» Slapstick 2010
(by Lisa Manekofsky)
(from C&G 171 – February 2010)
On January 21-24, 2010 I attended the Slapstick 2010 festival in Bristol, England. Among the special guests taking part in the events were Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, and their friend and "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue" cast mate, Barry Cryer.
Over the course of four days the attendees were treated to wonderful films, interesting & informative speakers, and live accompaniment for the silent films from world class musicians.
SLAPSTICK GALA WITH MICHAEL PALIN (Something Almost Completely Different):
The festival was launched with a gala evening featuring Graeme Garden interviewing Monty Python's Michael Palin about his career in comedy. After the two men settled info comfy chairs on stage Graeme recap parts of Michael's career, interspersed with related question and collections of clips from his work. As to his early influences, Michael said the comedies he saw while growing up were Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges, Abbot & Costello, and the cartoons shown along with movies in those days (which he noted were more violent than the live films & shorts).
When the discussion reached the latter half of the 1960's Graeme mentioned the television show "Twice A Fortnight" (which he and Bill Oddie worked on along with Michael and his writing partner, Terry Jones); Michael told Graeme "you probably remember more than me about it because you were in it". "Broaden Your Mind" (Tim & Graeme's show which also included contributions from Palin & Jones) also got a passing mention before "Do Not Adjust Your Set" was cited as the next step in Michael's career. At this point, Graeme explained they were going to show a few clips on the large screen behind the stage (the first of many clips shown that evening) including footage from "Twice a Fortnight" and "Do Not Adjust Your Set". There were the Palin/Jones short film "Battle of Hastings" from TAF and a brief sketch from DNAYS of two men (one of them being Michael) carrying a patient on a stretcher in which it's revealed that one of the carriers is also the patient.
Moving into the Monty Python's Flying Circus years, the clips included a montage of three appearances of Michael as the "It's" man (a bedraggled, bearded figured who'd try to introduce episodes by saying "It's" before being cut off), the man with a tape recorder up his nose, the Spanish Inquisition (which got a cheer from the audience), and the Fish Slapping Dance (which got a huge laugh). Also included was the lecture on slapstick from "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl" (with Terry Gilliam hitting Terry Jones and Michael Palin with a plank to demonstrate lecturer Graham Chapman's scholarly discourse on physical comedy).
As their conversation resumed Graeme made an interesting remark, as one comedy professional observing another's work – he said that with "Monty Python's Flying Circus" Python had good branding, both via the use of Terry Gilliam's graphics and the way they ended sketches without a punch line. He asked Michael if it made it harder or was more freeing to work without a traditional structure. Michael replied that it was more freeing, because if the writers had some really funny sketch fragments they could graft them together and still use them.
For the next part of Michael's career they showed the Biggus Dickus clip from "Life of Brian", a scene from "Brazil", and the scenes from "A Fish Called Wanda" in which his animal-loving character kept killing off an old woman's dogs in his attempts to murder her; these were spread out throughout the montage, between the other clips, creating a running joke which successfully revved up the laughs for the final sequence.
Graeme concluded the interview portion of the evening by telling Michael, "I could sit here talking to you for...money" (which earned him a big laugh) and then brought on Neil Innes, who had a gold envelope which would reveal who won the Aardman/Slapstick Silent Comedy Award for Excellence in the field of hilarity – not that there was much suspense, given that Michael was the only visible candidate. In addition, this announcement was followed by the playing of a number of congratulatory videos for Michael, which started with an on-screen title saying Michael had won the award! ;)
Among the people appearing in the videos were Sanjeev Bhaskar (from "The Kumars at No. 42") who, like many to follow, said how funny Michael's travel shows are; Sanjeev then held up his previously hidden hands to show they were bound with rope and asked if he could be untied now that he'd done as he was told. Terry Jones was next and also did a joke about Michael's travel shows. Terry Gilliam said some nice things, and then pretended he thought it was a memorial video. This was followed by Barry Cryer, who was seen from the back, sitting in a chair talking to an off-screen interviewer and apparently just learning he was being asked to talk about Michael Palin, not Sarah Palin. He then obligingly said how he remembered Michael from "The Goodies" and "The Black & White Minstrel Show" before turning around to face the camera and wishing sincere congratulations (before pretending to try to return to talking about Sarah Palin and being cut off). There were recorded phone messages, first from Alan Bennett and then from Paul Whitehouse, who said nice things but then pretended to try to get Harry Enfield, who was with him, to say something nice but apparently failed in the attempt. Due to sound problems that evening (which I know the organizers did their best to correct, as I was seated behind the sound board and noted their efforts throughout the evening) it was very difficult to hear the phone messages. Tim Brooke-Taylor finally got his turn, being his charming and enthusiastic self. In his congratulatory video he explained that the character he played in "Absolute Power" was based on Michael; he also gleefully thanked Michael for writing the lecture on slapstick sketch which was used in "Cambridge Circus" theatrical run, allowing him to hit Bill & Jonathan Lynn with a plank every evening.
