Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour
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?