish immigration by tracing his very own ancestry back to a small Turkish village. They laughed as he stole the popcorn they already had, ate it all – and then handed them back their empty boxes. As an artist, “Boris” had conjured something transcendent. And he knew it.

He would arrive in market squares draped in sausages or waving a kipper and address each audience with pure invention, airy nothings, chimera, fantastical tales of fish and bananas. The physical comedy continued to develop: this was the first show in which he would keep his trousers burning throughout. But now he began to script more of the act – introducing inventive verbal misdirection and peppering the show with what were to become his trademark wild-fabrications-that-everyone-knew-were-fabrications. He was in his element. Nobody knew anything. Nobody cared to know anything. Nobody understood what they were talking about or even why they were talking about it.

Seriousness was for fools that summer. The country went mad for him. “Brexit: The Referendum” became that June’s great revel – a mask, a subversive enchantment worthy of Puck himself. (“And those things do best please me/That befall prepost’rously.”) Dozens of lesser clown-professionals flocked to his circus and pledged to perform as he directed beneath his ever-broader tent. Hitherto disregarded rude mechanicals joined him all across the national stage – men and women such as Mick Bottom (whom he turned into a donkey three times a day), Tom Snout the tinker, Smug the Undertaker, Quince, Moonshine, Crab and Frosty. A fanatical babble of bellows-menders came to sit among the crowd to feed him pro-“Brexit” lines and egg him on with “commentary”.

“Brexit: The Referendum” also used the techniques of immersive theatre to reach new audiences for the first time. Somehow, the show contained what can only be described as a fiendish germ of contagion that spread through the very society it pretended to be rescuing. Clown-culture proliferated. People would dress themselves in great burnished pork pies and greet his solemn, smoked-haddock salutes by offering up Cornish pasties as if these, too, were the mighty emblems of a nationhood narrowly rescued from the imaginary enemy. That he himself knew that the whole show was self-evidently going to diminish the very audience it purported to “set free” was, of course, one of the greatest coups de théâtre of our age.

He had succeeded in creating a custard-pie kingdom in his own image. Indeed, such a smash was “Brexit: The Referendum” that “Boris” next found himself having to contemplate his very own Götterdämmerung in order to solve the all-consuming dramatic problem this second major work now posed. Simply put: now that “Brexit” had been “won” how was it going to “get done”?

So thorny was this problem and so dramatically confusing that, for a while, “Boris” hesitated to confront the grand theatrical challenge he had set himself. Perhaps sensing this uncertainty, Mick Bottom forced him to step down from the main UK stage. (After an accident during one of the knife-throwing sequences.) And so began a period of regeneration during which “Boris” refined his third great work: the much-underrated international piece he titled “Foreign Secretary” (2016-18).

Like all the greatest clowns, “Boris” never sought to set a good example or have a practically useful idea, but rather to disclose and sabotage the conventions of society – the traditions and taboos that comprise and sustain the polity. He loved to toy with rules, expectations, civil interactions. And he had a natural talent for revealing idiocy and futility, and dwelling good-humouredly among them. But perhaps it was only in “Foreign Secretary” that he no longer felt it necessary to clothe his quiddity in the garish colours of the harlequinade. Indeed, some of his candid and most taboo-challenging work as a clown went into “Foreign Secretary”, and history will, perhaps, come to reconsider it as a near-perfect mini-masterpiece.

[See also: The final act in the Gove-Johnson psychodrama]

“Foreign Secretary” was also his first international hit. His instigating moment of bravura was to create a character who was casually xenophobic. While purporting to “promote British interests abroad”, he would continually stage the precise opposite. But no more haddock and sausages, this was a raw, unplugged and direct performance. He did not hold back. He performed a routine about dead bodies blocking business in Libya and recounted a colonial era poem while visiting a Burmese temple. He fell asleep with fake-but-not-fake boredom while an innocent woman languished in jail in Iran. As ever, the double operation was at work and the audience could never be sure if any of this was deliberate or accidental. And here, too, the trademark triple layer – because, of course, he had previewed the performance by writing about “piccaninnies” and “letter boxes” and “watermelon smiles” and thus pre-annotated his character as both “flippant/ignorable” and “supremacist/horrifying.”

But his coup de foudre in “Foreign Secretary” was the sequence in the show in which he attended a party thrown by a notorious KGB agent’s son in Italy in the immediate aftermath of a pan-European conference that condemned… the murderous nerve-agent attack by the KGB on the very country he was pretending to represent. So dazzling and dangerous and inventive was this particular part of the performance that “Boris” eschewed his usual reliance on a supporting troupe and staged the main stunt entirely alone – adroitly parodying bravery in the moment that he most parodied national security.

