Two Yorkshire brothers have been making people laugh since they were children. Andrew Vine reports.
The first time Ian and Gavin Radforth took a pair of giant shoes to their local cobbler and asked for them to be mended, he was a bit taken aback. Now he just takes them in his stride.
They tend to wear at the heels and in the middle of the soles. Driving in them is impossible, and it’s hard going up and down stairs, but they’re fine for riding a miniature bicycle.
Sadly, you can’t buy British when it comes to giant shoes. America – where everything’s bigger anyway – leads the market, but Mexico is doing them cheaper, and a couple of new pairs are on their way from there. As usual, there’ll be import duties to pay, courtesy of a customs officer who probably scratches his head as he wonders what the going rate is for clowns’ footwear these days.
There are quite a few giant shoes in Ian’s garage, among them a pair that have gone beyond even the cobbler’s best efforts, and another kept for muddy days. They sit alongside lots of other odd items that overflow the garage into a room upstairs and even Ian and Gavin’s parents’ house.
Every corner is packed with unicycles, stilts, a giant pair of scissors, a bike with off-centre wheels so the rider bobs up and down as it goes along, oversized dummy ice-creams, a larger-than-life bird costume that makes it appear the wearer is being carried in a cage, and, of course, a tiny yellow-and-red car fitted with water jets.
This is the world of Ian and Gavin, or, as they’re otherwise known, Izzo and Malteser, the Rapide Brothers, proud members of a small and select band – professional clowns. They don’t know of any other full-time clowns in Yorkshire, and there are precious few anywhere else in the north.
Clowning has been a way of life for them since they were first bitten by the performing bug as children, and their living for the last 10 years, since turning professional.
It takes them juggling, unicycling, balloon-modelling and stilt-walking around the country, and abroad, to children’s parties and corporate events, to holiday camps and summer festivals. They were named Britain’s best clowns last year by Clowns International, a sort of United Nations for those with red noses and big shoes.
“There’s not many clowns do it full time,” said Ian, 36. “It’s bringing enjoyment to people.”
“It’s quite funny if somebody asks what we do,” added Gavin, 33. “We tell them and they always say, ‘Yeah, but what else do you do’?”
There’s nothing of the sad clown stereotype about the brothers, from Ossett, near Wakefield, who are ebullient, exceptionally close, and so alike that they are often taken for twins despite the three years between them.
Clowning captivated them when Ian was 14 and Gavin 11, and still has them in its spell, even down to the personalised number plates on their cars and van, all spelling variations on “clown”.
Their interest was sparked by a much-loved figure in the Wakefield area, Ted Pickles, a miner at Denby Grange colliery, who went on holiday to Mablethorpe one summer and found that a visiting circus was a clown short. He decided to have a go, and never looked back, clowning for the next 38 years.
Between him and the brothers, Ossett became something of a Yorkshire headquarters for clowns. Pickles the Clown, as he billed himself, named his house Ossett Clown Hall and installed a clock on the outside that ran backwards.
The brothers got to know him through their father, Brian, a mechanic who looked after his car. When Ted died in 1998 aged 65, Ian and Gavin were among 20 clowns in full costume who paid their respects at his funeral.
“Ted had a unicycle, but he couldn’t ride it,” said Ian. “So we took it over and learned how to do it, and then a neighbour taught us how to juggle. We saw this circus school advertised and we started going and learned the circus skills. Then it was back to Ted and he got us into the clowning side of things.
“We used to go to see Ted every Thursday, and we got to do five minutes in his show, and then 10 minutes, and then we got to do our own.”
Learning the unicycle wasn’t easy, and involved hanging onto a fence with one hand whilst trying to stay upright. Ian said: “The unicycle we got off Ted was too big for Gavin, who was only 11, so our dad actually built a unicycle because we had to learn together. And some neighbours opposite, his son wanted to learn as well, so there were three of us all learning.
“When we were kids we used to practice all the time, before school, after school, and there was a unicycle hockey team in Leeds, so we used to go there as well.”
The brothers’ father gave his sons’ burgeoning act its name. He’d named the family home Rapide, after the classic Vincent Rapide motorcycle, of which he was an enthusiast. But for now, there wasn’t enough money in clowning to go full-time, so Ian went to work in an air filter factory and Gavin worked at Fox’s biscuits in Batley.
Bookings for the Rapide Brothers were constantly growing, though. Ian said: “We were working evenings, weekends, and we got to the point where we had that much work, we couldn’t fit a normal job in.
“A week’s work in Guernsey came up, and I had a week’s holiday, but Gavin didn’t have any holiday, so he went sick. We went down, and it was red hot that week. He came back sunburned to anything, and went back to work, and said, “Oooh, I’ve been poorly’.”
The decision to clown full-time brought work pouring in. “There aren’t many clowns up this end of the country, most of them seem to be down south,” said Gavin.
It was one of them that set the brothers on the path to a memorable booking. “Two years running we did a birthday party for a millionaire family in Geneva,” said Gavin.
“She was originally from Sheffield and wanted clowns with a Yorkshire accent. A friend of ours was working in Harrods at the time, and she came in and asked, ‘Do you know any clowns from Yorkshire?’
“They flew us over to their house, their driver came to pick us up from the airport, there are people there from all over the world, and we’re standing in the garden overlooking Lake Geneva. And the following day, we worked at a party at a little council house in Huddersfield.”
Other bookings came in from the Azores and Monte Carlo, as well as less glamorous venues. “We did a show in a youth prison in Russia,” said Gavin. “There were about 12 of us, all in our clown outfits, turned up in this minibus, and we all handed our passports over and they’re checking the pictures, and of course, we’ve all got our make-up on and they’re saying, ‘Who’s this?’”
The full, white-faced clown make-up that some children can find scary isn’t for Ian and Gavin. “With our make-up, you can see the person behind the face,” said Ian. “We prefer that, and it’s easier for us as well, it’s quicker to get on and off.”
It isn’t just the big shoes that have to come from abroad. So does a special glue to hold the red noses in place. But otherwise, this is clowning made in Ossett. The brothers, with the help of their father, make most of their own props, including the little clown car, which is a converted mobility scooter. And it’s turning into a family business. Ian’s nine-year-old son, Owen, is following in his father’s big-shod footsteps, being named best junior clown by Clowns International last year.
It’s been more than 20 years since the brothers started out entertaining people, and they’re still getting as much fun out of it as when they took their first uncertain wobbles on Ted’s unicycle. Ian said: “We’re doing parties now for the kids of people we did parties for when they were children.”
The Rapide Brothers can be found at www.rapidebrothers.com