» Slapstick 2012
GOODY TIMES AT SLAPSTICK FESTIVAL 2012
(by Lisa Manekofsky)
Late January 2012 saw the return of Bristol, England’s Slapstick film festival (http://www.slapstick.org.uk ), which this year championed Buster Keaton (a comedy hero and inspiration of The Goodies). Tim, Graeme, and Bill, who have supported the festival in the past, all were able to take part again this year. I am happy to say I was able to attend Slapstick 2012 as well. In this article I will focus on the Goodies-related events, although I did attend many other sessions; I highly encourage others who enjoy early film comedies to consider coming to future Slapstick festivals.
BUSTER KEATON: BROWNLOW AND GARDEN
The festival began on Thursday, 26 January with the event "Buster Keaton: Brownlow and Garden" in which film historian Kevin Brownlow was in conversation with Graeme Garden. The session began with Graeme asking Kevin about his meeting with Keaton in the mid-1960's, about a year before Keaton passed away. Kevin confessed that he was very nervous about meeting Keaton, and was concerned he might be a morose, bitter man (after years of having a high degree of independence in creating his films, Keaton's contract had been given to other studios who increasing took away control of his work and led to a decline in his career). Instead, Kevin said Keaton was someone who laughed a lot and was happy to talk about his work in detail. The audience was treated to a brief extract from the audio recording Kevin had made during this initial interview.
I was delighted to learn that Kevin was the man behind the three-part documentary "Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow" – this had been my introduction to Keaton (as, it turns out, it was for Festival director Chris Daniels as well). We were treated to a lengthy extract from the documentary, with the promise that more would be shown at the Keaton session the next afternoon. At the conclusion of the extract Graeme made the observation that, unlike many of Keaton's contemporaries (such as Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplain), Keaton never looked into the camera to appeal to the audience but instead seemed more in his own world. Kevin told Graeme he was going to steal that idea and quickly made a note of it (which got a good laugh from the audience)
THE GOODIES…AND SOME UNTOLD KAPERS
On Friday morning I had the opportunity to see Jenny Doyle's art exhibition "The Goodies…and Some Untold Kapers" at the Centrespace Gallery in Bristol, a few minute's walk from the festival venues. I'd seen some of Jenny's Goodies-themed artwork online and was eager to view it in person. Jenny was kind enough to grant me permission to post one of the photos on The Goodies Facebook page (at http://tinyurl.com/7wo2elo ). I had fun seeing the show and spending time with Jenny that morning.
BUSTER KEATON: "A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW"
Next on the agenda was "BUSTER KEATON: "A Hard Act to Follow", in which Kevin Brownlow continued his informative presentation about Keaton and showed more extracts from his documentary. Graeme joined us in the audience this time, and shortly before the session began I saw Tim Brooke-Taylor enter the theater, followed a minute or two later by Bill Oddie. It was fun to be able to glance around and see all three Goodies in the room (and nice that they were getting an opportunity to sit and enjoy the show themselves). The screening was followed by an informative Q&A.
SILENT COMEDY SPECTACULAR
(the Festival Gala Evening)
Knowing that the Goodies were now in town I thought I might see them in the crowd at the festival gala that evening, an event that was to feature a showing of Buster Keaton's film "The General" accompanied by a new score performed live by the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. However, I was surprised when I entered the lobby of Colston Hall and immediately ran into Graeme, Tim, and Tim's wife Christine. We had a brief chat before heading upstairs to the main hall, where I met up with Jenny. Once Jenny and I made our way to our seats we saw that Tim, Christine and Graeme were sitting nearby, to be joined shortly thereafter by Bill. They were having a comfortable chat while waiting for the show to start.
Griff Rhys Jones was the host for the gala and did a fantastic job. He seemed to be having a marvelous time and to be genuinely excited about being part of the evening – in talking about slapstick comedy he even did a pratfall for us, noting that it still hurt as much as it did when he was younger. He also spoke about having done a George Feydeau farce adapted by Graeme Garden (I believe this was the play "Horse & Carriage").
The first half of the evening featured shorts by Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplain, plus several songs performed live by The Matinee Idles in tribute to silent comedy stars, with "The General" to be shown following an intermission.
During the intermission Tim, Christine, and Graeme had left their seats so Jenny and I went over to say hello to Bill. While we were chatting I mentioned that one of the films had reminded me of the old silent film staple of a movie villain tying a woman to a railroad track. Bill mused that they'd never gotten around to doing that on "The Goodies"; we both agree that, if they had, the damsel in distress would have been Tim in a dress.
GRAEME GARDEN ON CHARLEY CHASE
After a wonderful evening, and a good night's sleep, Saturday brought more delights. The first session I attended that day was "Graeme Garden on Charley Chase". In introducing the event, Chris Daniels explained that Graeme had hosted a session on Harry Langdon last year which, in terms of feedback, was one of the highlights of Slapstick 2011. Therefore, he'd asked Graeme if there were any other comedians he'd like to explore this year, resulting in this session.