After the videos Neil Innes returned to stage and, after milking it a bit, finally opened the golden envelope to reveal…that Terry Gilliam had won the prize for the "most obscure" tribute. Of course, that was quickly revealed to be a joke. Two men, including one from Aardman, came out to give Michael the award. It was shown on the screen - in a glass globe was Aardman's Morph character customized to look like Michael's Monty Python's Flying Circus It's Man (in tattered suit and holding a bomb, as was shown in one of the clips earlier in the evening, in a nice piece of coordination). Michael seemed sincerely delighted and touched when he noticed this. He said he would treasure this always, but then couldn't resist doing a fake trip and pretending to almost drop the award when walking away from the microphone.
Graeme turned to Neil, to ask how they got out of this (to get them off stage). Neil, with guitar, explained that as we were going into the interval they were going to sing Python's "The Philosopher's Song", to send the audience off to the bar. The lyrics were put on the screen for the audience, Michael and Neil sung along from the front of the stage (with Michael urging on the audience) while Graeme stood at the rear of the stage and consulted a printed version of the lyrics (reminding me of his singing along to "The Lumberjack Song" in "At Her Majesty's Pleasure").
After the interval Graeme returned onstage to introduce Buster Keaton's film "The Navigator" (and the live musical ensemble who would be accompanying the silent film). Graeme gave a little background and trivia about the film, including saying there was a non-PC part at the end in when a number of black actors played cannibals; he tried to mitigate that by explaining the actor playing the chief went on to use his income to found a company which made films for a black audience showing non-caricatured characters. Graeme left the stage, the film started to roll, and from where I was sitting I noticed slip into a seat in the audience to enjoy the film. At the conclusion of the movie he came back on stage to ensure the orchestra got their ovations (which the audience had been doing enthusiastically before then anyway) and to wrap up the evening.
LAUREL & HARDY: CLASSICS & RARITIES:
Hosted by Graeme Garden and silent comedy expert David Wyatt
As with other festival events over the weekend, hosting duties were shared by a witty comedian and a silent comedy historian. Graeme spoke about his earliest memory of seeing Laurel and Hardy on television, a scene from their film "Swiss Miss" in which Oliver Hardy and a slightly drunk Stan Laurel are trying to delivery their "signature prop", a piano, over a swaying rope bridge high in the Swiss Alps only to encounter a gorilla. The young Graeme was struck by the incongruity of a gorilla appearing in the Alps (rather than in a jungle picture); such surreal scenes were surely an inspiration for his future work.
Graeme and David spoke about Laurel and Hardy's separate paths to Hollywood and how they made films as solo performers before being teamed up. Rare film sequences were shown, including some that had been obtained from the British Film archives. In some cases the footage was the only remaining pieces from a film – for example, a very short colour scene with L&H that had been saved by an American projectionist from "The Rouge Song", from which very little footage survives. A portion of an early Stan Laurel solo film, "Pick and Shovel" was also screened, allowing Graeme and David to talk about what a different type of character Laurel had played compared to his more famous persona in the films with Hardy.
Another interesting film was "Putting Pants on Philip", an early pairing of Laurel and Hardy when their film studio was experimenting with combinations of its various actors. In this film, Hardy played a respected member of the community who was constantly embarrassed by his nephew Philip (played by Laurel), who had just arrived in the US from Scotland. In his introduction to the film Graeme mentioned we'd be seeing a kilted Stan Laurel in a fairly risqué variation of what later become an iconic image for Marilyn Monroe from her film "The Seven Year Itch", in which her shirt is blown up by air from a subway grating. Given that the film was from 1927 I wasn't expecting anything too naughty – boy, was I mistaken! Philip is walking down a city street and multiple times his kilt is blown up by street gratings, revealing his boxer shorts to the amused crowd following him (apparently fascinated by his attire and behavior). At one point Philip unknowingly loses his shorts; the next time he walks over a grating – off camera – we see the shocked reaction from the crowd, including several fainting women!