By now he had unapologetically adopted the more classical clown-as-tramp garb of Chaplin or the Beckettian protagonist. Was his post-party sketch in San Francesco d’Assisi airport – “waiting for a flight” – an oblique homage to Waiting for Godot? Maybe. Is it possible to trace the beginning of what was later to become his professional obsession with absurdity to this period? Definitely. For there can be no doubt that it was in “Foreign Secretary” that we first glimpsed the underlying metaphysical void that had always been there in the early work, but that would formally declare itself in the last great opus. Futility, absurdity, nihilism – it was all coming together. And, needless to say, parties and the Russians were important themes to which he would return in his last big show…

During the two-year run of “Foreign Secretary”, the imaginary problem in which he had managed to involve just over half the nation had reached crisis point. He knew that it was now time to return to the main UK stage and face down the dramatic challenge. Sure, “Brexit” was still the “answer” to the “problem”; but how how how could “Brexit” “get done”?

What came next was his defining moment of inspiration – the most profound yet simple solution to a dramatic crisis ever devised; the perfect blend of farce and paradox. (This was an apex clown at the apogee of his powers.) His answer was this: since the imaginary “problem” had been mostly summoned up by his invention, it stood to reason that only he could fix it. In other words, “Brexit” would only “get done” if the public bought tickets to see his new show: “Brexit 2: Prime Minister”.

The idea was as boyishly straightforward as it was beguiling and beautiful. As long as he pretended that the pretend “problem” could be “solved” with his “real” (but actually pretend) “solution”, the public would have no choice but to flock to him. And flock to him they did. In their millions.

“Prime Minister”, his last show, opened to full houses on 13 December 2019. Undoubtedly, this was the most complex and ambitious artistic work of his life. He threw everything at it. He donned giant’s shoes for extra comic effect. Sometimes, he came on wearing stilts. Sometimes, he came on riding a unicycle that smashed chaotically from one side of the stage to the other. He immediately incinerated his “oven ready” “solution” in a massive microwave, which he mockingly labelled “reality” and placed in the centre of the stage. He used the resultant sparks to set fire to his biggest pants yet. He feigned to put out the blaze with a flame-thrower he labelled “Northern Ireland”. Meanwhile, to his trademark imaginary bridges and islands, he now added imaginary borders – deploying dozens of jesters to engage the audience with call-and-response tropes stolen from pantomime: “It’s behind you!” or, “Oh no it isn’t!”

“Prime Minister” also had the largest cast of supporting clowns he had ever used. Those he called “ethics advisers” were custard-pied one after another as they came by on a merry-go-round featuring characters from Peppa Pig. Those he called “donors” showered the stage with money, which he pocketed in front of the audience and then passed to those he called “decorator-friends” who were forever daubing the set in ever more tasteless colours. He had an older clown play “parliament” downstage and he slapped him hard in the face every time he hurried past. Several clowns were cast as “MPs” and took bribes or watched pornography or made a joke of sexually harassing each other, the audience, the stage crew. He made those clowns he called “cabinet colleagues” trampoline back and forth over the heads of the audience yelling directly opposing “policies”: free school meals/no free school meals; face covering/no face coverings; vaccine passports/no vaccine passports; exam results by algorithm/no exam results by algorithm; no more National Insurance rises/more National Insurance rises; eat out/stay home; Christmas/no Christmas; die more to live more.

He ripped up codes of conduct live. He signed treaties on a mighty elevated table and then instantly torched them by shoving them into his blazing pants. He had clowns tip buckets of wallpaper paste over pages of international law, which he then tore into sheets and made his “government” use as toilet paper so that they had to caper about the stage with passages of human rights legislation stuck to their bottoms. He released hundreds of dogs midway through the show that defecated all over a rug that he then ripped from under the stage crew so that they were unable to do their jobs – causing large parts of the set to collapse. He brought on the KGB agent’s son from “Foreign Secretary” and dressed him in ermine. When the pandemic hit, he encouraged everyone to stuff themselves with as much expensive food as possible. Then he rolled out his famous “spaffing cannons” in order to fire £37bn of the crowd’s money up a wall on which he had graffitied the gnomic words “track and trace”. He began to cull members of the audience, shouting, “Let the bodies pile high, let the bodies pile high!”

