In 2006 Paul Merton presented a BBC4 series on silent movies, Silent Clowns. His accompanying book on the subject has recently been issued in paperback, and he is now touring with a show on the subject. Silent film comedy is a passion of Paul Merton’s, and his show eloquently communicates his enthusiasm for the subject. Also touring with Paul is silent movie accompanist Neil Brand. Neil Brand’s skill lies in improvising music – each night’s performance will be different – to compliment the comic timing of the action onscreen. The performance that we went to – at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre – was presented to a sold out theatre (something that I, as an enthusiastic theatre-goer, see sadly too infrequently).
The first half of the show consists of a number of shorts and clips, introduced by Paul and accompanied by Neil. The first of these, starring Snub Pollard, is a richly inventive film whose creations pre-date the labour saving contraptions of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit. Other pieces of film include a couple of early French films, such as the memorably bizarre Arthelme Swallows His Clarinet, Chaplin demonstrating the versatility of a ladder as a comic prop in the 1916 film The Pawnshop, and Buster Keaton risking his life for a meticulously planned stunt for Steamboat Bill Junior in which the front of a collapsing house falls down around his ears with only a couple of inches to spare. My husband’s disappointment at the lack of Harold Lloyd was assuaged by one of his favourite Laurel and Hardy shorts, Big Business. In this Laurel and Hardy classic, the hapless duo are teamed with their occasional sparring partner, the expressive James Finlayson, who proves to be their equal in petulance and escalating destructiveness.
The second half of the show comprised of a Buster Keaton feature, Seven Chances. The prologue to this film was an example of rudimentary Technicolor, which has been restored prior to this screening. In Seven Chances, Buster Keaton is a man who learns that he stands to inherit $7 000 000 if he marries before 7pm on the evening of his 27th birthday (which happens to be that very day). The film is an excellent example of Buster Keaton’s highly physical comedy, mainlining every man’s greatest fears in showing the comic being pursued by hoards of matronly, desperate women in wedding veils. The film was complimented by Neil Brand’s brilliant musical accompaniment, with comic echoes of the wedding march, which highlighted the comedy of Keaton’s film.
The evening wasn’t quite what I had expected it to be. Where I had expected a lecture about silent films, illustrated with some clips and musical accompaniment, instead the films were introduced by Paul Merton and were allowed to shine in their own right. In retrospect, this is exactly as it should be for an evening that celebrates the world of silent movies. It was a real pleasure to be introduced to early gems of cinema, many of which I had not previously seen, and to be part of an audience of people laughing uproariously at films that still seem fresh even after the passing of so many years.