Graeme began by holding up several sheets of paper and saying these contained everything he knew about Charley Chase so there wouldn't be a question and answer session at the end (getting his first laugh of the day). As always, Graeme's sessions are informative and amusing. In the era of silent movies Charley Chase had been as big a star as Charlie Chaplain, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton (indeed, if you see the current film "Hugo", which is set in those days, you may notice a prominent poster for a Charley Chase film on the wall of a theater visited by two of the main characters). This session provided an excellent glimpse as to why that was the case. It was interesting to see how Chase had a different type of character and approach to the comic situations than many of his contemporaries. We also learned that, in addition to being an actor, Chase also was a successful director in that era. I hope to see more of his work in the future.
HAROLD LLOYD: DOUBLE BILL
Next up was a double bill of films by Harold Lloyd, presented by The Goodies' friend and Tim & Graeme's "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" cast mate Barry Cryer. Barry was entertaining as always. In introducing Lloyd's work he spoke about the skill behind many of his gags, pointing out how complex sequences of jokes were executed deceivingly smoothly. As with the other sessions, it was great fun to see these films with an audience and live accompaniment.
BILL ODDIE'S TOP COMEDY MOMENTS IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS SERLE
After Barry's session many of us made our way to the next venue for "Bill Oddie's Top Comedy Moments in conversation with Chris Serle" (Chris seems to be making something of a career of interviewing Goodies – he's also joining Tim for his "An Audience With Tim Brooke-Taylor" events (http://www.celebrityproductions.info/displayer_productions.php/280/ ) this year. Joining the rest of the audience were Tim, Graeme, and Barry.
Bill began the session by explaining that despite this being a silent comedy festival he was going to cheat a bit and instead choose musical clips, most involving dance as well (his "all signing/all dancing top comedy moments"). Bill said music has driven a lot of his life; it wasn't in his house growing up, but it was supposedly his ambition in going through school. He spoke about having to do a musical performance in primary school, when he was about 6, for the teachers and parents; in secondary school he wrote the school show. In writing songs for school reviews, and later for the Cambridge Footlights shows, he wrote parodies of popular songs of the time (such as rock songs), which he explained was something other people weren't doing then.
Despite not being able to play an instrument himself, Bill estimated he had written about 300 songs. Many of these were for the radio series "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again", for which he initially provided two songs a week. Bill explained his process of recording the various parts of the song (the rhythm, melody, etc.) into a tape recorder and then working with a "very patient" musician in translating that to a finished product.
As far as dancing, Bill revealed he'd recently been asked to appear in "Dancing with the Stars". He'd asked his family for their advice; one of his daughters, who is a dancer, told him to forget it as he'd kill himself if he tried. After that his wife and other daughters could not be convinced that his doing the show was a good idea, so he'd declined the offer.
Bill's first choice of clips was the act Wilson, Keppel and Betty performing a sand dance. This was followed by a 20 second clip from the Goodies episode "Saturday Night Grease" of the Goodies and their pursuing policeman performing sand dances.
Next up was "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" from the Marx Brothers film "Animal Crackers". Bill said he'd never really gotten the Marx Brothers but he did like some of their musical numbers. He said he found it funny when seemingly normal people suddenly burst into song. Another thing he likes, as shown in this song, is the extended ending – a fake ending when you think the song is over, but it really isn't.
Bill previously has said he was a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, so it was no surprise that their song from "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" was the next clip shown.
This was followed by an excerpt from the Warner Brothers cartoon "Bugs Bunny Rides Again", including a wonderful piece of cartoon logic like that later used in "The Goodies". Bugs and Yosemite Sam are having a showdown; Sam orders Bugs to "Dance!" while firing at his feet. Bugs grabs a cane and straw hat from off-screen and does a soft shoe routine; he then says "Take it, Sam!" Sam, after a moment's surprise, breaks into the same dance (concluding with him dancing into an open mine shaft). Bill commented that he loved the cartoon logic that when a character is told to "take it!" there isn't an option not to dance.
Continuing the animation theme, the next entry on Bill's list was the opening number from the film "South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut", the song "Mountain Town". Bill liked that this was a parody of the clichéd "morning song" from musicals, such as those where people were going off to work and singing good morning to their neighbors and people they passed in the streets.
Bill's next choice was a number from satirist Tom Lehrer, the song "Poising Pigeons in the Park". Bill explained that he was drawn to people singing daft songs, and Lehrer's were very satirical and witty. Bill noted that he admired this particular song so much he did a version for the radio show "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again"; he said that was called "Persecuting Pigeons in the Park" and was "the most obvious case of plagiarism". In all fairness to Bill, the actual title of his ISIRTA song was "Persecuting Pigeons in Trafalgar Square", and even though it was highly inspired by Lehrer's number it is a fun and catchy song in its own right – you can hear it in Goodies Podcast 62 (the special edition in honor of Bill's 70th birthday last year) at http://goodiespodcast.libsyn.com/webpage/goodies-podcast-62-bill-oddie-turns-70- .
