On April 16th 2022, Chris Tarrant, Sally James, John Gorman, Bob Carolgees and Benny Mills (The Phantom Flan Flinger), reunited for an evening of fun. They were accompanied by Matthew Lewis who reprised the performance of the Watership Down theme BRIGHT EYES that he gave, dressed as a rabbit, as a five year old in 1980.
The performers were also there to receive their Legacy Awards, given in recognition of creating significant new work in the medium of silent and visual comedy.
Our slapstick season finished on an absolute high, with the stars of the classic children’s TV series Tiswas reuniting for an evening of fun and mayhem.
Chris Tarrant, Sally James, John Gorman and Bob Carolgees, along with Spit the Dog, were among those that took to the stage on April 16th for this special event.
Sally James unmasked the Phantom flan Flinger, who turned out to be retired Birmingham taxi driver Benny Mills, now 87.
Matthew Lewis reprised the performance of the Watership Down theme BRIGHT EYES he gave as a five year old in 1980 accompanied by his daughter Nova, five, wearing the original rabbit costume.
The event concluded with The Four Bucketeers and Phantom Flan Flinger receiving the Slapstick Comedy Legacy Medal, honouring those entertainers who continue the comedy traditions of the silent film era.
Tiswas: The Reunion was a co-production between Bristol’s Slapstick Festival and Bristol Ideas and was a fund-raiser for Childen’s Hospice South West.
Below are some pictures from the evenings entertainment, courtesy of David Betteridge
Our last full day of festival events began with Paddington (2014), introduced by Andy Day, and concluded with Lee Mack’s hilarious Desert Island Comedy Flicks.
In between there was a moving tribute to the late great Barry Cryer hosted by his friend and long-time comic collaborator Les Dennis, with Barry’s Son Bob Cryer along with regular collaborators on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Graeme Garden and Colin Sell.
As you will no doubt have heard, yesterday we learnt the news that we had lost a singular comedy genius and very dear festival friend, Barry Cryer.
We first met Barry in 2009 when he came to Bristol with Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and the Clue team to raise money for the festival with an ISIHAC show at Bristol Hippodrome. Right from the start, Baz was a delight. Year after year, he joined us for our annual celebration of classic comedy in Bristol, bringing with him his trademark charm, generosity, passion for new comedy and extensive knowledge of parrot jokes!
Over the last thirteen years, Baz performed in at least 14 events at Slapstick, most notably when he received the coveted Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award in 2015. Some of the other shows he helped create with us included celebrations of Morecambe & Wise, Tommy Cooper and Kenny Everett, for whom he wrote. He also performed a few times at Slapstick with his musical comedy teammates: Colin Sell and Ronnie Golden.
Barry was a friend, a patron and, without a shadow of a doubt, the godfather of comedy. Barry hasn’t left a hole in the fabric of light entertainment, he’s left a chasm that simply can’t be filled.
Our hearts go out to Barry’s wife Terry and his whole family at this difficult time.
We will continue to champion Barry’s incomparable legacy for years to come.
We know Barry would want the festival to go on despite this news, and so it will. We spent yesterday exchanging stories about Barry and telling each other some of his best jokes. If you have a fond recollection of Barry – or a favourite joke – we’d love to hear it.
RIP Barry Cryer. Born 23 March 1935; died 25 January 2022.
Since I reported the results of my researches into the brief career and subsequent total oblivion of the one-time superstar boy comedian Billy Lancet, I have been having second thoughts (and like them better).
The theatrical journalists who wrote about Billy in his own time had been familiar for twenty years with the other “boy comedian”, Wee Georgie Wood. They recognized Georgie as a victim of a thyroid disorder which condemned him (like the later Jimmie Clitheroe) to remain for life in a boy’s body, with a boy’s unbroken voice. Sceptical critics of the time, consequently, questioned Billy’s advertised age and assumed him to be a fellow artist turning his glandular defect to artistic and financial advantage. In my previous speculation, I went along with this notion – which left the mystery of why Billy’s career abruptly came to an end, while Georgie kept on for two more decades. Now I would like to propose another possibility.
Could the claim that Billy debuted as a very accomplished comic at 9 years old actually be true? Prodigies usually evince their gifts in their first ten years, and can come with multifarious talents – mathematical wizards, composers, dazzling instrumentalists, actors, poets (in 1955 we saw the publication of the 9-year-old French Minon Drouet’s inspired poetry). So why not a 9-year-old genius with a talent for inventing non-stop comic monologue to torment the grown-ups around him.
If this explanation of the inspirational comic gift of Billy Lancet is correct, the story becomes less mysterious. He made his triumphant debut in 1928, at 9. His success was instant and phenomenal. But in 1933, at 14, his voice broke…. THE END!
Someone recently posted on You-tube a recording from an old 8” low-cost shellac gramophone disc released in 1930.
