Slapstick Festival, the world’s largest celebration of the silver screen comedy stars from the silent era, took over a host of venues in Bristol last weekend. Despite now embracing all forms of visual, physical and classic comedy, the festival has never lost touch with its roots and it was the organisers rightfully proud boast that this year they were screening more films from the pre-talkie era than ever before. Here, we report back from the celebrity packed jamboree, with words accompanied by some great photos by official Festival photographer Adam Johnson.
The debt contemporary comedians owe to the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy etc. is evidenced by the number of house-hold names who come along to pay homage to them at this festival year in and year out; this year alone they included names such as Stephen Fry, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Victoria Wood, Shappi Khorsandi, the whole of the Goodies, Barry Cryer and many more.
But before they all descended on Bristol, the festival, now in its 11th year, started with a special pre-festival show featuring local hero Peter Lord from Aardman Animations, aka the creator of other local hero Morph, who last year bounced back into the nation’s consciousness thanks to a hugely successful crowd funding campaign which raised enough money to allow the studio could create a handful of new Morph films, which were then released via Youtube. Such is the allure of our plasticine friend that even the achingly hip Factmag covered Morph’s return via a short in which the Amazing chap hopped aboard the “wheels of steel”, the “ones and twos”, the … oh, ok, the turntables, and became a DJ …
With this year’s festival having a “comedy double acts” theme, Morph’s story was told alongside that of his BFF, one Chas (also starring in the video above – and I’ll be no doubt also be in trouble if I don’t add “and also a local hero”.) Pete was talking to Morph fan Richard Herring and between them they killed just over an hour with the merriest of banter, during which time Pete Lord, seemingly effortlessly and without a second thought, knocked up a Morph from a block of clay, timing the finishing of it to perfectly coincide with the end of the gig.
We also learnt (possibly in a festival exclusive?) that Pete’s hoping to deck the streets of Bristol out in Morph’s some time soon (2017 was mentioned) much as Aardman have already done with Grommits (in 2013 – raising 4.5 million pounds) and are about to do with sheep (Shaun of the variety, in fact.)
The highlight of the whole show, however, was witnessing Pete and Morph being mobbed by children straight after the show, eager to get their hands on the little fella…
The actual festival proper started on Thursday with Die Puppe / The Doll (1919) – an intriguing early fantasy comedy from master film-maker and festival favourite Ernst Lubitsch. This was followed by Ladies Night in A Turkish Bath featuring the irascible Laurel & Hardy and which co-starred James Finlayson as Pa Slocum (you’ll know him if you saw him.) These were introduced by heavyweights in the world of silent film, respectively film historian and director of Pordenone Silent film festival David Robinson and Oscar© winning director and film historian Kevin Brownlow. The films were also accompanied by live piano – Barbara Lenz and John Sweeney, again respectively. As you’ll have gathered, attending a screening at this film festival is “going to the flicks” as we know it. The organisers want to make the experience of viewing these films “a special cinematic event”, so rather than just screening the films and that being that, they also accompany them with passionate, enthusiastic, entertaining, informative and educational experts and live music; live music which is as near to the director’s original intention as possible. (The festival’s complete “Mission Statement” can be read on the site of the society out of which it grew, Bristol Silents.)
Next up Graeme Garden, a long time, passionate, hands on contributor to the festival, introduced a set of films about Laurel & Hardy – but films about Laurel & Hardy with a difference – they were from their pre-L&H days. It was fascinating seeing them performing roles other than those knew them for, although the personalities they grew into were still clearly evident, even when they were playing “straight” roles!
We were back to a “festival favourite” next, the masterful film maker Ernst Lubitsch whose Marriage Circle was being introduced by actress, writer, comedian and, like Graeme Garden above, another all round festival supporting hero, Lucy Porter. The film starred two of silent cinema’s most talented onscreen female actors, Marie Prevost and Florence Vidor, and was accompanied by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry who was premiering her semi-improvised new score on solo harp. The score was incredible – who knew a harp had so many hidden voices, ones that could convey so many different emotions! And the film, unlike most Slapstick films which canter along at a madcap pace, was more assured and sedate than though – though of course it was still not without more than it’s fair share of laughs!
Friday was geared around the evening’s gala, but before that the day was full of more, brilliant silent comedies featuring the likes of Musty Suffer (presented by Bill Oddie), Baby Peggie (a documentary about her which included a video message from the star herself – a festival patron I might add), and the incredibly sweet and gentle Eddie Cantor who went down a treat in front of an almost sold out audience – impressive for a Friday afternoon screening in Watershed’s biggest cinema! The Cantor film was directed by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle who could be seen in one, ahem, scene, and finished with a brilliant, typically elaborate and over the top chase. In the film Cantor Cantor played the son of a “Postal Secret Service” agent which nicely set up the quip “the only secret in the “Postal Service” is how you got in it” before our hero embarked on trying to impress Da and “get” “the girl”. Not wanting to spoil the ending I shall keep shtum as to whether he achieved either, both or neither of those goals.
