February 24, 2010
It’s been a couple of weeks now (which is probably a good thing because sometimes a little distance can be a blessing) since the Desert Island Slapstick evening at Jesters (though recently renamed Metropolis the festival still listed the venue as Jesters). The Desert Island evening brought a timely end to the blink and you might miss it mini-festival that was Slapstick 2010. Another local festival for the cultured middle classes who reside in Clifton, Redland, Cotham and even so far away as Bishopston, Slapstick 2010 was Bristol’s sixth silent comedy festival.
Advertised in the likes of Venue Magazine, The Evening Post and apparently over some local Bristol radio station, I was surprised to hear about the festival only through a chance discovery that my place of casual employment was one of its official sponsors. In lieu of our supposed support for the festival I thought it a good idea to go ahead and attend at least one of its events.
Consisting of a ‘panel’ (though I use the term lightly) of three British comedy heros, each of whom selected a silent film that they would in theory take with them to a desert island, the evening – slowly – revealed itself to be really rather more slapdash than slapstick. Though it had been advertised and printed materials crafted, the three Radio 4 ‘celebrities’, Graeme Garden, Time Brooke-Taylor and Barry Cryer all seemed to be suffering a bout of Alzheimer’s as they fuddled rather than talked their way through the films they had selected, Garden openly admitting that he’d chosen a film he’d never actually seen before. Pleasantly accompanied by live sound (albeit a keyboard rather than a piano) the venue itself was a fine choice, having originally (96 years ago) been Bristol’s first silent cinema.
The films themselves were for the most part very enjoyable, the selection including; Boobs in the Wood (1925) starring a less commonly known Harry Langdon, Coney Island (1917) with an overwhelmingly camp Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Neighbors (1920) exhibiting the charms of Buster Keaton on a simpering Virginia Fox. The content of these three films was, again, for the most part, very enjoyable: all except for one particularly squeamish sequence in Neighbors where Buster “blacks up”. Audacious and offensive as this act is there is always a possibility that an audience might make allowances for such content if the context of the film is accurately and carefully outlined prior to its unveiling. Beyond disturbing therefore is the way in which Brooke-Taylor contextualised the sequence in question, stating, “It’s fine. It was fine at the time and I think it’s fine now.” His latent racism, received without protest from a mirror audience is just one of the many unbearably obvious signs that the festival is in crisis and needs to make some drastic changes if it wishes to have any kind of longevity, let alone creditability or accolade.
Sadly I was amongst a minority in the audience (perhaps only a handful of us at an age before menopause) as I gasped with disdain at such remarks, the lady behind me chortling till her sides split at the sight of a ‘blacked up’ Buster. Clearly the organisers of Slapstick have a great challenge before them as they attempt to keep running a festival whose life span, if its audience is anything to go by, is all too near its use-by date. Perhaps if they were to market the festival through the guise of ‘silent film’ rather than ‘slapstick’ more youths would understand its content, though saying this, the success of its marketing is only so useful as the outlets through which it is advertised. Given that Bristol’s ‘arts hub’ consists of a small circle of individuals no larger than most people’s telephone directory (a circle I like to think I know of even if I sit judgementally outside of it) it is peculiar to me that they managed to get it so laughably wrong. But then again, slapstick or slapdash, as least something about it made me laugh.