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My report for the Spectator Arts Blog from this year’s marvellous Slapstick Festival in Bristol. The photograph of Pierre Étaix with his Aardman Slapstick award is by Adam Johnson.

The secret of comedy? It’s all in the timelessness.

That was the lesson of this weekend’s Slapstick Festival  in Bristol, at least. The event is a cross-generational humour love-in where comics and fans of all ages celebrate visual comedy from the earliest Chaplin shorts to Monty Python, stopping at all points in between, before or since.

There were laughs, the occasional tear, and full-throated appreciation for the deceptively simple art of slapstick. Because, while clowning around in front of a camera may be crowd-pleasing fun, to be part of an audience of hundreds hooting at a pratfall that was executed 95 years ago is an awe-inspiring experience.

There’s more to this business than the odd pie in the face.

In fact, it’s because what our Friday night host, Griff Rhys Jones, called ‘viz biz’ is so enduringly popular that spending a few days at the Slapstick Festival means more than guaranteed belly laughs.

It means entering a rabbit warren of references, influence and inspiration, too. Each gag gives birth to a hundred more, so a simple slip on a banana peel is repeated, reinvented and escalated: backwards, on roller skates, with a wooden leg…  

 

On Saturday night, Sanjeev Bhaskar interviewed one of his comedy heroes, Terry Jones, following a rapturously received screening of Monty Python’s Life of Brian at the Colston Hall. Jones revealed that, for him, the father of comedy was the silent era’s great ‘stone face’, Buster Keaton, the man ‘who made comedy beautiful’ and whose masterpiece The General had been shown at the festival the previous night.

Sadly, Mr Keaton was not in attendance to nominate his own slapstick idol, but we had already been treated to a glimpse of the man he called ‘one of the funniest men in pictures’: Lloyd Hamilton.

Doesn’t ring a bell? Hamilton was a chunky, baby-faced comic who had a large, flat, checked cap and a funny walk. His prissy ‘overgrown boy’ persona was hugely popular in the 1920s and he was praised to skies not just by Keaton but by Charlie Chaplin and Charley Chase.

Don’t know Charley Chase? Graeme Garden, no small potato in the visual comedy world himself, was on hand to introduce the charms of the dapper, moustachioed comic, whose two-reel comedies of embarrassment live happily where farce and situation comedy meet.

That’s how the Slapstick Festival experience works: you’re innocently chuckling at a film you know, and in the very next moment you’re introduced to a comedian of whom you have never heard.

Or, you’re watching a Keystone comedy starring Al St John, thinking how delightful it is to discover an obscure, unsung talent and then you learn that the film is question is directed by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and features a cameo by none other than Keaton himself.

A case in point is the recipient of this year’s Aardman Slapstick award for excellence in visual comedy: an unfamiliar name, but someone with an instantly recognisable and irresistible comic style. The award, as well as the final night of the festival, was dedicated to Pierre Étaix, a French clown and film-maker whose name is almost forgotten now, but who made elegant, romantic, hilarious comedies in the 1960s.

 

He collaborated with Jacques Tati when he started out in the movies, learning by watching the director at work on the set of Mon Oncle, a film to which Étaix contributed designs, gags and a cheeky cameo.

But Étaix’s real comedy apprenticeship started much earlier, as a child entranced by circus clowns and the films of Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard, as well as Keaton and of course Chaplin. One can only imagine how his poor grand-mère reacted when young Pierre snipped a fragment from one of her furs to give himself a precocious Little Tramp moustache.

Having seen beautifully restored prints of his wistful, witty Rupture (1961) and Le Grand Amour (1969) on Sunday night, I hope she knew that her sacrifice was an investment in the future of comedy.

Étaix, now in his 80s, was looking forwards. He commended the Slapstick Festival for cherishing the work of the silent era comedians who came before him, so that they and their jokes can be passed on to the next generation. ‘And don’t forget Harry Langdon!’ he added, prompting yet another ripple of applause.

You know Harry Langdon, don’t you? He’s very like Lloyd Hamilton…


Pamela Hutchinson blogs about silent film at
Silent London.

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