Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns

21 Apr 2009 in Dance & Drama, Highland

Empire Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, 19 April 2009

Paul Merton

COMEDY is perhaps the most fleeting of all art forms, laughter hangs in the air for a moment and then evaporates leaving little trace on the memory. Unlike music, where a particular piece can evoke emotion time and time again, comedy looses its initial impact when viewed again.

Possibly this is the explanation for the fascination of many comedians for the roots of their art, expressing a need to find longevity in what appears to exist only in the moment. Many performers have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the work of the comedians who have been before them. In this respect, Paul Merton is follows in a well-trodden path with his fascination for the days of silent comedy.

Merton took the Eden Court audience on a leisurely ramble through the antics of comedians whose only monument might be a few minutes of grainy celluloid film and the ability to make an audience laugh fifty years after their passing.

Merton opened the show with a short French film from 1905 showing a cello player whose efforts are so poor he is assailed by all around him. The name of the person who made the film is lost in time but the undoubted comic genius remains.

What was fascinating about this show was the accompaniment of the films by pianist Neil Brand. Brand is one of the finest performers of improvisational piano and his ability to interpret the film in music brought an added dimension to the show.

This is how these films were meant to be shown, in front of a live audience with a man seated at a piano interpreting the action with his finger tips. Brand gave an interesting insight into his art, explaining that cinema pianists were often seeing the movie for the first time when they played and had to react at the same breakneck speed as the audience.

Explosions and gunshots were his biggest nightmares as the pianist has to predict exactly when they will occur. No mean feat as the fuse burns down to the powder. Brand’s music added a great deal to the enjoyment of the films and it was a delight to hear a live musician playing alongside these films, displaying them as they were intended to be shown.

Merton showed a number of short films, giving examples of the work of Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. The show was more of an illustrated lecture than a comedy event as Merton introduced each film with warmth and enthusiasm. What came across most was his genuine interest in and love of the work of early silent comedians, with Merton’s gentle and rather elegant introductions framing each short film.

Unfortunately, I was unable watch the final film in the show, which was a full length Keaton classic due to my developing a coughing fit that threatened to drown out the pianist. I decided to beat a hasty retreat at that point, as if I had remained the film would have been far from silent.

The audience seemed well satisfied as they left at the end of the show having been transported back to an era before special effects and computer generated images, a time when Keaton really was nearly crushed by a house and only the imagination and skill of the theatre pianist provided the sound track. Films now are far more sophisticated but Merton’s show left me questioning whether the silent era possessed greater imagination and comic genius.

© John Burns, 2009