Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema

A quick reminder in case those in the UK hadn’t spotted it, but tonight BBC4 is showing Paul’s Merton Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema. Merton continues on his mission to reveal the wonders of silent cinema to a general audience by going in search of the origins of screen comedy, revealing a “forgotten world of silent cinema – not in Hollywood, but closer to home in pre-1914 Britain and France”.

Revealing the unknown stars and lost masterpieces, he brings to life the pioneering techniques and optical inventiveness of the virtuosos who mastered a new art form. With a playful eye and comic sense of timing, Merton combines the role of presenter and director to recreate the weird and wonderful world that is early European cinema in a series of cinematic experiments of his own.

It should be interesting to see what is revealed. Such programmes – which are rare enough in themselves – not only open up largely hidden films to new audiences, but should be a lesson to those of us who may know these films well to see them in a fresh light, not least as a television commissioner sees them. The programme will be available on iPlayer for the usual week after transmission, and it would be interested to read people’s thoughts on it.

Merton also takes on early film in his interactive guide Paul Merton on Early British Comedy for the BFI’s Screenonline site. It’s a useful tour of the basics, well-illustrated with clips, covering Early Days, Fantastical Films, Fantasy & Realism, Cars & Robots, Facials, Stars, and Bad Boys & Girls; filmmakers such as James Williamson, Cecil Hepworth, Robert Paul, and Charles Urban; and performers such as Florence Turner, Fred Evans (Pimple) and Little Willy Saunders.

Paul Merton on Early British Comedy

14 responses

  1. Well I was pleasantly surprised. Paul Merton’s combination of personal drollery and reading out of film history facts makes for an odd mix, and the programme veered from documentary, to recordings of his touring silents show, to visual gags copying early cinema techniques. Directorially it was all over the place (Merton was the director). And yet it packed in so much and did so with such affection. He gave us Muybridge, the Lumieres, Robert Paul, G.A. Smith, James Williamson, Georges Melies, Fred Evans, Andre Deed, Alice Guy, and Max Linder, without much ideas of dates – but that didn’t matter. We visited the Pathe studio, Lobster films, saw a fragmentary colour print of Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, went to Hove Museum, and heard Neil Brand play. Somehow at the end it all made sense, just by expressing delight at so much comic invention. The hero was Max Linder, and the programme endly poignantly by recalling the early cinema trick of films shown backwards (with which Merton’s programme began) with Linder’s life shown in reverse, from suicide, to WWI trauma, to performing at his height to delighted audiences, to taking a final bow to us all. A programme to catch, if you can, while you can.

  2. Hi Luke I agree with much of what you say and thought the second half on Max Linder was poignant and beautiful but the first half was a mess – all over the place in terms of dates – the Lobster films were undoubtedly the stars especially the Pig of course and Segundo’s Kiri Kiri but the stupid role playing (which was the part of what I hated about the MK series we did), the silly gags and speeded up action all of what I thought we had left behind in documentaries on early film and yes showed a bit of Robert Paul but not anything on him at all – so hotchpotch – great second half but terrible first half only made up by Neil’s playing and their archive research really just consisted of the DVD box sets that are available ie Retour De Flanneur, Gaumont and Crazy Cinematograph but at least it showed to a wider audience why we love this material so much

  3. Yes it was a mess, but I’ve spend so much of my career being a pedant over dates that I’m now trying not to see them as so important. But I can find no good words to say about the role playing and the silly gags – except I guess they made the originals seem all the better by comparison.

  4. yes they did – by the way I’m doing my performing Wonders show at Duckie in June every saturday – early films and live performers – will post details when I get them – Duckie is not your usual early film venue – that’s all I will say but Serge is letting me show the Dancing Pig and other delights

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  6. He nearly lost me when footage of a praxinoscope was voiced over with the words “this is a zoetrope”. Is that too pedantic, or is it just a basic fact that wouldn’t be too hard to check – anyone who can give you a praxinoscope to film can tell you what it’s called.

    It was a very erratic show, and the fact that it jumped in quality every time they consulted someone who knows stuff should have been a clue to how the whole thing could have been improved.

    I welcome the Max Linder bio, though it did take up too much time (perhaps they could have expanded into a series so that each persona could receive the same level of attention), but the “happy ending”, with the reversed footage, seemed odd. If it was showing the power of cinema to preserve or reconstruct the past, why not just show another of Linder’s films? That’s surely the best way to pay tribute to his enduring legacy.

    As ever with these things, I want to be glad that they’re getting exposure at all on TV. Framing it as “weird and wonderful” is one thing, but it seemed like an excuse not to analyse or explain that it only looks weird from this historical distance.

    There was one utterly thrilling moment – seeing the coloured print of A Trip to the Moon, crumbling in the can, was so beautiful, and dragged the whole show back towards the frailty of its actual object of study. I found it really poignant, and along with the marvelous sound of a hand-cranked cinematographe, a redeeming moment. The rest of the show seemed to shy away from the historical specificity of its films – it was just a bunch of crazy stuff, often heedless of the artists who made it.

  7. I liked the reversal at the ending – reminded me of that recent Carol Ann Duffy poem about the First World War when history runs backwards to a happier time. But I agree that it couldn’t have taken too much to get a few basic facts rights, even if the programme wasn’t intended to be a work of reference.

    Interesting critiques here: http://ejmuybridge.wordpress.com/2010/04/02/paul-merton%E2%80%99s-weird-and-wonderful-world-of-early-cinema/

    and here:

    http://www.illuminationsmedia.co.uk/blog/index.cfm?start=1&news_id=648

  8. Would anyone be able to help with the title of the Max Linder film that includes the scene where he rather ominously murders his wife, only for the camera to pull back and reveal a stage audience?

  9. Letter in Radio Times 10-16 April from Mary Cosgrove critical of BBC4 for not accompanying Paul Merton’s programme with some actual examples of early silent film.

  10. Hi, i just watched Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema and i need to know the name of the music piece at the beginning of the show and the one at the end with max linders backward introduction

  11. Sorry don’t know, and now the programme’s gone from iPlayer so I can’t check. And I haven’t been able to identify the Linder film in which he ‘murders’ his wife on stage (see comment above). Does anyone know this one?

  12. Love to know the title of the piece of music that played over “Trip To The Moon” sequence in the programme.

  13. Realise you posted it was on again but it was truly so bad that even with some nice playing from Neil and the scenes from Serge – the programme was dreadful and even if somebody argues for teh footage nearly all of it is available on DVD

  14. Pingback: Looking back on 2010 « The Bioscope

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