Popular '˜clown' speaks out after spate of prank attacks

Dressing up as a clown may not be the ideal pastime at the moment given the current craze for masked pranks.

Thursday, 13th October 2016, 3:12 pm
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 4:54 pm
Paul in costume delights the feast crowds last weekend

The North-East is among areas of the United Kingdom to be plagued with sinister incidents where people don “killer clown” outfits to frighten the public.

A teenager has also reportedly received head injuries after he was assaulted by a thug wearing a clown’s mask in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, leading to internet fears of copycat vuiolence and reprisal attacks nationwide.

Paul Lanagan without his make-up

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Yet one local entertainer, who has delighted thousands of spectators for eight years without incident, insists the public have been “surprisingly positive” since the trend began.

Paul Lanagan has just performed at the ongoing Houghton Feast as renowned 19th Century artist Billy Purvis and is overwhelmed by the “warm reception” his character has received.

Purvis, usually accompanied by his dancing bear, regularly appeared at the annual feast between 1818 and 1848 and was known in both the North-East and his native Scotland as “the clown and jester of the North”.

Speaking about his appearance in last weekend’s festival parade through Houghton-le-Sptring, Paul said: “To be honest, I thought as I went to the parade that there might be some adverse reaction after what had happened elsewhere.

Billy Purvis in clowns costume. Picture by James Powell by kind permission of the Laing Art Gallery, ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums).

“But when Billy was in the parade lots of school children were shouting ‘hiya, Billy’ and waving and that’s never happened before.

“Not everybody likes clowns. They’re unpredictable and this can make people nervous.

“So to combat this I always wait for people to approach first. I keep a daft smile on my face and wave or give the thumbs up. This stops anybody from getting an inadvertent fright.”

While Paul is a photography teacher by day in Newcastle and Billy as part of his role as chairman of Houghton Heritage Society, he fears the recent incidents will damage the livelihoods of professional clowns.

Paul Lanagan without his make-up

He added: “Those responsible for the spate of clown attacks are not only scaring the public but tarnishing the reputations of the professional clowns and spoiling what should be a traditional part of the British heritage.

“It takes a lot of skill to make people smile and laugh but anybody can put a cheap mask on and scare somebody.”

Purvis was born in Auchendinny, in Midlothian, in 1784 before moving to Newcastle as a child.

He performed throughout the region and is buried on the Headland, in Hartlepool, near to where he died in 1853.

Billy Purvis in clowns costume. Picture by James Powell by kind permission of the Laing Art Gallery, ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums).

Paul, 30, who lives in Houghton, spends half-an-hour perfecting his make up before performances and dedicated his 2002 book Houghton Feast: The Ancient Festival of Houghton-le-Spring to the clown.

The feast, which dates back to the 12th Century, continues until Sunday with highlights including appearances by a host of Hollywood characters at the event’s fairground at Rectory Field from 2pm on Saturday.