Watershed, Bristol, 20-22 January

Slapstick Film Festival
The second Bristol Slapstick Festival was a revolutionary event, above all proving that it is possible to create a new audience for films made 80 or more years ago, if they are good enough, and are presented with flair and imagination (qualities which the Bristol Festival has in plenty).  It is true that many of the 1200 people who flocked to the Colston Hall for the opening gala were initially attracted there by the name of Paul Merton – or rather by his authoritative endorsement that this was some of the best comedy ever put on the screen.  Many – most indeed – had never seen a live performance of a silent film with music.  All went away converted.  In turn Charlie Chaplin’s EASY STREET (1917), Laurel and Hardy in BIG BUSINESS (1929) and Harold Lloyd’s great “thrill comedy” SAFETY LAST (1923) generated an excitement and a volume of laughter such as is nowadays rarely heard, though perhaps it was when these films were new.

Revolutionary, too, was the musical accompaniment provided for the films throughout the three-day festival.  Over the past twenty years the art of improvisational piano accompaniment to silent films has been developed to a degree of sophistication perhaps unequalled even in the golden 1920s.  Bristol however saw the definitive launch of a new kind of group improvisation.  The world-class piano accompanists Neil Brand and Günter Buchwald recruited colleagues on strings, percussion and accordion to accompany the films as a sextet, with such phenomenal coordination in their improvisation that the impression was that of a fully composed score. The group adopted the jocular title of “The Prima Vista Social Club”

Perhaps the most incredible fact about Bristol Silents is that it receives no direct support from the official cultural bodies that one would expect to be involved: both the Arts Council and the British Film Institute (despite its nominal brief to assist regional film activities) have consistently declined to contribute any funding.  As one speaker at the Festival put it, “I guess their half-witted notion is that if it is this much fun it can’t be culture!”. 

Sponsorship all comes from local organisations, including Watershed, Aardman Animation, Arts and Business South West and Clear Design UK, a young firm which specialises in designing web-sites related to arts promotion.  SLAPSTICK 2006 finally and mainly won through to triumph by the old-fashioned methods of disinterested enthusiasm and unstinting voluntary work – not to speak of some of the best comedy films ever made. 

Slapstick’s major asset, undoubtedly, is the involvement of Paul Merton, a devotee of silent comedy, who was Bristol’s presiding genius for the three days of the festival, in evidence at every show.  One festival show, devoted to Harold Lloyd, with a screening of his early “thrill comedy” NEVER WEAKEN, was filmed for the forthcoming television series, PAUL MERTON’S SILENT CLOWNS (BBC Bristol).The most iconic presence at the festival however was Diana Serra Cary, one of the rare surviving stars of silent pictures.  Under the name of Baby Peggy she enjoyed a world-wide following as a child star between 1920 and 1924, making hundreds of short comedies and several prestige features, one of which, CAPTAIN JANUARY (shown in the festival) was later to be remade with Shirley Temple.  Still a vital and charismatic figure at 87, she is today a notable chronicler of Hollywood: her books include “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy” and most recently “Jackie Coogan, the World’s Boy King” (2003).  At the festival she was indefatigable – appearing on stage to be interviewed about her own work and about the travails of other Hollywood children; taking part in a panel on comedy alongside Paul Merton, Paul McGann and Peter Lord; and between times rewarding scores of festival patrons with autographs. People or films (we learnt at Bristol Slapstick) they just don’t come like that any more.