“I don’t like saying I’m a clown!” laughs Gareth Ellis, aka Bippo, “It’s got such a bad stigma to it, but that’s what I am!”
As the ‘Greatest Sillyman Tour’ arrives in Leighton-Linslade, its star performer comes prepared to face a broad spectrum of opinions.
He mostly hopes he’ll be facing rounds of applause from the Bipsters - his fans - following the success of last year’s Pages Park show, but after an angry phone call prompted a painted tear, Gareth is offering townsfolk an opportunity like no other...
“I want to cure Leighton Buzzard of any clown phobia,” he explains. “I had one woman ring up and say ‘my daughter has just seen your picture on Facebook and she’s screaming!’ - I felt like asking, ‘what’s your daughter doing on Facebook?’
“I’ve also had some people messaging saying they are scared of clowns and have phobias! And I shouldn’t do a clown show.
“I’m offering people the opportunity to come and meet me before the show, when I’m just Gareth. We can talk through what makes them scared - usually they don’t like people in masks either or are scared of any facial distortion - or maybe they have had a bad experience.
“Really slowly, while still talking to them, I’ll begin to put my make-up on. I’ll ask ‘are you scared of me now?’, and the answer is usually, ‘to be honest, no I’m not’. They then watch the show and have a really good time.
“It’s been mostly adults who are scared, but children are welcome to come and meet me too, with their mums and dads.”
Ironically, Gareth, 29, has also had the opposite reaction, as after posting a video to promote the show sans make-up, mums have also messaged him to say their children are in tears because ‘Bippo’s not real!”
“No, you can’t win!” he laughs.
The Manchester man’s passion for clown performance started from a very young age when his parents first took him to the Big Top.
Quickly learning that their son’s desire for costumes and red face paint was not “just a phase”, Gareth’s mum, Kath, and father, Alan, took him on holidays to stay with the circus, and Gareth has even juggled alongside Norman Wisdom for the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday parade.
But the ring master of fate had bigger plans...
“When I was nine years old my dad, a British Gas enginner, was made redundant, while mum was bored with her job. We lived in a four bed house, but we decided to move into a two bed caravan to go and stay with The Moscow State Circus [in the UK]!
“My case is quite unique as the circus is hard to get into - I was sort of an exception; I used to do bits and pieces and have shows. It’s like in Harry Potter where non-magic folk are muggles - to the circus, normal people are “Jossers”, but it’s not derogatory.”
The Ellis’s stayed with the Russians for a couple of years before travelling with Zippo’s for nearly a decade.
It was here that a BBC reporter christened the young Gareth with his name Bippo - a baby Zippo - while Kath became a personal assistant and his father was a handyman.
The family loved the close knit circus community, while the career has given Gareth the opportunity to perform around the world - in Russia, France, Holland, Malta and the United States, building strong friendships.
However, like a wobbly tightrope, circus life was not without its downs.
Gareth said: “You can have problems, and then the music starts and you have to go on stage! You‘ve got to change that frustration and anger into a different form of energy.
“My mum passed away in 2012 aged 52. I went to her funeral but the next day I was back performing - the only thing that would take my mind off it.
“She had a brain tumour and went through all this treatment. I was in Weymouth when I got a call saying ‘you’ve got to come home NOW’. I had to drive the car - whilst in my full make-up - up the motorway.
“Mum was supposed to have six months of chemo and radiotherapy but in a month she was gone. It was really a shock.”
Gareth used his love of performing to pull him through, bringing Bippo, an Auguste clown (brightly coloured instead of black and white), to audiences up and down the country.
His Bipsters adore him - even painting clown faces on pebbles as a gift, while he likes to keep his show modern, and throw in a few jokes for the parents which will “go over the children’s heads”.
Gareth said: “My nephew has just been given an ipad - kids today don’t know how to react to live performances anymore, so come down and have a good laugh!
“Forget about what’s on the news. This is a little bit of escapism!”
Gareth is 29 and has a girlfriend call Chelsea, who is a trapeze artist.
> Bippo is appearing at Cedars theatre on April 7 and 8 at 5pm. See our What’s On Section of Leighton Buzzard Observer online or go to: