The Slapstick Festival is always one of the highlights of the Bristol cultural calendar. It attracts many of the big names in British comedy past and present and, as well as the excellent screenings and speakers, one of the things I like about the Festival is the friendly atmosphere, with presenters often going to watch other events they are not directly involved in. It’s a great place to discover new favourites: I will always be grateful to the Festival for introducing me to the films of Harry Langdon and Pierre Etaix. This year’s event has just ended after 25 events over six days – and I went to 12 of them.
My Festival started at the Watershed with Silent Comedy Westerns, the theme of this year’s programme. Film historian Kevin Brownlow introduced five short silents while John Sweeney accompanied the films brilliantly on piano. It began with a curio – a clip from a French ‘western’ called Indians and Cowboys filmed outside Paris in 1905. It was rather garishly hand-tinted and didn’t look much like any western you’ve ever seen – an omnibus stood in for a stagecoach. It told a hoary old tale of a woman and daughter kidnapped by ‘Indians’ then rescued, with the help of a dog who carries a message from a dying man to the heroes. This version also had Swedish intertitles, helpfully translated by audience member Peter.
Mr Haywood, Producer (1915) is a Tom Mix short where a group of “cow-punchers” decide to go into making “movin’ pitchers” – but every scene they try to film ends in a chaotic, set-destroying brawl. It was the same joke done several times, but quite fun. The best of the event was A Movie Star (1916) where Mack Swain plays an actor who goes to a theatre to watch his latest picture – a ‘Thrillem Films’ western romance called Big Hearted Jack. The women in the audience are particularly excited by his presence – the fact he’s so odd looking adds to the comedy. He plays up to his star status, but then his wife turns up… Both the film within the film and the surrounding material provide plenty of laughs.
By Indian Post (1919) is interesting for being an early film directed by John (credited as Jack) Ford – but an unfortunate incident with some lacquer means several minutes of it are lost, which makes it a little confusing. John’s older brother Francis directed and starred in A Bandit’s Wager (1916) as the bandit who bets a woman she will voluntarily kiss him one day. John himself popped up as her brother, and this was the stronger of the two films. Finally, we had Broncho Billy’s Adventure (1911), in which a protective father – who kisses his daughter a little too much – shoots her lover. The flamboyantly dressed Billy, played by Gilbert Anderson, steps in to stop the townsfolk lynching him but the threat from them is, apparently, enough to show the father the error of his ways. It was probably the weakest of the films on show – and Billy didn’t even seem to be a major role. Overall, an eclectic, interesting mix.
The next event was Jollywood! – a brief history of Mancunian Films, hosted by Mike Livesley, and illustrated with plenty of clips. Mike’s enthusiasm for these films was clear and made it a thoroughly entertaining hour. The star of the show was Frank Randle – a fascinating if forgotten figure who carried a loaded Luger, smashed up dressing rooms in theatres he didn’t like with an axe, and drank crates of Guinness for breakfast. Described as a cross between Keith Richards and Frankie Boyle, he had his teeth removed to make him look funnier and, if he didn’t like an audience, would throw his false teeth at them. Diana Dors made a film (It’s A Grand Life) with Randle and called him – unsurprisingly – “mad and drunk.” His real life antics looked more interesting than some of his films. Mike also discussed George Formby, an early star for the studio, and there was a lovely clip of Norman Evans playing Fanny Furbottom – an influence on Les Dawson’s Cissie.
The films were made on the cheap (the first features we made above a garage in London) and the final cut often included fluffed lines. Whole scenes were often improvised in 20 minutes; they were, Mike said, “staged rather than directed.” Eventually, under financial pressure, the studio was sold to the BBC and production ended. But they remain important, Mike argued, for showing regional accents were evident in British films, long before the kitchen sink dramas.