In speaking about surviving Laurel & Hardy footage, Graeme and David explained that some material was saved thanks to its inclusion in documentaries such as 1958's "The Golden Age of Comedy". Graeme humorously described his frustration at seeing such films because of annoying voiceovers, which would often spoil the jokes by prematurely saying things like "uh oh, he better watch out for that custard pie!". Speaking of which, Graeme and David discussed how hitting people with custard pies, which was credited as having been devised by Hal Roach, was already a cliché by Laurel and Hardy's time; the duo decided to take it to the ultimate ridiculous level with a massive pie fight scene in their film "The Battle of the Century", a portion of which was shown. Again, I got the impression that the thinking which went into "how can we do something new with this old chestnut?" in these early films was another source of inspiration for Graeme.
THE REAL FRED KARNO
Hosted by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Tony Staveacre (author of "Slapstick!")
I'd noticed Tim in the audience for Graeme's "Laurel and Hardy" session; he slipped out a little before the end to dash over to a nearby venue for his hosting stint, which began shortly after the end of Graeme's. While waiting in line to enter the "Fred Karno" session we saw Graeme join the audience queue; Barry Cryer was also in attendance, seated in the front row.
If the Staveacre name sounds familiar, it is because Tony is the brother of Dermot Staveacre, a name often used in Tim's 1967 sketch series "At Last the 1948 Show". Tony the comedy historian joined Tim, whose quick wit and charm helped keep the session moving along, in telling the audience about the now largely forgotten Fred Karno, a showman and impresario who is credited with discovering Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and others.
After a brief introduction we were treated to a documentary about Karno which focused the luxury hotel (the Karsino) he had built on an island in the Thames River around 1912. The film gave an overview of Karno's career and had 1970's interviews with some of the people who had been among his stable of performers. The documentary concluded with the 1971 destruction of the now dilapidated Karsino building, which was being torn down after years of neglect. Prior to the wrecking crew moving in the hotel hosted its final grand function – a reception including some of Karno's alumni along with notables from the time. Briefly seen seated at one of the round tables were none other than Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor (I also may have spotted the back of Bill's head at the same table).
After the documentary we were treated to some other clips. Sadly there were no recordings of Karno's shows, but some of the sketches that were performed by his troops were adapted for films and, as Tony explained, were the closest we'd get to seeing the originals. Thus they showed a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film in which a theater audience is revolting against truly dreadful performers; Chaplin's character leaves his theater box to disrupt a performance, which meets with great appreciation and laughter from the on-screen audience. We were also shown a clip from a Flanagan & Allen film, with Tony explaining that the sketch from Karno's theatrical show had to be stretched out for the film, destroying much of the timing and humor of the original.
During the presentation Tim made some interesting observations based upon what he had read or heard about Karno. Tim said the man appeared to be extremely skilled in what he did, but not a particularly nice person to work for. As to the first point, Tim explained that he'd taken part in slapstick sequences (both on television and in performing in farces on stage); a director might seem to be making a picky point about exactly where to stand and where to look but Tim had learned that seemingly wild scenes had to be carefully choreographed or they didn't work correctly. Karno was certainly a master of this art. Tim also pointed out that Karno was claimed to be the inventor of the pie throwing gag, and even though Graeme and David Wyatt had just said in the previous session (on Laurel & Hardy) that Hal Roach had invented that iconic routine Tim was willing to fight them on that point (said with a big smile at his friend Graeme).
As to Karno not being a nice man, Tim gave an extremely illustrative example. He said that Karno informed his first wife he was leaving her by sending her photos of himself with his girlfriend in which both of them were in the nude and posed in a series of compromising positions. The conversation moved on and, about twenty minutes later, Tony was taking questions from the audience. Someone asked if he'd been able to interview any of Karno's family while writing his book, "Slapstick". Tony replied yes, he'd been in contact with (I believe) Karno's daughter, and then added that a member of Karno's family was in the audience; he asked her to raise her hand. It turned out to be a young girl (perhaps around 10 years old), who was a great great grandniece; she gave a big smile to the audience. Upon seeing how young she was I immediately thought of Tim's story – he must have as well, because as soon as he got an opportunity he explained that the story he told was something he'd read but didn't know about personally (poor Timbo!)
At the conclusion of the session Tony said that the gentleman he'd interview for the documentary we'd seen earlier, who had been one of Karno's performers, kindly left Tony his notebooks of gags. Tony started to say that it was important to speak with elderly performers while they were still around, to learn about their old material (in order to preserve it), when he noticed white-haired Barry Cryer sitting in the front row and immediately said, in an apologetic manner, something like "I didn't mean you, Barry". Never one to miss an opportunity, Barry immediately got up and pretended to walk out in a huff, earning him a huge burst of laughter from the audience. Barry turned before reaching the door with a huge smile on his face and happily returned to his seat.
It was mentioned during the session that Tony's book "Slapstick!" is long out of print but used copies can be found via Amazon and other retailers.
