Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns

The Belfast Film Festival provides a welcome window into the silent past - and present

Paul Merton ambles up and tells a joke about Irish workmen. It’s corny, but the crowd loves it. With his dry wit and deadpan delivery, Merton is one of the few comedians who could get away with it.

The English funnyman has come to the unlikely setting of the Cityside Mall – formerly the Yorkgate centre – to present the opening night of Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns as part of the Belfast Film Festival. The touring show is a labour of love for Merton, whose obsession with silent film comedy also gave us a BBC Four series and an authoritative book on the subject.

World-renowned pianist Neil Brand accompanies the moving pictures with a live soundtrack. Merton, during one of his brief introductions, comments that the music brings out different qualities in the films, that they’re ‘no longer a fixed thing’. With two months of Steamboat Bill Jr. ahead of him it’s probably just as well.

The Buster Keaton classic is the centrepiece of the evening. The 1928 feature is famous for the scene in which the star stands motionless as a building façade collapses around him. The attic window fits neatly around Keaton’s body as it falls, coming within inches of the actor, who performed the stunt himself. ‘We’ll see if it hits him,’ says Merton. ‘It usually doesn’t.’

Admirably, the presenter remains in the auditorium for the films, smiling at the screen and accompanying Brand with a few strums on a banjo. He even takes latecomers in good humour. ‘We’ve gone from 1895 to 1923,’ he informs a group of stragglers, ‘but it’s not been too bad.’

There are short movies by silent-era legends Charles Chaplin (1916’s The Pawnshop – ‘That’s “pawn”, as in p-a-w-n’) and Laurel and Hardy (Wrong Again, from 1929). However, it’s the more obscure gems which steal the show, notably 1923’s It’s a Gift in which Australian slapstick merchant Snub Pollard plays the inventor of a car that runs by magnet power.

A French short from 1905 shows a hapless busker being attacked with sledgehammers, a wardrobe and a water hose, while continuing to play his cello. The mounting violence and comic cutaways are decades ahead of their time. ‘Whoever made it is a comedy genius,’ reckons Merton, ‘and we don’t know who did make it.’

Another French work, produced in Nice in 1908, features a clarinet player whose instrument becomes lodged in the back of his head. More than a century later it’s still painful to watch, with astounding special effects. ‘This was six years before the Keystone Cops,’ notes Merton.

There’s also room for the host’s own 2000 directorial effort, The Suicidal Dog, starring Steve Steen and Tilly Vosburgh. It’s a tad overlong but is received well by the diverse audience of eight to 80, proving the art of silent comedy isn’t quite ancient history yet.

The paperback edition of Silent Comedy by Paul Merton is published on May 7 by Arrow Books, and is available to pre-order online and from quality bookshops, priced £9.99.

Andrew Johnston