Mack Sennett: King of Comedy was a showcase of some of the 1,000-plus films the legendary Sennett produced. David Robinson was standing in for Graeme Garden, a Festival stalwart who missed this year’s event through illness (get well soon, Graeme!), but having lost his glasses, he couldn’t read his carefully prepared notes. But it wasn’t a problem and he managed the event well. He showed a short clip from the end of The Curtain Pole because it was directed by D.W. Griffith, but then we had four full shorts. Sennett liked to use real events as the backdrop for his film and The Speed Kings (1913) was an example of this. Ford Stanley hammed it up unbelievably as a father who wants to pair his daughter (Mabel Normand – a key Sennett collaborator) off with champion race driver Earl Cooper. Mabel, however, prefers his rival Teddy Tetzlaff (both he and Cooper were real racers). The continuity was a little odd – the father and daughter kept swapping sides when sat in the audience – but it was OK, and Fatty Arbuckle popped up to be kicked up the arse a lot.
David warned that The Thief Catcher was “not the greatest” but was interesting for including one of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest roles (it was either his second or fourth film) and for only being rediscovered in 2010. It was basic – lots of the action taking place in and around a small hut – and included another dog courier, but it was decent. Don’t Weaken! (1920) was a film of three parts – dance school beginning, domestic comedy middle, boxing match finale. It didn’t really work as a whole, and the boxing went on far too long (sport was one of Sennett’s favourite subjects) but there were some cracking gags in there – surely no Slapstick festival is complete without someone having ice cream tipped down their back?
The final film was the delightful His Marriage Wow, starring Harry Langdon. This film was shown at the Festival a few years ago, when Graeme Garden did a session on this unjustly neglected Langdon, but it was great to see it again. He is such a sweet and likeable screen presence. This short sees Harry having wedding day nerves as Vernon Dent’s hilarious Professor McGlumm convinces him the bride’s family are only after his life insurance…
Lucy Porter hosted the next event, which was dedicated to Anita Loos: Hollywood Pioneer. Loos is best known as the writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but had a long career in the silent era, and two films from this period were screened (with harpist Elizabeth Jane Baldry providing the music). The New York Hat (1912), directed by D.W. Griffith and with a starry cast of Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore, is more of a melodrama than slapstick comedy, and sees a minister buy the titular $10 hat for Pickford’s Mollie, using a trust fund left to him (for her) by her mother. Her father and the town gossips cause a scandal before order is restored. Lucy said this film highlighted several themes – women’s unpleasantness to other women, moral hypocrisy, fashion – that were evident across Loos’ work. And Loos wasn’t above being unpleasant about other women, either – her two not-entirely-reliable autobiographies contain plenty of that. Lucy also delved into Loos’ tumultuous relationship with John Emerson.
He co-directed the second film shown: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, which Lucy described as “batshit mental.” A bizarre Sherlock Holmes spoof co-written by Loos and Freaks director Tod Browning and starring Douglas Fairbanks as drug-taking super-sleuth Coke Ennyday. The leaping fish are beach inflatables that are being used for smuggling opium. Remarkably, drug taking features repeatedly and there’s a great gag where one of the inflatables is injected with drugs to make it go through the water faster. It’s all very strange, but also very funny and ends with a brilliant kicker that the whole thing is actually a story Fairbanks is pitching to a studio executive – and he’s told to forget about a career in writing!
We had more of Fairbanks after, with a screening of the feature length western comedy Wild and Woolly, also written by Loos and directed by Emerson. Fairbanks plays Jeff, a Wild West obsessive living in New York, lassoing his butler and making him ‘dance’ by shooting at his feet, who is sent to Bitter Creek, Arizona on business for his railroad magnate father. Keen to impress their guest, the townsfolk decide to pretend that it’s still the 1880s and give him a Wild West experience. Needless to say, he gets the chance to be the Wild West hero he always wanted to be. A very nice premise, well executed and Fairbanks is on good form.
