Last month it was announced that Paul Merton would be appearing live at Ilkley Film Festival to discuss his feature, Silent Clowns. Emma Clayton spoke to him about his passion
When Paul Merton was a boy he would sit in his bedroom watching grainy images of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton flickering on the wall.
Silent movies, screened onto a sheet using an 8mm projector, left him mesmerised – but it wasn’t until he saw Keaton classic The General in a cinema three years later that he appreciated how much silent comedy comes alive when shown to an audience.
“These films really belong on a big screen; it brings them alive in a way television can’t,” says Paul. “When I was collecting these films in the 1970s they were just standard home movies. It was like looking at a cave painting compared to how they look now.
“Although a lot of silent films disappeared when talkies came in, most Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy films survived, and DVD has revolutionised their availability.
“But on a big screen, with live music accompaniment and a laughing audience, it changes the film. It becomes ‘live cinema’.”
It was making his own short film, The Suicidal Dog, that got Paul thinking about the power of music in film.
“A pianist can manipulate an audience just as much as the film can. With Suicidal Dog, which I used to show at gigs, I replaced the soundtrack and used a live musical accompaniment instead – the audience’s reaction was different every night.”
Paul will be showing excerpts from some of the funniest films of the 1920s when he brings his show Silent Clowns to Ilkley Film Festival next month. He will be joined by composer and musician Neil Brand, silent film accompanist at the National Film Theatre, who has recorded music for restored Chaplin films.
“Neil often improvises with piano accompaniment; he listens to the audience and responds to their laughter. In the Harold Lloyd film Safety Last there’s a ten-minute gap when the action slows down a bit, so Neil looks for delicate ways of keeping the audience’s attention,” says Paul.
Paul will show extracts from Charlie Chaplin films The Circus and For Heaven’s Sake, while shown in their entirety will be Laurel and Hardy classic short Liberty and Buster Keaton’s masterpiece Seven Chances, with newly-restored Technicolor prologue.
Paul made his own comedy debut in 1982, at London’s Comedy Store, and went on to become a regular on Channel 4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway and Radio 4’s Just A Minute. He remains a Bafta-winning team captain on Have I Got News For You.
His love of comedy was ignited by the silent greats, and his passion is clear as he talks me through classic stunts, not least the famous scene in 1928 film Steamboat Bill Jr when an entire building facade collapses onto Buster Keaton, with an open window framing his body as it falls.
“He did it in one take and it came within inches of flattening him. If you look closely you see it touch his sleeve,” says Paul. “That scene has to be watched with a live audience.
“I was talking to two kids about Safety Last – they were comparing it to the most recent version of King Kong and said because they knew that was computer-generated it didn’t have the same impact. When they saw Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock on a skyscraper they knew he was in genuine danger. In another scene he’s running away from huge rocks and, although they weren’t real, you’re wincing and are a little afraid of what could happen. You feel that tension with an audience.”
Paul’s hero is Charlie Chaplin, who he says is “as important to early cinema as the Beatles were to pop”. He’s amused to hear of a story involving former Telegraph & Argus sub-editor Stanley Pearson, who bumped into Chaplin in Bradford in the 1950s. The movie star was looking for the Empire Theatre, where he’d performed as a child, and Pearson invited him to an NUJ dinner at the Victoria Hotel. Not only did Chaplin attend, he also signed a £5 note to auction.
“He often visited cities tracking down old theatres where he’d performed as a music hall act,” says Paul. “In his long coat and grey hair, he didn’t look like the Charlie Chaplin of his films so was largely unrecognised.”
A series of talks organised by Bradford City of Film starts today with an overview of Chaplin’s life and work. City of Film director David Wilson will give the first Film Talk at City Library from 5.30pm.
“The Chaplin story is fascinating. Not only did he write, direct and act in all his films, he also composed the music for most of them and contributed to the development of Hollywood in the early days,” he said.
This year’s Bradford International Film Festival includes a double bill of Chaplin films The Immigrant and Easy Street, as well as screenings of Modern Times, to live piano.
A family event called Chaplin’s Tramp celebrates 100 years of the world’s first iconic film character, and visitors are invited to have a go at making their own silent film and see photographs and objects from the National Media Museum’s collection.
Bradford has a significant silent film heritage. Films have been made here since the beginning of cinema. Some of the first cinematic screenings outside London were at the Palace Theatre, now the site of the National Media Museum, and the city’s first ‘movies’ were shown at the Kineoptosope Parlour in Town Hall Square in 1894 using single-viewer machines. One of the earliest screenings in Bradford was the RJ Appleton outdoor screening of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Edison apparatus was displayed at St George’s Hall, followed by experimental film screenings, and in 1901 New Century Films showed regular film seasons at the concert hall.
Some of the earliest footage of the city was made by Mitchell and Kenyon, one of the largest British film companies, in the early 1900s. The film pioneers shot public and sporting events, including the city’s celebrations of Edward VII’s accession to the throne in 1902 and a rugby match between Manningham and Dewsbury in 1903. Their films were shown at St George’s Hall to capacity crowds.
For the next decade film shows appeared at more Bradford venues, such as the Empire Theatre and Lister Park. Fairground sites hosted travelling ‘fit up’ shows and, following the 1909 Cinematograph Act, purpose-built picture halls sprang up across the city; the first being the King’s Hall, built in 1911.
The Temperance Hall started showing films accompanied by a horn gramophone, and Pathe Freres opened their Electric Theatre de Luxe in 1911, with four roller-skating rinks converted into cinemas.
While St George’s Hall and Temperance Hall were birthplaces of ‘full-time’ cinema in Bradford, the Theatre de Luxe was the first to introduce ‘continuous’ programming, adopted by most other cinemas.
Films from the Imperial Film Company, based in top-floor studios in the city centre, were shown in Bradford cinemas and circulated around the district.
In the period surrounding the First World War, two pioneering companies had studios here. The Captain Kettle Film Company, formed in 1912, made silent two-reelers, thrillers, melodramas, even westerns – with woodland in Manningham doubling for the Wild West frontier – and the Bradford Animated Picture Company shot newsreel of local events, screened at the former Regent Cinema on Manningham Lane.
After the war, Co-op halls were used for showing films, developed as both entertainment for shoppers and a means of advertising well into the ‘talkie’ era.
By 1923, Bradford had 42 licensed cinemas, with five in Shipley. By 1929, ‘talkies’ were introduced and within five years there were 40 talkie cinemas in Bradford. The peak of cinema attendance was during the Second World War when there were 44 cinemas in Bradford and Shipley, but by 1962, numbers had halved due to the growth of television.
“Before the First World War, cinema was all European-led but the war claimed many victims, including cinemas, and the industry shifted to America in the 1920s,” says Paul, whose TV series Silent Clowns, first broadcast on BBC4 in 2006, was accompanied by his book Silent Comedy.
His Ilkley show marks a significant anniversary. “It’ll be 100 years a week to the day that Chaplin released his first film, The Tramp,” says Paul. “How great that we’re still laughing at him on a big screen. Anyone aged over eight can come and enjoy these films. I like to think we’re passing on the baton.”
l Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns is at King’s Hall, Ilkley, on Friday, February 14 at 7pm. Ring (01943) 602319 or visit ilkleyfilm festival.co.uk David Wilson’s Film Talk is at City Library today from 5.30pm. Ring (01274) 433600.
Bradford International Film Festival runs from March 26 to April 6. Ring 0844 8563797.