Paul Merton’s Silent Comedy

Paul Merton Silent Comedy

Well, as the Bioscope motors on past the 30,000-views figure, it’s hard to say which has been the most popular topic so far, but it’s probably either Albert Kahn or Paul Merton. Which is ironic, since Albert Kahn has been pursued for the Autochrome colour still photographs he organised rather than the films he commissioned, while Merton is anxious to take a back seat in promoting the work of the silent comedians he so admires.

The latest expression of this is his book, Silent Comedy, which has just been published. I’ve only thumbed through it in a bookshop so far, but what is immediately noticeable is what a wordy, conscientious and carefully-constructed work it is. Merton has paid his dues as a silent film buff, collecting 8mm copies from childhood, reading as well as watching all that he could, and he makes fulsome acknowledgment to Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for their television and restoration work, and to the works of Glenn Mitchell and Simon Louvish. Merton has clearly read a great deal, and the book goes into the personal histories of the silent comedy greats, as well as describing individual sequences in sharp detail. Anyone familiar with this territory will recognise much of the material, but it’s not meant for them. Merton is targetting his young audience, for whom Silent Comedy is a means of discovery, not confirmation of a well-known history. This is a subject that need discovering all over again.

This puts Merton in the awkward position of being the straight man, much as is going to be the case for his forthcoming Silent Clowns tour, where audiences may come to see Merton and his gags, but where Merton is anxious for them to see rather less of him and as much as possible of the films themselves. The book’s cover highlights the problem. Paul stands in the centre, his subjects in the background, but the book itself is organised the other way around.

Well, no matter, it’ll become a favourite Christmas present, and it’s a treasure trove of material that needs to be passed on to a new generation of enthusiasts. It’s also beautifully illustrated. It concentrates on the key names – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy – with little space given to the second tier of comics – Larry Semon, Charley Chase – and no mention at all of ‘minor’ figures like Max Davidson or any European comic except Max Linder (OK, you could argue that Chaplin and Laurel were European…). That’s a bit of a missed opportunity. But it serves a window on a lost world, which might just be that little bit less lost from now on.

Update: There’s a rather muddled (i.e. muddled in that it seems the reviewer can’t decide whether the book is good or not) but nonetheless intriguing review by James Christopher in The Times.

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