Having said that, though, what the performance lacked for in laughs it more than made up with thanks to a crackling story, and one that not only brought the characters alive but also gave them a humanity that, acting the fool on the screen, you may not realise they had so much. So well did they tell the story and so rapt in it were we that I’m guessing there was nary a dry eye in the house by the end. Oh, and their doing of “the dance” was brilliant (of which more later…)
And so to the focal point of the festival – the gala at Colston Hall where around 16,000 people, annually, gather together to watch films that are approaching their 100th birthday. Yes, I said 16,000 people. This year Chris Addison (photos above and below) was hosting the show, a name, judging by the people around me, not familiar with many. “Who’s this Chris Addison then,” “I don’t know, he must be famous though”, “Yes, hope he’s funny.” He was. But more than that – he was obviously a fan of the films he was presenting and geeked out quite excitedly after (and before) each, before ironically proceeding to call the festival director a geek himself for insisting he explain why the first film he was showing was so “crisp”.
Films shown included Charlie Chaplin’s satirical masterpiece The Immigrant (1917), also starring Edna Purviance, a coin, a hole in our heroes pocket and an angry waiter, as well as the classic tit-for-tat caper Big Business (1929) starring Laurel & Hardy, a Christmas tree, James Finlayson (again – that guy used to get everywhere!) and a ruddy big fight which escalated in intensity with a fast-paced “blink and you’ll miss one” gag-fest. Riotus good fun and considerably more than “a laugh a minute”. In a major coup for the festival this film was accompanied by “keyboard legend” and all round “prog rock god” Rick Wakeman of YES (see photo, right) on piano. Rick confessed he’d started taking the film’s score apart scene by scene, then abandoned the idea 30 pages in and ended up with just one sheet around which he improvised pretty well considering it was his first time.
The Hats Off to Laurel & Hardy guys made a surprise entrance next to do a 10 min excerpt from their show, bewilderingly opting to do the first 10 mins again which, even after a second watching, I still thought was the weakest section of their whole show, although it ended with their having managed to winkle in the dance again, which this time they did in sync with the original being screened behind them. Marvellous fun, and nice they provided those of us who’d seen the show earlier a surprise too!
The night climaxed with Buster Keaton’s breakthrough film, Seven Chances (1925), a film cited by film historians as one of Keaton’s finest silent comedies. The central conceit in the film is that, after the passing of his grandfather, our hero finds out that he must marry by 7:00pm or else he will miss out on the seven million $$’s he’s very much in need of. A laugh a minute romp, it’s also tender and touching, something Keaton was the master of. The film also feature’s one of his most famous set pieces – but we won’t give that away in case you haven’t seen it (you can watch it on Youtube if the suspense is killing you.) Oh, and Keaton directed this himself, of course, changing the ending, Chris informed us, after trialling it in front of the public. Incredible stuff all round anyway. In true Festival fashion the film featured the world premiere of a new score composed by Gunter A. Buchwald and which was brilliantly performed by Bristol Ensemble. A splendid night all round.
Saturday featured shows about Crackerjack (all together now: “CRACKERJACK!” – sadly not scheduled for five to five on Friday on account of the stupid gala (joking!)) with Don MacClean talking to Chris Serle (both in the photo above) about his and Peter Glaise’s silent slapstick shorts, which those of a certain age will remember they used to sprinkle throughout the show, and another about seminal children’s TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set with had Denise Coffey, Neil Innes and Tim Brooke-Taylor in the hot seat.
Griff Rhys Jones also took to the stage in the afternoon to talk about his late comedy partner Mel Smith and to give us all a treat – the world premiere of a pilot episode of a series they’d devised which raised more than its fair share of laughs, albeit if they were somewhat morbid revolving, as they were, around a plumber’s corpse in the office of the character’s played by Griff and Mel. The pilot wasn’t green lit ultimately, on account of it being “a bit blokey”. To which Griff responded that he and Mel were both blokes. A valid point, except that the other seven characters were all “blokes” too.
The highlight today was probably the matinee screening titled “Victoria Wood celebrates Gloria Swanson”. As per Chris Addison, Ms Wood professed to not be a silent film geek, then proceeded to slightly disprove that by introducing two Gloria Swanson films like a pro! The first, Teddy at the Throttle (1917), spoofed the popular silent comedy tradition of seeing damsels in distress and tied to train tracks, while the second, Stage Struck (1925), was an ingenious spoof of her own image, one which displayed Swanson’s superb comedic talent, her impeccable comic timing and some lush technicolor sequences. Swanson’s best moment in here, for me, was her routine at the griddle after she’d taken over from the flash wheat cake flipper – trying to copy him she ended up, perhaps inevitably, with one stuck to her head. Victoria Wood, talking about how self-assured Gloria Swanson was, told us how she’d been a bit sniffy about appearing in Slapstick films, something we probably all thought about as she was stood on screen with a pancake stuck to her bonce! The intimation was that she probably just didn’t like being under someone else’s shadow – which was fair enough as she was awfully talented! Oh, and regarding the film, I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that it had a happy ending.
