Funnyman Paul falls in love with the sounds of silence
Paul Merton is well known to TV and Radio 4 audiences, but his new project finds him as you’ve never seen him before — completely silent. To mark his appearance at the Belfast Film Festival, and in a Northern Ireland exclusive, 24/7 talks to Merton about his latest labour of love
Paul Merton is an unusual comedian: for the past three decades he has dazzled us with his words. As a team captain on Have I Got News For You, a regular on Radio 4’s Just a Minute and the host of telly’s Room 101, he has impressed audiences and critics alike with his linguistic dexterity. This gift of the gab has seen him recently develop a new line, presenting travel documentaries on Five.
But Paul’s favourite comics are the exact opposite: they use no words whatsoever. They are the silent clowns.
Paul will be introducing us to many of his best-loved silent-film stars in his latest live tour, which hists Belfast next week. In ‘Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns’, he will extol the virtues of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
Merton will be accompanied by Neil Brand, the pianist whose bravura work at the keyboard adds so much to the silent movies Paul will be showing. The second half of the show is devoted to a screening in its entirety of Steamboat Bill Jr, one of Keaton’s finest hours.
The show has already received rave reviews. Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph enthused: “Just imagine, for a terrible moment, if Paul Merton didn't exist how impoverished our lives would be... whole generations would grow up without discovering the joys of Hollywood's early silent comedies... Go marvel.”
Paul is unwinding before his current tour in his agent’s central London office. He is a warm, charismatic presence, and his conversation is punctuated with loud, infectious outbursts of laughter.
He begins by underscoring how much he adores silent cinema. “The stars of those films were totally committed to their work. They were brilliant physical performers, who were perfect for silent films. Keaton made two films a year for a producer who let him do whatever he wanted. He had a creative freedom that filmmakers never get nowadays.”
Paul, who last year wrote a book on the subject, continues: “Silent films are just so exhilarating — particularly when accompanied by music. The final 25 minutes of Safety Last!, in which Lloyd does a death-defying climb up a skyscraper, is as potent a 25 minutes of cinema as you’ll see anywhere. It’s totally different from watching a silent film on TV or on your own or with some god-awful organ music in the background. It’s such an uplifting experience.”
The comic is quick to praise Neil Brand for his vital contribution to the success of the show. “I always say to Neil, ‘My name brings them in, but it’s you who keeps them there’.
“It’s intriguing how much music changes the whole experience. It can alter the entire mood of a film — it can make it upbeat or downbeat. When you have live music, it becomes a completely different form of cinema. People call it ‘living cinema’, and you can see why. The music is happening there and then, and it’s crucial to the success or failure of the film.
“There is a moment ten minutes into Safety Last!, where Lloyd and his friend have no money. The landlord knocks on the door to collect the rent, and to avoid him, they pretend to be coats hanging from the rack. At that moment, Neil stops playing and just lets the laughter flow.
“Later, there are 20 minutes in the middle of the film which are a bit slow. Then it’s up to Neil to keep the audience’s interest by pointing up all the visual gags and give them every chance with his music. He never treads on any laughs, and he always keeps it fresh and relevant. His judgement is superb.”
Brand’s piano-playing certainly brings something extra to Steamboat Bill, Jr, the stunning 1928 silent offering about a refined son (Keaton) who comes to work on his curmudgeonly father’s (Ernest Torrence) steamboat.
“Neil always serves the film — not the other way round. A silent film can by ruined by bad music,” continues Meron. “You have to have a musician who gets it. Neil told me he went to a silent film festival in Italy, and a leading composer who had been commissioned to write a score was heard to say: ‘I’m beginning to understand what this film is about’.
“It’s not just a question of just writing ten minutes of music for a ten-minute film. The sound has to complement the pictures.”
In the case of Steamboat Bill Jr, audiences generally love the celebrated scene in which the front of a house collapses on Keaton’s character. He avoids being crushed because he just happens to be standing in the space left by the window.
The details of Keaton’s stunt make it all the more breathtaking. “The front of the building weighed three tons,” reveals Merton. “It had to be that heavy — otherwise it could have been blown by the wind and landed on Keaton. They knocked two pegs into the ground where his feet would be and built the house-front around that.
“There were just three inches’ clearance all around him. If you look closely, at the moment the house-front falls past him, his shirt billows. It was that close to him. He wouldn’t fake it with models. That proves his genius — for Keaton, it just had to be real. He was prepared to take that risk for the sake of the gag. And it was worth it, because we’re still talking about it and laughing about it today.”
Not everyone, though, was in favour of Keaton performing this incredible feat, as Merton explains. “Chuck Reisner, the director, was a religious guy, and he refused to be on location when Keaton did the stunt. Reisner stayed at a nearby hotel, praying all day with a Christian Scientist!”
Merton has nothing less than undying admiration for Keaton. “He was just so dedicated. He was constantly striving to produce something wonderful. When he later became a gag writer at MGM, he became extremely annoyed with Abbott and Costello because they didn’t care about the quality of their films.
“Keaton ate, drank, slept and dreamt movies. That shines though in his attention to detail. He was an absolute perfectionist.”
Sounds like someone we know.
Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns arrives at Movie House, Yorkgate, next Friday, April 3. Children must be over nine-years-old. Box office: www.belfastfilmfestival.org