As BBC1 begins filming the first silent comedy TV series for nearly twenty years – “Pompidou!” starring Matt Lucas – Julian Dutton takes a look back at the rich heritage of the sight-gag.
With more than a soupcon of their customary darkness Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton proved last week (in episode 2 of their magnificent series ‘Inside No. 9,’ BBC2) that far from having died in 1927 when Al Jolson first belted out ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,’ silent comedy is very much alive and – if not kicking – then definitely twitching. In a plot worthy of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy (though with considerably more blood) two crooks attempt to steal a painting. A simple story elevated from the pedestrian by being entirely enacted in dumb-show. The Chaplin leitmotif is highlighted by the inspired inclusion of the great comedian’s Grand-daughter Oona in the cast.
And with BBC One about to start filming a forthcoming six-part ‘silent’ series, created by Matt Lucas, myself and Ashley Blaker (for silent read visual – there’ll be plenty of sound in it, just no talking) entitled ‘Pompidou,’ does this herald a new wave of slapstick to our screens?
Visual comedy’s never really gone away of course, though one might be excused for thinking comedian Stewart Lee wishes it had. In his TV series ‘Comedy Vehicle’ Lee pours scorn on a ‘Funniest TV Moment’ clip show that voted Del Boy’s fall through the bar as #1. “Is that really what we’ve come to, Britain? Del Boy falling through a bar, and Trigger making a face?!” Significantly, many of the other top clips in the same survey were also sight-gags – Cleese’s silly walks, Fawlty’s goose-step, Dawn French collapsing into a puddle… With sound technology supposedly having vanquished ‘silent’ comedy way back in 1927, it seems that eighty years later we still favour the sight gag over the verbal. Why?
Lee’s hatred of the BBC1 comedy mass-appeal visual moment is not surprising, occupying as he does the position of comedy’s enfant-terrible, an intellectual stand-up with a persistent distrust of the mainstream. He is one of the few original rebel artists working in comedy today. His critique is akin to John Cleese’s cameo in ‘The Goodies’ when the Python pops up as a genie, blows a raspberry and denounces the knockabout trio with two rasping words: ‘Kid’s Programme!’ Lee occupies a firm position at the end of a long line of Oxbridge satirists from Peter Cook to Armando Ianucci whose humour is committedly verbal, intellectual, satirical, reflective. Visual comedy, slapstick, that’s what our less-educated non-university Grandfathers laughed at – it is both old-fashioned and infantile.
But is it…?
On Easter Day in 1956 ageing comic Buster Keaton was driving his dark blue Cadillac up through the Hollywood Hills. He wound past Charlie Chaplin’s estate, past Harold Lloyd’s mansion Greenacres and along the dry hot avenues towards Mary Pickford’s decaying mansion, ‘Pickfair.’ Pickford had been one of the greatest stars of the silent era and, now in her late sixties, was throwing a reunion party for everyone she’d known, on and off-screen, from those lost decades.
According to Keaton the gathering was a melancholy affair, a regrouping of the old guard whose careers had been brought to a juddering halt when Al Jolson first squeaked out his famous line. Pickford’s mansion was full of shadows and memories, drifting butlers, a sense of lost time. But one thing Mary said to Keaton that day stuck in his mind: “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way round.”
Pickford’s observation was not merely that of an unemployed actress bitter at having been cast aside by her industry – it was an astute assessment of the aesthetic of film. Sound technology was, despite what we may think, not an advance in the cinematic art, it was a setback. It is only because silent comedy predates verbal comedy in the history of film technology that we mistakenly view spoken comedy as a progression. When sound technology first appeared cinema was approaching a peak of artistic excellence it has seldom reached since: Fritz Lang, Chaplin, Eisenstein, Keaton. Free-flowing cinematic drama and comedy was exploding onscreen in the mid to late 20’s – then suddenly along came dialogue, and both camera and actor were bolted ruthlessly to the floor (when you next watch an early 30’s movie see how no one speaks and moves at the same time). Comedy became the static fast-talking two shot and the endlessly inventive long-shot visual routines of the silent decades became a faint memory. Ever since, visual comedy has been wrongly perceived as ‘old-fashioned,’ an act of nostalgia, looked down on as an idiot cousin to its more refined and literate elders, satire and observational humour. The very word ‘slapstick’ connotes a lack of sophistication – the Three Stooges, the Chuckle Brothers, Futtocks End, The Plank – we may have laughed at that kind of stuff when were kids, but well, we’ve grown out of it now…
But between 1949 and 1967 a French mime artist called Jacques Tati made a sequence of four comic (near-silent) screen masterpieces – ‘Jour de Fete,’ ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,’ ‘Mon Oncle,’ and ‘Playtime,’ and in so doing proved that sound technology did not mean that purely visual comedy was consigned to oblivion: it could be modern, sophisticated, experimental, creative – in a word, new. Tati’s work was not an act of nostalgia but a recognition that pantomime is a genre capable of endless innovation just like the sound picture, and that non-verbal humour can be as profound a critique of human life as the most lauded satire – cf. Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ and his own ‘Playtime,’ – far deeper indeed than many a verbal comedy.