That evening we had the three Goodies come on stage to honour the greatest comedy double act of all time -bar none- Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. Each took it in turn to introduce a short; ‘‘Liberty’ (1929), ‘You’re Darn Tootin (1928)’and ‘Double Whoopee (1929)’. These three films are considered to be amongst the duos finest early onscreen work and it showed. The abiding memory, though, will be Bill Oddie managed to absolutely amaze the whole house with a performance that almost bettered the onscreen comedy, although no one would be able to explain how or why! Give that man a national treasure status asap!
The day finished with a 10pm screening of Vivian Stanshall’s magnum opus, Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (1980) with an intro by Neil Innes and Denise Coffey (aka Mrs E) – more of which later.
On Sunday Barry Cryer, friend and gag man for Morecambe and Wise, spoke to Radio 3’s Matthew Sweet about the duo, another event slotting into the festival’s “Seeing Double” strand nicely, before the aforementioned Marcus Bristocke came on stage to talk to Shappi Khorsandi about her top comedy moments. This part of the festival – an annual favourite – isn’t usually that rich in silents but Shappi, it turned out, is a huge Chaplin fan and so we started with a couple of clips from his films, including The Kid, and after which it was generally agreed that “The Child” (aka Jack Coogan, who was also later to play Uncle Fester Frump from The Addams Family, Shappi informed us) was probably the best child actor of all time. Ever. It’s hard to disagree, too.
Other choices by Shappi included Trading Places, Mrs Doubtfire, a Richard Prior film (her favourite ever comedian) and an emotional nod to Rik Mayall. Actually, with nods to him, Robin Williams and with excerpts from The Kid it was quite an emotional event all round. However, all that was blown away as Marcus Bristocke related the legendary story of how Geordie comedian Ross Noble accidentally managed to convince Nicholas Parsons that Richard Briers was a crackhead – a mistake explained by the phonetic similarity between “Richard Briers” and “Richard Prior”. In the words of Marcus, “Ross being Ross, he never explained the misconception.”
The Aardman Slapstick Visual Comedy Award was next, which this year went to Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Vic and Bob were joining an illustrious collection of comedians including French clown, comedian and filmmaker Pierre Etaix (seriously, if you aren’t familiar with this guy check him out now!) The Goodies, Eric Sykes and Michael Palin CBE. Marcus Brigstocke spent an hour on stage with them where they basically entertained us with free flowing words, stories and explanations in between which we watched clips of their most well known work. The show ended with a series of video messages from people which included Jo Brand, Damien Hirst, Ulrikakakakaka Jonsson, scorekeeper George Dawes (aka Matt Lucas), Jack Dee and Barry Cryer and they were awarded Chas and Morph crafted clay figures done out as themselves (see photo below – note esp handbags and toupe).
And so to the last show of the night, a celebration of the unique wit, imagination and wordsmithery of the one and only Vivian Stanshall, a man with whom Bristol has a close connection on account of “The Old Profanity Showboat”, now known as The Thekla, which he rode into the city many years ago and proceed to live on and perform in.
The show was a melange of all manner of goings on, including Stephen Fry (met with a “congratulations Stephen” when he stepped on stage – alluding to his recent marriage of course), Neil Innes, an orchestra, The Desperate Men, Ronny Golden, Rodney Slater and more! After a few songs and other such malarky the centre-piece of the show was shown – Mike Livesley’s brilliant one man rendition of Viv’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, the film of which had been screened the previous day.
The whole is utterly bonkers and madcap but quintessentially English and the wordplay rolls off the tongue in a simply delightful fashion; albeit far too fast and intricatly for you to take in more than a tenth of it! All the original characters were voiced by Mike, including Mrs E, Aunt Florrie and, of course, “The ever-present Old Scrotum, Sir Henry’s wrinkled retainer”.
Viv Stanshall was an utter genius, of that there can be no doubt, and like a lot of genii their work is utterly bewildering to many (think of him as the Stephen Hawking of the comedy world if you will) but when one of his ideas hits home it’s utterly extraordinary.
And so to the end of another Slapstick Festival. Quite how the organisers can improve on this next year is a question some might be asking, but for now we’re happy to just bask in the golden glow of the memories of one of the nation’s finest arts festivals pulled off will aplomb by all involved.
The next show for Slapstick Festival is Barry Cryer: Comedy Legend. Get tickets here.
Bristol Silents are putting on a couple of films with MShed too, to mark the First World War and on Sunday Watershed are screening one of the greatest films ever made, FW Murnau’s Sunrise.
With special thanks to the festival’s photographer Adam Johnson for the splendid pictures adorning this review.
All words by Guy Manchester. More writing by Guy on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive. Twitter: @Guid0man.