BARRY CRYER: THE LOST GENIUS OF KENNY EVERETT
Barry Cryer co-presented a session on Kenny Everett, a popular British DJ who went on to star in a successful television series featuring innovative visual humor. Barry demonstrated his incredible memory (and kept the audience well entertained) by recounting amusing stories of working with Kenny.
Barry's co-presenter explained it had been difficult to find clips of Kenny's television series to show during the session, despite the fact the series had run for many years. Barry said it was frustrating, he'd like to see Kenny's television series released on DVD as well as "The Goodies" and other shows – after all, the British people had paid for these with their television license fees and they deserved to see the shows that were locked up in the archives. I'm sure a lot of the audience was nodding in agreement!
DESERT ISLAND SLAPSTICK
Tim, Graeme, and Barry were invited by chairman David Robinson to answer the question, "If you were stuck on a desert island with only one silent comedy to keep you company, which would you choose?"
Graeme was up first, and explained he'd actually chosen a film that he wanted to see that evening as he'd only seen parts of it before. His choice was Harry Langdon's "Boobs in the Woods" (Graeme had to quickly explain that at the time the film was made "boobs" meant "idiots"). He spoke a little about how Harry Langdon used to be as big a name in silent movies as his contemporaries Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but that Langdon's films had somehow fallen by the wayside. Graeme then rejoined the audience to watch to film with the rest of us.
Barry's turn was next – like Graeme, he had chosen a film he'd wanted to see rather than a favorite that he'd seen before. His choice was a film by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Barry and David briefly spoke about the sad tale of Arbuckle, who had been a huge star in the days of early cinema until he was accused of a crime involving an alleged attack on an actress who attended one of his parties. This lead to a huge scandal and the destruction of Arbuckle's career and reputation; by the time Arbuckle was found innocent after his third trial his films had been banned; to this day some people refuse to show or view them.
The Fatty Arbuckle film shown that evening was "Coney Island', whose cast included Arbuckle's protégé, Buster Keaton. This lead nicely to Tim's selection; he came on stage at the conclusion of the film to talk about his choice, which of course was to feature his hero Keaton. Tim spoke about how interesting Barry's choice had been because in "Coney Island" Keaton's character had laughed, cried, and showed other emotions; later Keaton would become known as "The Great Stone Face" for playing his classic physical comedy with a stoic, deadpan expression. Tim explained that Keaton had learned, while performing on stage as a child, that he'd get more laughs that way. He also spoke about his admiration for Keaton, including his amazing physical performances in which Keaton never used a stuntman. Tim's choice, which he had seen (and which he urged the audience to "vote for" with a cheeky smile), was Keaton's short "Neighbors" – if I remember correctly, Tim said it wasn't Keaton's funniest film but perhaps was one of his cleverest. A clip from this film was shown during Tim's BBC Breakfast interview (as seen at http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/bristol/hi/people_and_places/arts_and_culture/newsid_8470000/8470005.stm).
After "Neighbors", all three panelists joined David on stage to wrap up the session (with Tim again asking the audience to vote for his selection in the non-existent election ;) and took a few questions from the audience (including Graeme answering that "The Goodies" was definitely influenced by Laurel and Hardy but that they didn't use L&H's technique of looking at the camera). Then they mentioned the final event of the festival, which was to following in the same venue after a short dinner interval – thanks to Neil Innes' participation in the festival they were going to show "The Rutles: All You Need is Cash", a parody of The Beatles story with Eric Idle and Neil. Barry said he was in "The Rutles" but "if you blink you'll miss me". With perfect timing, Graeme immediately said to the audience, "get ready to blink" (which got a huge laugh).
Neil Innes did introduce "The Rutles" and gave the best link they'd been able to come up with to justify the show's inclusion in the Slapstick festival. He explained the special had been a spin off from a sketch in Eric Idle's series "Rutland Weekend Television", which was a parody of a scene from The Beatles film "A Hard Day's Night", which in turn came from AHDN's director Richard Lester's silent 1960 short "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film". Neil, if you ever read this, here's another tiny "justification" – in the Rutles film the cover of their "Tragical History Tour" album includes the song "W.C. Fields Forever". ;)
Even if there was only a tenuous reason to show "The Rutles" that evening there were obviously lots of Rutles fans in the audience who heartily enjoyed the show – and who gave a big cheer when Barry appeared on screen. At the end of the special Neil came on stage to perform what he called "[Rutle] Ron Nasty's Final Song", a parody of "Imagine" called "Imitation Song", and thus ended a wonderful festival.
Many thanks to all involved in putting on such a wonderful event!