Comedians on comedians


Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, from

The television series Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, first shown on BBC4, is being repeated on terrestrially on BBC2, with the first episode on Buster Keaton having aired this evening. Episodes on Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd are to follow. It was an engaging, unassuming production which simply wanted to put Keaton’s art first and foremost. It mostly took the format of one of Merton’s live shows, with Merton a lot of the time on stage giving short introductions before showing clips, Neil Brand at the piano, and audience laughing, all rounded off with the one complete film – in this case, The Goat (1921). I laughed heartily at gags I’ve seen a hundred times, and though it really only brushed the surface of Keaton’s comic gift, it must have left every viewer impressed with his art and many determined to check out more on DVD.

Merton is not the first television comedian to use his current popularity to pay homage to the silent comedians of the past. Bob Monkhouse in the 1960s presented a series, Mad Movies, which I can dimly remember, which introduced us to a wide range of silent comedians – not just the Keatons, Chaplins and Lloyds, but minor figures like Billy Bevan, Lupino Lane, Charley Chase, Larry Semon, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin et al. I think the films all came from his personal collection. It gave us all a marvellous grounding in the names, the gags and the styles of the era (like Merton, Monkhouse explained to us how the gags and stunts worked). Then there was Michael Bentine’s Golden Silents, which was a multi-part, light-hearted history of the cinema, presented at the National Film Theatre, demonstrating as Merton does the great value of showing these films before an audience. You have to be laughing with someone really to appreciate the greatness of the silent comedians.

We were really lucky in the late 60s and early 70s – there was the intensive education in the art of silent comedy that we received from Monkhouse and Bentine, and we would be regularly treated to Robert Youngson’s compilations of comedy clips, such as The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), When Comedy was King (1960), Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) and Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20s (1965). I’ve not seen them since that time, and I expected that the narrator’s interjections and the selectivity of the clips might irritate now, but at the time they helped rescue silent films from oblivion, and we watched them avidly. I can remember also that Chaplin shorts were a regular feature on early evening television – we were soon familiar with almost the entire oeuvre, and would lap up a rare new title with a collector’s fervour.

American TV also did its bit to keep the flame going for silent films in general. Jay Ward’s Fractured Flickers was first shown in 1963 and regularly syndicated thereafter. I’ve no memory of seeing it, but the approach seems to have been to take a rather satirical view of the films. Silents Please, first aired 1960, which used films from the Paul Killiam archive, was a more straightforward homage, and stood up very well when it turned up in some form or other in the UK in the 1980s in the early days of Channel 4. At least I assume it was the same series; someone might know.

Will silent comedies continue to amuse future generations? You have think that they have a good chance, indeed that it is verbal comedy that dates so badly, while there will always be something eternal about the silent art. But slapstick, however elevated a form it could be in the hands of the greatest practitioners, is not a form of comedy that is likely ever to return to the mainstream, and the clothes, the manners, the socio-cultural references, the black-and-whiteness and of course the silence will all inevitably confer too much strangeness upon this material for it ever to gain even the revival in popularity that Youngson and Monkhouse managed to conjure up. Or will artistry win out and will these films always retain a fundamental human appeal? Do we want to continue to admire them because they artistic, or because they are funny?

Brian Coe 1930-2007

Brian Coe

Brian Coe

It is sad to have to report the death of Brian Coe on 18 October 2007. To anyone with an interest in the history of the technologies of cinematography or photography his work over four decades has been, and remains, indispensible. He joined Kodak in 1952, where he helped found its education service. He made a particular impact with his writings in the early 1960s which forensically overturned the romantic myths which had seen William Friese-Greene chauvinistically championed as a pioneer of cinematography.

He was Curator of the Kodak Museum from 1969 to 1984, building up the collection to be one of international renown, and curating many pioneering exhibitions. When the collection moved to the National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford, Brian became Curator at the Royal Photographic Society’s collection in Bath. In 1989 he joined the Museum of the Moving Image as special events co-ordinator, organising shows, events and organisations on an extraordinary range of topics, all underpinned by exemplary research and presented with enthusiasm, finding a perfect balance between scholarship and entertainment.

At Kodak he built up not only a great collection but considerable personal expertise, which found lasting expression in his many publications. The remarkable thing about his books is that they have not dated. Twenty or thirty years on they are still relied upon as standard reference works, notable as much for their clarity of exposition as their steadfastly reliable content. They include The Birth of Photography (1976), Colour Photography (1978), Cameras: From daguerrotypes to instant pictures (1978), and the incomparable The History of Movie Photography (1981). This is still the best book on cinema technology that exists, and it is hard to see how it could be bettered. It is particularly strong on early cinema technologies – magic lanterns, the optical toys and chronophotographic experiments of the so-called ‘pre-cinema’ era, the first cameras and projectors, the development of colour cinematography, early widescreen systems, the birth of home movies. Its illustrations have been plundered by countless other sources. Film archivists swear by the book – it used to be (and I hope it still is) standard reading for anyone working at the National Film and Television Archive’s preservation centre. Another gem is Muybridge and the Chronophotographers (1992), a small exhibition book reportedly thrown together in a great hurry, but a handy reference guide that I turn back to again and again.

Sadly Brian suffered a serious stroke in 1995, and took no further active part in the worlds of film and photography to which he had contributed such invaluable knowledge. It was a sad curtailment to a varied and richly productive career, recognised through such honours as his Fellowship of the Royal Society Arts, but leaving him little known to the general film enthusiast. Check out one of his books – they’ll be in the local library or second-hand book store. They look beautiful, and they wisely and reliably inform. Thank you, Brian.