And it wasn’t just Tati who carried the flame of pantomime forward into the age of sound – Norman Wisdom (a far more subversive comic than people remember), Ernie Kovacs, Jerry Lewis, Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, Marty Feldman, Eric Sykes, Ronnie Barker, Mel Brooks, The Goodies – right up to Lee Evans, Rowan Atkinson, Rik Mayall & Ade Edmondson, Harry Hill, Vic & Bob … – and now, briefly, Shearsmith and Pemberton: all have proved that visual comedy not only survived the advent of sound comedy, but on many occasions has surpassed it. If I can come up with a theory of comedy at all (come on, we’ve all tried) I would say that it is this: “We are all pretending to be able to operate successfully in the adult world. Inside, none of us actually are. Comedians – the great comedians – are not pretending. They fail on-screen in front of us, all the time. That’s why we love them: they are showing us the truth.” And with purely visual comedians, the failure of course is more stark, visible, blatant. That’s why we love visual comedians more than any other – viz. Laurel & Hardy, Keaton, Chaplin, Tati…
Certain practitioners have been nostalgic, to be sure – Ronnie Barker perhaps, and Eric Sykes – but it is my belief that soundless film and TV comedy, far from being old-fashioned or childish, is still capable of being innovative, new and surprising. And is ripe for a comeback.
Which is why Matt Lucas, Ashley Blaker and I have created the first ‘silent’ TV comedy series for nearly twenty years (the last Mr. Bean TV episode was made in 1997). The time is right: since Mr. Bean a new global internet audience of billions has arisen, hungry for language-less humour. Laudable though Eddie Izzard’s goal is to unite international audiences by performing stand-up routines in French, German (and quite possibly Swahili) the real international language of comedy has been there all along – the sight gag. The web has been awash for years with pantomime – it’s time mainstream TV caught up. Who was the chief comic performer at 2012’s Olympic Opening Ceremony, playing to planetary viewing figures? – silent comedian Rowan Atkinson. We live in a world saturated with dumb-show – on our CCTV’s, our I-phones, on you-tube. Which is why our new series ‘Pompidou’ will be far from being nostalgic or retro – indeed, there could be an argument for calling it avant-garde! ‘Pompidou’ will aspire to the tradition of Tati, Wisdom, Chaplin, Sykes, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, and Rowan Atkinson, but will also try to break new ground. In the series Matt Lucas (one of the most inventive comic actors working in the world today) portrays an archetypal loner and a loser: like Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Tati before him, his character is a Beckettian clown, a ‘gentleman’ fallen on hard times in whose drab, mad company we drift as he fills his day confronting the modern world. As the creator of some of the greatest comic pantomime on-screen in the last ten years (one need only think of the Lou and Andy routines in ‘Little Britain’ as well as the great visual sketches in that series) Matt Lucas has already joined the pantheon of internationally-acclaimed and beloved comics.
So why is Stewart Lee wrong? Well, it’s quite obvious that Del Boy’s fall through the bar is far more than slapstick. It is, in fact, one of the most complex and richly persistent gags in world culture – the undermining of the male peacock, the crumpling of male vanity, the puncturing of the deluded male ego: in short, the perennial comedy of the mating game. The South London trader plummeting to the floor as he attempts to look cool is a lens directed powerfully at two thousand years of human cultural history. It is Britain’s Funniest TV Moment because it is a huge, ambitious joke – not small, local and culturally-specific like the material of most stand-ups and satirists working today. And because it is dumb-show it will be understood and laughed at in a thousand years’ time, all over the world, while every single gag of every single stand-up working today will be meaningless, pointless gibberish. The sight gag will have the last laugh.
Julian Dutton is the co-creator and co-writer of ‘Pompidou,’ starring Matt Lucas, filming now for broadcast on BBC 1 later in the year.
‘Keeping Quiet: The Story of Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound,’ by Julian Dutton, will be published later this year.