It was a very early start on Saturday to get to the 9:15am event At Last the 1948 Show Revisited, where Chris Serle interviewed Festival regular Tim Brooke-Taylor alongside “the lovely” Aimi MacDonald. The sketch show had quite a cast: John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman, as well as Aimi and Tim. Four previously lost episodes have recently been discovered (some in the David Frost archive) and so many of the clips had not been seen for 40-odd years. Tim couldn’t remember some of these ‘lost’ sketches and told me after he was “pleasantly surprised” by them, and Aimi said much the same. And they were right – they held up very well indeed, and some of the sketches (the crime drama spoof) and the great links the Aimi used to do as an egocentric starlet (‘Oh! Flowers! What a pleasant surprise…these aren’t the roses I ordered!’) were very funny. Best of all was one of the classic clips of everyone corpsing: John, Graham and Marty in drag as undercover cops, deliberately trying to throw Tim by changing their lines. The interview was also a lot of fun and it was lovely to see them enjoying themselves. They discussed how Dennis Norden was nicknamed ‘The Doctor’ for his script editing work, and Aimi told how she once heard Elvis sing jazz in a Vegas club. The show’s title, incidentally, was a joke about how long TV programmes take to make it to air (it was broadcast in 1967).
I left the Watershed for St George’s, where comedian Marcus Brigstocke was interviewing Richard ‘Golly’ Starzak and Mark Burton, co-directors of Aardman’s Oscar-nominated latest movie, Shaun the Sheep. The big news from this event was that they’re already planning a “very different” sequel to one of the funniest films of last year and it’s pencilled in for a 2019 release. They played some of the best scenes – the restaurant, the ‘jail’ – and the opening shot, where a cockerel holding the film’s title runs back into shot when the camera pans away. The original version of this sequence didn’t include this joke and re-shooting took 3-4 days. It also appears they added the ‘convenient quarry’ setting for the finale very late on. There were lots of interesting insights into the animation process – including footage of them acting out scenes in the studio – and Golly also revealed that they made the models smaller than they originally planned so they could borrow Nick Park’s props. The ‘8-80’ age range of the audience was evidence of the wide appeal of Aardman’s work.
Next up was Tim Vine explaining ‘Why I Love Sgt Bilko‘. He started with a typical Vine pun (“Tequila! Schnapps! Sambuca! I’m calling the shots”) but then described how his father had got him into Bilko by waking him around midnight so they could watch it (it was shown after Match of the Day). They still enjoy it together, often watching episodes after Sunday lunch (‘but now he’s the one who’s half asleep’). I’m not sure I had ever seen a full episode before but the two that were screened – The Twitch and The Court Martial – were very good indeed. The audio was not great – the slightly muddy sound of the original recording plus an echo in St George’s meant some of the dialogue was lost. But you don’t need to hear dialogue when you have a rollerskating chimp.
There was another early-ish start on Sunday with Here Come the Double Deckers: Reunited! The show, about seven kids who hung about on an old bus, was well before my time and I had never even heard of it before, much less seen it. The comedy clips that were shown from it had not aged terribly well, but there was a nice dance sequence with Billie and a robot. Far better was the chat between Matthew Sweet and three of the cast – Gillian Bush-Bailey (who played Billie, now an academic and cultural historian who has written papers about the show), Michael Auderson (Brains) and Debbie Russ (Tiger). Melvyn Hayes, who played their dustman friend Albert, popped up in a recorded interview, and reminisced about Debbie throwing sweets at him when he was sat in his dressing room. They talked about how they had all got on at the time, and forty years on, there seemed to be a genuine warmth and affection between them that was lovely to see. They also paid tribute to Douglas Simmonds, the only one of the seven no longer with us. Michael said Simmonds had “no interest in acting before, during or after” the show – in fact, he became a scientist later in life.
