Bristol Slapstick, born in Tottterdown

November 28 2015
Bristol Slapstick, born in Totterdown

THERE’S no keeping quiet about the Bristol Slapstick Festival. This celebration of the world of silent film and all it inspired was the dream of a Totterdown film fan 15 years ago – and now it’s an international success.

THERE’S no keeping quiet about the Bristol Slapstick Festival. This celebration of the world of silent film and all it inspired was the dream of a Totterdown film fan 15 years ago – and now it’s an international success.

Organiser Chris Daniels of Somerset Road is slightly awed by how much his brainchild has grown – and how many famous names it’s attracted on the way.

From its beginnings with  Have I Got News for You’s Paul Merton, who supported the festival through its early years, the guest list now looks like a roll call of the greats of British comedy.

From Michael Palin to the Goodies, from Rob Brydon to Chris Addison; Omid Djalili to Griff Rhys Jones; stars of the small screen are more than ready to come to Bristol every January to pay homage to the silent stars who inspired them.

Sometimes the link is obvious: the Goodies, who were among the most popular TV comedians of the 1970s, were fond of physical comedy and often used elaborate set-ups such as a giant kitten that stalked London.

But many other stars are eager to popularise an art form that’s perhaps comedy at its most pure.

For Chris it is a journey that began in the early 1990s when he took a course in film studies at the University of Bristol.

“We were shown lots of silent films and I was just blown away. I thought, why doesn’t everyone love this stuff?” said Chris.

Like many, he remembered seeing Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and other silent comedy stars on TV as a child. But he realised that since then they had disappeared from the small screen.

And in any case, these films were big in every sense: made to be shown on a big screen with live musical accompaniment. For a large part of the 20th century, cinema was the world’s biggest art form. Charlie Chaplin was the most recognised face in the world as early as 1914.

Without sound, and with very limited black and white camera technology, film actors needed particular skills to project their role onto the flickering screen.

But for comedy, film allowed stunts that had never been seen before, from the high-speed risky antics of Buster Keaton to the choreographed man-with-plank routines of Laurel and Hardy.

Chris wanted to save these classics from being forgotten. He proposed to the Watershed that they try some screenings, with the support of Paul Merton, a longtime fan of the silents.

What began as Bristol Silents in 2000 attracted 1,000 people. Now called the Slapstick Festival, it comprises more than 20 events at the Colston Hall, St George’s, the Arnolfini and the Watershed.

Supporters in 2015 alone included Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Barry Cryer, Victoria Wood, all three Goodies, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephen Fry.

Chris believes today’s stars support the festival because the traditions of silent films have been carried on by many of them.

The late Eric Sykes, who won a Slapstick award for excellence in 2009, made his own tribute with his multi-award-winning silent film The Plank in 1967. 

One constant of the festival is a gala screening of a silent classic, with music by a full-size orchestra. In January 2016 it’s the 1921 Chaplin classic The Kid, with guest host Robin Ince.

Hiring orchestras and presenting fragile old films on the latest digital equipment is not cheap, however. Chris estimates that the real cost of a gala show is £40 per audience member, yet tickets cost £10 to £25.

The difference is made up by support from Bristol’s animation giant Aardman and the British Film Institute and patrons from the Goodies to Michael Palin who often give their time free. (But more help is needed: see right).

Bristol’s own Stephen Merchant is hosting a Top Comedy Moments event.

“Today’s stars give audiences a new perspective on the films,” said Chris. They get the audience involved too – on January 24 for example Barry Cryer will lead a “kazoo-along” to a rare Felix the Cat and another animated short.

And it is always appreciated: “Time after time, the hosts of the gala evening say, ‘What a lovely audience!’” said Chris.

He thinks it’s because the festival is a unique occasion.

“These films are not on the TV any more so this is the one way that audiences can engage with it. There’s nothing like it – there isn’t anyone alive like Chaplin, and he made his films for the big screen and a live orchestra.

“I feel this is my life work – this is where my heart is.”