The Clown - Warren Speed

Published: 13 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

Warren Speed is well known in the burlesque and freakshow world, having performed all round Europe with his high-energy brand of physical comedy, which usually ends in him revealing nipple tassles, followed by ass tassles…

But before that, he was a stand-up comedian for seven years where he gigged regularly with the likes of Alan Carr, Sarah Millican, Jason Manford and Russell Howard. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mr. Speed or ‘Pervo the Clown’ as he is sometimes known.

“Although I had some great times doing stand-up, and I got to work with many talented people who are now household names, I always found stand-up to be highly stressful. It’s hard trying to make a roomful of often drunk or even disinterested people laugh, especially when you can be getting constantly heckled throughout. So I decided to move into burlesque instead, as I’ve always been an exhibitionist – plus as a guy doing burlesque, you need to do it much more for laughs. Physical comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have always been my heroes so burlesque naturally fitted me much better. And I’d much rather strip and make an idiot of myself than do stand-up.

“The highlight so far, of my burlesque career, has been performing in a two-week run of shows in a big variety show in the Casino De Paris alongside Dita Von Teese. That was a great time and I had so much fun. Another highlight was performing at the London Burlesque Festival in 2009 with performers from all around the world.

“Besides burlesque, I also run my own events promotions company called, Growling Clown Entertainment. Previously, we organised the annual Newcastle Gateshead comedy festival for four years, as well as running many stand-up shows (Funny Bones comedy clubs), theatre variety shows (under the name Cabaret Excentrique), and the now semi-legendary bizarre club night, ‘House of the Golden Lotus’. This club night always features weird and wonderful performers, including the UK’s only freakshow tent!

“In 2009, I wrote, co-directed and starred in what is fast becoming a global cult movie – the comedy horror film Zombie Women of Satan. The movie is currently on release on DVD in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. Zombie Women of Satan, was a dream come true for me. I’d always been aiming to break into movies and in the end I decided to just go for it and ploughed all my life savings into making a daft horror film, where practically all the zombies are sexy topless girls and the heroes of the film are a strange bunch of freakshow performers. I play a dozy clown, called Pervo, who has many issues and really hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing. The movie was shot on a very low budget, but we’ve achieved miracles with it by getting distribution deals in four continents. We also got massive global publicity at Cannes in 2010 when we took six sexy zombie girls over to promote the film and the press went mad for us, which opened a lot of doors.

“I’m currently working on a new movie script which is kind of Charlie Chaplin meets Hellboy, but again it features some freaks and the lead character is a strange jester. I love the bizarre side of life and have performed at some pretty outrageous shows in places like Amsterdam, Rome, Oslo and London. I love the old world of vaudeville and freakshows and always try to bring that element of weirdness into my current projects.

“My main focus now though, is the sleaze rock band I’m in – Kings & Queens. I used to be in bands years ago, but have finally gone back to my roots and my first love, which is music. I’m really going all guns blazing to see how far we can take things. We’re currently recording our first album and have just shot our first music video. Hopefully once we’ve paid our dues and moved up the music ladder a bit I can start bringing all my ideas for a crazy stage show into reality. And once again it will all be angled towards the weird and bizarre side of things.

“I get all my tattoos done by Chris Wright, who owns and works in Viking Tattoo Studio in Jarrow, along with his brother Lee. Besides both being great tattoo artists and top blokes, they’re also both in an awesome punk band called Crashed Out. I started getting tattooed relatively late in life despite always liking them and being around them since I was about 13. Guess it must be because I’ve always been a total heavy metal music fan!

“The clown freak on my right arm is actually the logo of my entertainment company, and on my left arm sleeve (which I got completed from start to finish in about seven sessions over two months) I have a bizarre jester and a top-hatted skeleton, plus flames and gambling kind of images – which I personally like. I’m not a casino gambler, although I am a bit of a risk taker in life – I think you have to be if you want to achieve things on a large scale.

“I’m getting more freakshow images, flames and theatre masks to make up my left arm sleeve too. My chest has a vintage microphone, an endless sky and the words ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, which again sums up my love of music and refusal to accept there are limits on what you can achieve. When I eventually get my back piece done I want it based on Commedia Dell’Arte which is where a lot of modern day physical comedy and circus performances originating from Italy back in the 1600s.”

The Freakshow

Freak shows were popular in the United States from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries, and were often, but not always, associated with circuses and carnivals. Some shows also exhibited deformed animals (such as two-headed cows, one-eyed pigs, and four-horned goats) and famous hoaxes, or simply "science gone wrong" exhibits.

Changes in popular culture and entertainment, and changing attitudes about physical differences, led to the decline of the freak show as a form of entertainment. As previously mysterious anomalies were scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases, freaks became the objects of sympathy rather than fear or disdain. Laws were passed restricting freak shows for these reasons.

The appeal of the traditional "freak shows" is arguably echoed in numerous programmes made for television. Thus, programmes like Extraordinary People or BodyShock show the life of severely disabled or deformed people, and can be seen as the modern equivalent of the freak shows. In order to make the shows respectable, the subjects are usually portrayed as heroic and attention is given to their family and friends and the way they help them overcome their disabilities. The Guardian’s Chris Shaw commented that "one man's freak show is another man's portrayal of heroic triumph over medical adversity".


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Warren Speed