Chris asked about the two songs Bill had recorded for John Peel's Dandelion label ("On Ilkla Moor Baht'at" and "Harry Krishna"). Bill said that he'd recorded those at John's request; he was touched to learn that this single was included in John's box of records which were particularly special to him.
Being asked about the hits he'd written for The Goodies, Bill joked that he'd given Graeme the chance to be a pop singer on Top of the Pops but "he hadn't taken it", adding that in performing "Funky Gibbon" on that show Graeme had never been so embarrassed in all his life.
The story behind Bill's next selection was a surprise to me. In setting up a clip from "West Side Story", Bill explained that when the film came out (when he was in 6th form at school) he used to go see it every few weeks, adding that he couldn't get any of his friends to come see it with him because it was a musical. Bill said he knew every word of it and would sing all the parts. He could do a lot of the dance movements as well. He recalled being embarrassed once, when he was leaping around doing some of the dance steps in the street in front of his house one day when his dad came home and saw him.
The song he selected from "West Side Story" was "Officer Krupke", which Bill described as fantastically witty. He quoted a saying that the function of a song in a musical is not to stop the plot, but to be further along in the story by the end of the song.
Another famous musical followed – the "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence from the film "Singing in the Rain". Bill noted Donald O'Connor's amazing athletic ability, with his ability to sing, dance, and act all at once in this demanding sequence.
Moving on to a musical of a different sort, next came a song from "Little Shop of Horrors", Steve Martin performing "Dentist!". Bill explained that he and his wife had initially seen the play "Little Shop of Horrors" when it was off Broadway, a few months before it became a massive hit. He described it as the best shown they'd even seen, and gave the surprising trivia that the "Little Shop" writers had gone on to write music for Disney films such as "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast", and "Aladdin". Bill added they judge people at the Oddie house by whether or not they like "Little Shop of Horrors".
The next clip was from a musical of a different sort, the original 1968 film of "The Producers" - the wonderful "Springtime for Hitler" (for anyone unfamiliar with the film, I'll explain that it involves a scheme by two Broadway producers who realize they can make more money with a flop than a hit, so they set out to a guaranteed failure).
Chris stated they'd saved The Goodies for last. He asked Bill whether "The Goodies" had been the BBC's idea, to which Bill laughingly replied "The BBC doesn't have ideas – you know better than that. They are there to make your wages smaller and eventually fire you".
When asked about the three characters, Bill reply was that Graeme's character was "professorial, very clever, and probably doesn't have very interesting sex life. But capable of making strange monsters and therefore could have an interesting sex life" (this was said with a laugh). Tim was the posh one who denies that completely – Bill said that was based a bit on the fact Tim was the only one who owned a suit at the time. Tim's character was also the patriotic one. Bill described his own character as hippie-ish, or whatever the equivalent of that was in those days.
When Chris asked how close the Goodies' characters were to the men themselves, Bill said he would allow the people concerned (Tim and Graeme were seated in the front row) to reply. The exchange went as follows:
Chris: How close was your character to yourself?
Graeme: "Miles away"
Tim: "I hated my character"
Bill: "I hated his character too" (which got a huge laugh)
After getting in his joke, Bill said that he rather liked his own character; he got to do outrageous things.
Chris then asked if it was nice getting to do the two 45 minute Goodies specials, which would have afforded a larger budget. Bill said it was, and this was followed by musical clips from those specials – the "Wild Things" sequence from "Goodies Rule – OK?" and, from "The Goodies and the Beanstalk", their performance of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". Both of these were well received. When Chris asked about the stop motion animation used in "The Goodies" Bill was happy to have a chance to credit Jim Franklin's huge contribution to the show. Bill agreed that these days they can do special effects more easily via a computer, but he doesn't think the result is as funny as the old fashioned techniques.
Asked if he had the chance to live his life again would he want to be a pop star Bill said no, he doesn't think he'd enjoy that lifestyle. Instead, what he does wish he'd done was to learn music properly.
The session concluded with Bill replying to a question about his current projects by saying he didn't have any, although there were things he'd like to do if asked. However, he was doing a lot of travel and conservation/charity work, which he found very rewarding.
HE'S NOT THE MESSIAH HE'S...TERRY JONES! - MONTY PYTHON'S TERRY JONES PRESENTS LIFE OF BRIAN.