Ian Lavender seems to have been a late addition as host of Why I Love Ben Turpin and it was clear that the cross-eyed slapstick star was not, really, someone Ian ‘loved’ but he was a good guide. Three shorts were shown in this session – I was delighted to hear the boy sat next to me, who must have been around 7-years-old, laughing at all of them – with Stephen Horne on piano, accordion and flute. A Clever Dummy was the best of them, with Turpin playing both a janitor at the home of an inventor of mechanical ‘dummies’, and the dummy itself. It showed off his skills as a physical comedian very well. Both The Dare-Devil and Yukon Jake have some funny gags, but story-wise, leave quite a lot to be desired. In the former, Turpin gets stuck in a horse’s saddle and accidentally becomes a film stuntman. In the latter, he is sheriff of a frontier town. A dream sequence which includes a snowball fight between Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties is gratuitous filler. The most striking thing about Yukon Jake, said Ian, was that the real bear they used turned on its trainer…
The star choosing his Top Comedy Moments this year was local boy Stephen Merchant (interviewed by Matthew Sweet). He opened with Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, which shows Buster nervously waiting to see if he has a date. Stephen said that the anxieties that Buster has in that are similar to the ones he had explored in his stand up show and TV series Hello Ladies. His next choice was Beau Hunks, with Laurel and Hardy. He commented on the unmatched chemistry between the pair, how he likes Ollie’s fastidiousness, and how you can’t help but wonder how they have managed to survive life to the point we meet them. He revealed that during filming of the The Office, whenever they wanted either Ricky Gervais or Martin Freeman to do an exasperated look to camera, they would say: “do an Ollie!” Similarly, Stan’s looks were copied by Ashley Jensen in Extras. I was delighted he chose some Jackie Chan (Project A), one of the genuine heirs to the slapstick greats. He spoke about his admiration for Chan doing his own stunts with little (no) regard to health and safety and said that apart of Tom Cruise, few Hollywood stars are allowed such freedom – indeed, Chan himself was rather subdued during his own stint in the US. Stephen mentioned doing a couple of his own stunts during films – he wanted to be known as the Tom Cruise of comedy – but it’s unlikely that will happen…
They agreed that Bob Hope had become rather unfashionable – his right wing views, the links with Miss World – but his films deserve to be rehabilitated and so we saw a clip from The Paleface, in which he plays his “cowardly braggart” in a western setting. We saw a scene from Play It Again, Sam, where Woody Allen is trying to play it cool, but fails in a very funny slapstick fashion. Both these clips also linked to The Office – the comedy in the gap between how a character sees himself and how the rest of the world sees him. Other ‘moments’ included the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (he loves their anarchy) and a Saturday Night Live sketch with Chris Farley as motivational speaker Matt Foley (the funniest moments of which came from David Spade and Christina Applegate corpsing). He ended with the chandelier scene from Only Fools and Horses but did offer one small criticism: the close up of it hitting the floor was unnecessary (he’s right!). This was an excellent event and it was great to hear his insights into the comedy he likes and produces, and it’s terrific to see him supporting the Festival.
The finale of the long weekend took place at St George’s on Monday and saw Ken Dodd receive the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award. He came on stage shaking his tickling stick, and the plan was for Ken to be interviewed by Matthew Sweet. But, as the frequent references to his very, very long stand up shows suggested, it’s not that easy to stop him once he gets going. It was great stuff, and after his early questions were met with a barrage of (generally unrelated) jokes and funny stories, Matthew wisely stepped back, and just gave Ken an occasional prompt.
His first gig doing ventriloquism in an orphanage, Punch and Judy, retirement (‘it’s when you stop doing what you don’t want to do and start doing what you do want to do…well, I’m doing what I want to do, so why would I retire?’) were all covered. He talked about laughter being the best sound in the world – particularly the laughter that you hear from a children’s playground. He also mentioned the importance of music and serenaded us with a thank you song (there was, alas, no rendition of Happiness). We saw tributes from Bonnie Langford (who had been in Doctor Who with him), June Whitfield, Melvyn Hayes, Ricky Tomlinson, Debbie McGee, Barry Cryer, Bob Carolgees and a very heartfelt message from Barbara Knox. Ian Lavender – who had been the subject of some gentle ribbing all night from Ken (‘he’s an actor – he hasn’t eaten for six months’) – did a short speech from the stage and then Aardman’s Peter Lord and David Sproxton handed Ken the Award – a Morph with wild hair, prominent teeth and a tickling stick. It’s great to see Ken – at 88 – still going strong and it was a terrific end to the weekend.
After missing most of last year’s Festival with a bad bout of flu, I was delighted to go to so many events this year.
Huge amount of thanks and gratitude to Festival Director Chris Daniels and all his team for their incredible work in pulling together another fantastic programme with such a varied line up of screenings and speakers. Next up for Slapstick: a special event with Michael Crawford on 8 April and the Stand Up For Slapstick fundraiser in May…