And surely it was at this juncture that he started openly to engage with absurdism. He appointed a “minister for culture” who was vehemently opposed to culture. He created a “minister for Brexit opportunities” just as the crowd was sure for the first time that there weren’t any. His “chancellor” became embroiled in an off-shore wealth scandal. His “deputy chief whip” engaged in sexual transgressions instead of collecting them. “Boris” threw the emphasis of “Prime Minister” hard on anti-meaning, anti-purpose, anti-functionality. The show had everything. And yet… and yet… and yet… did he sense that for the first time he was losing the audience?

Maybe so. And maybe it was in nervous response to this fear that he instructed the cast to party so hard in the second half. He wanted to push it. Explore the boundaries. To make “Prime Minister” count. He passed a law banning partying and forbidding the audience from even mourning the people sitting next to them when they unexpectedly died. Then he instructed his clowns to party day and night as hard as possible. To dress themselves in tinsel and bring on suitcases of booze and pop prosecco bottles. To dance to Abba. Mingle. Double dip. To ambush one another with cake – a call back to his clown-signature credo during “Brexit 1”. All the while, he would hold centre stage, mock-serious at the “despatch box”, and tell the audience with great simulated solemnity that “There… are… no… parties!”

But even this wasn’t enough. “Boris” always needed to go further. A form of theatrical mania began to swirl inside the big top. He collapsed the dramatic unities of time and space, bringing on a herd of inflatable white elephants that he pumped up until they banged like gunshots, spreading wild confusion. He started to detonate time and meaning – leaping just ahead of the blinding explosions as they boomed and sparked and appeared to chase him faster and faster around the ring. The dialogue became tense, terse, overtly Beckettian.

“What do we do?”“We wait.”“And while we are waiting?”“We level up.”

If the true meaning of his life’s work was in its emptiness, then he had finally managed to articulate himself. “Boris” had expressed his vision as an artist. But it had cost him everything. In these frenzied final acts of “Prime Minister”, he had somehow lost the crowd. He was never quite sure when but – as he came round the ring at full tilt, just ahead of all the detonations – he must have realised the explosions had made him temporarily deaf, too. Because he could see, through the smoke and cordite, that the audience were no longer laughing. They were on their feet, sure. But they seemed – what – angry? Some were walking out. He slowed down for a second (perhaps this was a mistake) and motioned for the Abba to be turned down so he could hear clearly. And only then did he realise he was being jeered. Yes, for the first time in his career, the crowd were booing.

All of a sudden, nothing worked.

Maybe it was the carelessness with which he allowed so many of the crowd to die during the frenzy of the party sequence. Maybe it was the arrival of the real police in the last act with a real health and safety fine that reminded the public of the real world outside. (How he had always hated the interference of reality!) Maybe the audience were simply unable to breathe – choking on the constant fumes from his extravagantly burning trousers – and maybe their need for air overcame them. Maybe it was because he had chosen to blow up time and meaning too close to the front row. Or maybe it was that he had uncovered the true limits of foolery and there was no greater show possible than “Prime Minister”.

The closing scenes of his last flawed masterpiece were desperate and precipitous failures. Amid the chaos of hundreds of now-unchoreographed clowns and the bangs of the remaining white elephants blowing up, the audience could tell that he was muddling his tricks. The booing got louder. Where previously they had seen the great clown, now they saw only a grotesque. He became thick fingered, uncertain, heavy footed. His ungainly agility disappeared leaving only an everyday clumsiness. He staggered from moment to moment denying everything. The hair seemed thin and wispy and would not fly. The giant’s shoes reminded everyone only of the missing giant. When he tried to saw the nation in half again, the audience started screaming.

Fifty or so of his fellow clowns abandoned the show. The stage crew quietly withdrew and crept away. And, in the end, it was this that caused the big top to collapse around him. He found himself standing alone among the wreckage with his back to the central pole in open country surrounded by the real world that he so loathed. Instead of an audience, all he could see was an emptying car park, the portaloos, a fried chicken stand and a distant, congested A-road that needed repair.

The final moments of the clown combined a kind of diminishing demonic purposelessness with a gigantic morbidity. At the last, “Boris” stood alone, berating a vanishing audience for their ingratitude and shouting betrayal at the low rag-and-bone sky.

By the closed-up ticket office, a lone carnival barker croaked his epitaph:

“I have long dreamed of such a kind of man
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.”

[Read next: Boris Johnson the clown’s first encore]

This piece appears in the latest issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant