Clowning Glory: the inimitable art of Tom Gaskin

Clowning Glory: the inimitable art of Tom Gaskin

Tom Gaskin is spinning plates. Not literally, but we're pretty sure he's done that too. The young, charismatic performer, model and actor is showing us around the place he calls home, the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth. With gentlemanly charm, striking looks, and an enviable ability to capture an audience's attention, Tom Gaskin is set for big things. But today, he's taking us on a nostalgia trip to the place where his career started, and in some ways will never leave, because the circus is in Gaskin's blood, dancing in his veins and swimming in his heart...

Being a 'clown' has become a sort of pejorative label in modern parlance, but in the world of circus and circus arts, clowning is the pinnacle of physical comedy. A great clown senses every nuance of the audience, innately feeling their anticipation or trepidation, leading them on a dance of laughter and surprise. Clowning informs the bare bones of performance, using physicality, chaos, and a little insanity to create a surreal interaction. The three-time Oscar nominee Sacha Baron-Cohen attended the Philippe Gaulier clown school just outside of Paris, whose alumni also include Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter. Not a bad advert for clowning around...

What was it that drew you to becoming a clown, Tom?

Well, my uncle was a clown and so that's what I always wanted to be. When I started my performing career it was all physical comedy and clowning. And as time went on, I started to get myself slightly bigger roles in the show. It started off as small parts in other clown's routines, but as time went on, I wanted to do more. So I started picking up some juggling tricks and discovered that I actually really quite liked it. So I moved to London to train at the National Centre for Circus Arts. After my first year there where I returned to the Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth, where I was the proper clown in the show here with Jack. Now, I'd call myself a comedy juggler, I suppose. 

Langar Bomber Jacket
Kingsley Cord Brown

Calstock Track Top Rycroft Yellow

Calstock Track
Top Rycroft Yellow

Drawstring Trousers Cord Cream

Drawstring Trousers
Cord Cream

And how did you get your start originally? 

In the really early days, when I was probably five or six and going to see my Uncle at the Circus, I remember a Wild West show, with lots of horses. That was probably the first time I remember seeing the circus and thinking that's what I want to do. He actually taught me a few juggling tricks back then. And then when I was about 13 or 14, I got offered a job here at the Hippodrome, but just spotlighting and selling candy floss. It was probably after two or three years that I had progressed to working backstage and that's when I was able to slip into the sort of clowning routines and watching the clowns, not just on stage but off stage and rehearsals as well. When I was about 15, I had a really small juggling intro at the very beginning of the show and that was my first time performing on stage. Jack, the owner, had enough faith in me to let me go into the ring for the first time.

Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Great Yarmouth? 

I call Great Yarmouth home. It's the nearest big town. I grew up just the other side of the river but I spent a lot of my youth here because of the circus. I still get a buzz thinking that people come from all over the country and descend on Great Yarmouth for this circus. Having the sea so close by, we were never short of amusements and arcades and stuff! I suppose it's quite a... what's the word you would use? A stimulating place, I suppose! It's all flashing lights and parties in the summer and enjoying the beach. But because it is so seasonal, the winter months are starkly different. It's almost bipolar. 

Solms Jacket Elvin Chestnut Brown

Solms Jacket Elvin
Chestnut Brown

Drawstring Trousers Elvin Chestnut Brown

Drawstring Trousers
Elvin Chestnut Brown

Newport Long Sleeve T-Shirt Alton Navy

Newport Long Sleeve
T-Shirt Alton Navy

So how did performing in the circus turn into modeling? 

That's a good question! I don't really know. I suppose I'd always been used to performing and the day the modeling happened, I remember I was training at the National Centre for Circus Arts and I just nipped around the corner to get some lunch from a cafe in Hoxton, in East London. I thought someone was following me into the cafe and I just picked up a drink and a sandwich and I turned around and there was a lady holding a business card and she said, "Are you a model?" I replied, "No", and she said, "Do you want to be?" I looked at her and then looked at the card and she said, "Well you haven't got to answer now, but email me tonight." I just thought it was some sort of con.  So went home that night and told my girlfriend at the time and she said, "Well, you what have you got to lose?" So I sent two pictures and five days later I had a shoot for ID magazine. And then it was about a week after that I went for a casting at Alexander McQueen and Joe McKenna was there, and he liked me so I started working for Alexander McQueen. And then from there he took me to Jill Sander in Milan and I had a really busy season in London, and then Paris Fashion Week, and I got an agency in Paris, then got an agency in Milan, and yeah, it sort of just snowballed from there. 

And you are now acting and doing standup comedy. How did that come about? 

Yeah, that's right. As part of my course at the National Centre of Circus Arts, we did some acting training just to help round us off as performers. But in terms of what professionally kicked it off, was landing a role in Tim Burton's remake of Dumbo, the Disney movie. I ended up being on the film for eight months. I was part of Danny DeVito's beaten up old circus where Dumbo was born. I had such a brilliant year doing that. 

Langar Bomber Jacket Velvet Sapphire Blue

Langar Bomber Jacket
Velvet Sapphire Blue

I made good friends with some of the other actors and one of them recommended that I should try and get an agent. So he introduced me to a couple of people, and then one day I was in my modeling agency and one of the other models, who was also an actor, put me in touch with his agency. I met them, and we really got on and they signed me. I've since moved to another acting agency and it seems to be working, so I'm really excited about the future. 

Can you tell me a bit about your inspirations across all performance? 

Buster Keaton is probably my hero. I remember watching a documentary on him when I was young and it has never left me. In particular, there was a clip where he's being chased down an alleyway by a dozen or so cops. He runs out into the middle of the road, and grabs the back of a passing car which pulls him horizontally out of frame. It just really stuck with me. Ever since that day I, wanted to watch everything he did. His stunt work defied the limits of human physicality! I used to love Jim Carey and Jackie Chan, too. I think I was such an overactive child, so it's no surprise that actors like that really appealed to me!

In terms of juggling, there's a genre called 'gentleman juggling', which in the old days used props, like a cigar, an umbrella, and a hat. Sometimes they called it parlour juggling, so it might be with snooker balls and snooker cues. It's often quite strange, quite weird and comedy oriented. But again, it was one of those things that I saw when I was young and it just never really left me. I thought it was so exquisitely peculiar.

There's a home video that one of my younger brothers dug out of, it was from 1992 or 93. It's classic mum filming around the lounge, but there's a piece of music in the background, that I recognised but couldn't place. Mum pans the camera around and I'm sat on my dad's lap. I must only be one or two. As the camera continues to pan, on the TV is the Paul Daniels show. And on the show is one of the jugglers that I only discovered when I got to circus school. He was a Russian gentleman juggler called Buba, and he was performing the same tricks I was learning at the time! Coincidence, or maybe my young brain was really processing what I was watching?! Either way, 18 years later, I rediscovered him through a juggling teacher who was also really into obscure old jugglers, and so through some sort of cosmic coincidence, I ended up learning the same thing. 

You perform in so many different ways and you've performed for such a young age. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with performance as a whole? 

It's strange. When I was younger, performing was just natural. I was never scared at all because I wanted to do it so much. And I think the funny thing, like with anything, is the deeper into it you get, the more you realize how much you don't know, and I suppose that's when doubt can start to creep in. But for me, it certainly feels like one of those things that I could be doing my entire life. I just know there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. It never feels like work. I just love it. I hope I can do it until I die.

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