Now in its 19th year in 2023, Bristol’s annual celebration of people pretending to get hurt for the sake of on-screen comedy is back – yep you guessed it, we’re talking about Slapstick Festival. Michael Palin oversees some of the programme alongside many other famous faces – including festival favourite Harry Hill, who tells Hannah Collins why he keeps coming back for more.
The UK is home to scores of unique film festivals, from animation to documentaries. But few are as niche, well-established and attract a bounty of famous faces as Bristol’s Slapstick Festival. Founded in 2005, Slapstick exists for a simple reason: “to build new audiences for and an appreciation of silent and visual on-screen comedy”.
Under the direction of Chris Daniels and overseen by an advisory board that includes Lucy Porter, Robin Ince and Graeme Garden, its annual programme consists of a mixture of silent cinema classics and more modern favourites, making for a varied lineup that runs the gamut of cinema history: this year, for instance, crowdpleasers like Some Like It Hot, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, This Is Spinal Tap, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins are on the bill, some of which chosen by or specially selected in honour of guest curator Sir Michael Palin’s 80th birthday. Many of them might not even register as slapstick to you, but as the festival aims to prove, slapstick comedy is broader and more perennially relevant than you might think.
Originating in early Italian theatre between the 16th and 18th centuries, slapstick quite literally comes from someone being slapped in the face by two pieces of thin wood (a clapper), which makes a funny noise – turning violence into comedy. Everything from Punch & Judy to Looney Tunes to Home Alone utilises this winning combination to get laughs out of us. Not even Shakespeare was above it.
By the 19th century, slapstick became – hilariously – associated with antisocial behaviour. Carnivals and parades in America that featured clownery and masked performers were reported as inciting “rowdyism” in crowds, and there were calls for the police to take action against the slapstick “nuisance”. Silly as this seems, as with all stunt work, slapstick is probably best left to the professionals. (That said, you can’t go too wrong with a Whoopee cushion.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, many British silent cinema greats were getting their start in music halls under the tutelage of Fred Karno, credited for inventing the custard-pie-to-the-face gag. Upon making the transition to the screen, these performers wove their pantomime and sketch comedy skills into bigger and grander stunts, aided by early special effects and the magic of editing. Disney and other cartoon studios around the world brought this style of humour into their animated shorts from the 30s onwards; radio and live-action television followed suit from the 50s.
Special guests and speakers at the Slapstick Festival are expected to know their history. And this year, one such superfan is Harry Hill. Hill first became involved in the festival in 2015, taking part in a fundraiser, and he’s been unable to escape it since then. (Other patrons include Matt Lucas, Rob Brydon, Barry Humphries, Marcus Brigstocke, Barry Cryer, Ian Lavender and Bill Oddie.)
“The thing with Slapstick,” Hill told me, “is that once they’ve got your contact details you’re superglued to them forever, so I’ve been back a few times since. And I do like what they do – remembering old comedians, not least because I, too, will be old one day.”
He also disputes my use of the word ‘niche’ to describe it, pointing out that the festival attracts audiences from all over the UK and beyond. He’s got a point: the success of this style of humour is its universality and adaptability, after all. “There’s a lot of interest in seeing favourite old films or TV programmes on a big screen with an audience of people who share your love of them, especially when the stars are there for chats and Q&As. Take me. How lucky am I to be hosting a show reuniting a trio whose groundbreaking mix of satire, surreal humour, poetry and music I’ve liked for years: The Scaffold?”
Who are The Scaffold? “There’s never been a performance group quite like them – who else would put together a poet, a musician and a madcap comedian and achieve chart-topping success all around the world? Most people of a certain age still know all the words to Lily The Pink and Thank U Very Much but The Scaffold did so much more than produce hits, including collaborating with some extraordinary people, like Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Elton John, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and Tim Rice, to name just a few.”
As well as his tribute to the 60s/70s comedy music group, Hill is also putting on a special live performance of his recent TV historical comedy, Lonely Island. “Lots of kinds of comedy make me laugh, but with Lonely Island I wanted to strip everything back to focus on visual humour. It has timeless, universal, appeal – a bit like You’ve Been Framed – and it’s important we don’t lose it.” What makes you laugh most these days? “Newsnight, sometimes as an alternative to weeping.” Fair enough.
I can’t let him go without one final, very serious question, in the spirit of his TV Burp days: who would win, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?
“Tricky one. Chaplin looks as if he could dance about at speed getting painful jabs in, but Buster is a superb acrobat and whenever he’s knocked down, he gets straight back up again. There’s only one way to decide… fight!!!”
SLAPSTICK 2023 HIGHLIGHTS
SOME LIKE IT HOT
What better way to mark (or ignore) Valentine’s Day than one of the greatest romcoms ever made? Starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and directed by Billy Wilder, and musically introduced by drag queen Cynthia Road.
Former Imax Cinema, Bristol Aquarium, Tue 14 Feb (8pm). Tickets: £12/£8. Info: here
ONSCREEN WONDER WOMEN
Comedian Lucy Porter and author Jane Duffus play and talk about clips of lesser-known silent movie heroines from 1898 to 1926, some of which have only recently been rediscovered from film archives. Includes live piano accompaniment and BSL interpretation.
Watershed, Wed 15 Feb (6pm). Tickets: £10/£6. Info: here
THIS IS SPINAL TAP
Rob Reiner’s extremely quotable heavy metal mockumentary is on the bill at birthday boy Michael Palin’s request, apparently. He’s also recorded a special intro to the screening, along with star Harry Shearer.
Watershed, Wed 15 Feb (8.30pm). Tickets: £15/£10. Info: here
THE COMIC STRIP PRESENTS: MORE BAD NEWS
Recommended by Harry Hill, the second film from Channel 4’s Comic Strip gang is directed by and stars Ade Edmondson alongside Rik Mayall, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson. The latter pair join host Robin Ince for a Q&A afterwards.
St. Georges, Sat 18 Feb (2.30pm). Tickets: £10.50-£21. Info: here
THE BEATLES: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
The Fab Four go meta playing parodies of themselves in what’s become an iconic piece of British cinema, newly restored in 4HD; plus, plenty of Buster Keaton references, hence why it’s here. Followed by a conversation with Paul McCartney’s brother Mike and Paul McGann of The Scaffold.
Bristol Old Vic, Sun 19 Feb (12pm). Tickets: £11-£16. Info: here
MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN
The headline screening of the festival’s ‘Palin & Python’ series, this special screening of the controversial Biblical comedy will be polished off with an on-stage chat between Palin and Stephen Merchant, and some home movie footage. Catch Palin later this evening in the same venue, in conversation with Rob Brydon about ‘Life Beyond Python’.
Bristol Old Vic, Sun 19 Feb (5.30pm). Tickets: £15-£22. Info: here
Slapstick Festival 2023, various venues, Bristol, Tue 14-Sun 19 Feb
Tickets: prices vary per event. Info: here
words HANNAH COLLINS
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