Given that many Goodies fans are Monty Python fans as well I'll make brief mention of that evening's entertainment, "He's Not The Messiah He's...TERRY JONES! - Monty Python's Terry Jones presents LIFE OF BRIAN." Once again we were gathered in Colston Hall to view a classic comedy. When Terry Jones was introduced prior to the film he asked the audience how many people already had seen "Life of Brian". After a large number of hands went up, Terry said he didn't need to tell us about the film then and pretended to walk offstage. After getting his laugh he came back and said he'd tell us some stuff we might not have seen in the film before, and proceeded to point out several errors they hadn't caught while making the movie. This included a large electrical cable in the background of the manger scene and a man walking around in the background during the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
When the film began we had our own unique error – across the bottom third of the large, movie theater sized screen were impossible to ignore subtitles (in English, echoing the actors' words as they spoke them). After a few sentences the DVD's options menu popped up in the corner of the screen and we could see that the projectionist turning off the subtitles. They disappeared from the screen, resulting in a huge cheer from the audience. I was enjoying the film so much I'd forgotten about blooper spotting, so in the finale I was momentarily surprised when a huge laugh went up in the middle of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". Then I remembered why, and glancing at the background I saw the man in contemporary 1970's clothing wandering around behind the biblical era dressed actors – I would have loved to have been in the room the first time the Pythons became aware of that!
At the conclusion of the film Terry Jones returned to stage with Sanjeev Bhaskar for a question and answer session. This ended with Neil Innes coming on stage to play the piano so that we could all sing "Happy Birthday" to Terry (whose birthday was a few days later); then everyone got to sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (with the lyrics displayed on the screen) along with Terry, Neil, and Sanjeev.
ROBERT ROSS AND TIM BROOKE-TAYLOR BOOK SIGNING
Sunday brought an unexpected treat – one of the venues, the Arnolfini, arranged for Robert Ross and Tim Brooke-Taylor to do a book signing for "Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comedy Legend", Robert's recently published book for which Tim was a contributor (the Arnolfini has an excellent bookshop featuring titles on art and culture). Unfortunately, the signing was arranged on fairly short notice (with even Tim and Robert only finding out about it a few days before!) and wasn't well publicized. Jenny and I learned about it from one of Robert's tweets and showed up early to score a good place in line. In fact we were sufficiently early that we *were* the line for a while, and we were able to greet Tim when he arrived to set up. As the start time for the signing approached we all began to wonder where Robert was, until someone realized he must be in the Arnolfini's theater (right next to the lobby where the book signing was to take place), watching a session on Charlie Chaplin. Which, as it turned out, was running late… Tim made jokes about his having turned out for the signing while the author was missing, and pretended to look in the book's index to see how many times he got mentioned. It really wasn't a problem, though, because there weren't many people waiting to have their books signed until the Chaplin session let out. Robert had indeed been in there and quickly made his way to the autograph table, at which point more people joined the queue behind Jenny and me.
The signing worked out perfectly for me – I'd been meaning to buy the Marty book, and now here was the opportunity to do so and to get it signed by the author and a Goody! It was also lovely to see Robert Ross again; we've met a few times in the past, but I hadn't seen him in a few years. Jenny and I got our books signed, and even had a chance for a brief meeting with Terry Jones (who'd also been to the Chaplin session), before heading on to the next event.
BUSTER KEATON: YOUNG KEATON
The last of the Buster Keaton themed events of the festival was "Buster Keaton: Young Keaton", described as a session in which "festival patrons and Keaton admirers Bill, Tim, Barry and Ian have each selected a short to reveal Keaton at his freshest, most spontaneous and inventive". Graeme got to sit this one out, after having presented two other sessions, but was front and center to see his friends at work.
For this event, the presenters were introduced one at a time. Each spoke about their enthusiasm for Keaton's work and then introduced one of his short films, which was accompanied by Stephen Horne on the piano and other musical instruments.
Ian Lavender (who'd played Pike in "Dad's Army") went first and introduced the film "The Boat". This was followed by Tim who introduced "The Scarecrow", saying he thought it was one of Keaton's best short films. Keaton has said if he hadn't followed the career he did he would have liked to have been an engineer; Tim said he could see that, based on the design work that went into his films.
Barry was the next presenter and introduced the film "Convict 13". Concluding the session was Bill and his choice, "Cops".
Like the other attendees, I congratulate all those involved in organizing another wonderful festival!
Slapstick 2012 signs (the full poster and a close-up of the names)
Tim Brooke-Taylor and Robert Ross at the "Marty" biography book signing
Graeme and Bill with their fellow Slapstick 2012 guests – back row: Neil Innes, the Python’s music-maker; Chris Serle and Dad’s Army veteran Ian ‘Stupid Boy’ Lavender; front row, Paul McGann, left, with Barry Cryer, far right. Not sure what they’re shushing. Maybe Tim’s whereabouts or what each will choose as a favourite from the 17 events events in this year’s festival programme.
Photo courtesy of Slapstick Festival