It was entitled “The Butcher Boy” and was labeled as being performed by “Billy Lancet, The Boy Comedian”. It was indeed the voice of a very cheeky boy, and a very lively performer.
So who was Billy Lancet? There was some speculation on-line when the disc appeared , and vague recollections of an artist of some such name. but then he returned to obscurity.
Since I match the disc in age, I was curious enough to turn to the archives. The startling discovery was that for a few years, between 1928 and 1933, the now forgotten Billy Lancet was a super-star of British vaudeville, touring with his own company, topping the bill In the major British variety theatres. A typical review of the time informs us:
The chief attraction is Billy Lancet who appears in a sketch “Willie’s Birthday”. with Thelma Rayne and Cameron McKinley. One would not like to guess the age of Mr Lancet. He has the appearance and mannerisms of a boy of ten, but his work suggests many years of experience as a comedian. It is a most laughable sketch. The diminutive comedian has an irresistible personality and gets a grip on the audience before he has been on the stage many seconds. There is no story in the sketch. It is merely an incident in the life of a precocious young lad who knows his mother will always take his side against his stepfather, and his antics are decidedly amusing. Mr Lancet would hold the stage for twice the length of time allotted to him, and he is to be commended on a clean and entertaining act.
The Bad Boy of Variety
Willie’s Birthday was succeeded by other titles – Willie Lends a Hand, Leave it to Willie, Willie’s Good Deed, but clearly the sketches were constantly changing and updating, so that audiences could see them again and again and encounter new gags. He styled himself “The Boy Comedian” and “The Bad Boy of Variety (or Vaudeville)”.
As it happens, one of his earliest traceable performances was at the Bristol Hippodrome, in the week of 4 December 1928. Even then, however, the Bristol press announced him as “the eminent Billy Lancet”, so he must have been around before that. Curiously he is also advertised for the same week at the Bath Palace, so it may have been that his popularity led him to revive the old music hall practice for an artist to play several theatres in the same evening, racing by taxi from one to the other.
With his restricted growth and un-breaking voice, he could have continued indefinitely, like his senior, Wee Georgie Wood (1894-1979), who had been performing since the first decade of the 20th century, and went on until 1953, and the later Jimmie Clitheroe (1921-1973) . Lancet evidently shared with them the unexplained glandular disorder that trapped them in permanent boyhood. However it is likely that ill-health abruptly, prematurely and finally ended his starring career in 1933. He was to appear on stage only once more, in February
1938, when he was at Wood Green Empire in the supporting cast of the veteran Charles Austin’s comedy sketch company.
He was briefly in the news again for a day in 1952, when he was hospitalized for the spectacular inconvenience of coughing non-stop for two weeks.
Not even pictures of Billy Lancet have turned up, except for a tiny newspaper print in a variety theatre advert. There is still a haunting vitality in the face.
Another smart critic of the time torments us with the great opportunity that was missed with Billy:
In the vaudeville houses, there is a delightful delineator of boy parts who is known by the name of Willie Lancet. He is immensely popular and even in these bad times manages to sneak bookings where bookings are said not to be. He reminds one of Georgie Wood as he was in his best days, but without the curls. Willy’s boy is your real little he-man, a rascal of rascals, a good boy gone delightfully wrong. Watching him a few nights ago in one of the fast vanishing variety houses I thought of an ingredient that some British film director might do worse than make use of, namely: one helping of Mrs Richmal Crompton’s William stories, a sprinkling of English countryside and a generous slice of Willie Lancet’s refreshing juvenile nonsense. Season with a selected cast, a smothering of crisp witty dialogue, and you have a dish the cinemas might be glad to add to their programmes”
SLAPSTICK would have been up for those!
***A post script on Wee Georgie Wood: I remember often seeing his act, which invariably began with Georgie striding onto the stage and catching sight of the microphone placed there. “Take that thing away!”, he would holler; “I was there before it was!”. And even in the biggest variety theatres he could make himself heard to the back the gallery. These eternal boys knew their job. ***And finally – Billy Lancet is known to have made another gramophone record, The Telegraph Boy. One to look out for!
For years animation has been one of the most impressive and entertaining disciplines in cinema. Developing from simple flip books to modern CGI graphics it continues to dazzle and develop year after year. Of Course the technicality of it is incredibly impressive, but the thing that has kept animation at the forefront of film for so many years is its universal humour and unique blend of surrealism and hyperrealism. Animated films were designed to bring joy to everyone, it’s done just that since its inception and it continues to do so.
Moving images and animation go back thousands of years, from puppeteering and shadow plays all the way up to the first genuine animated film, made using the ‘Théâtre Optique’. A device created by Charles-Émile Reynaud, the Théâtre Optique, allowed transparent paintings to be projected over a background, and shown in a way that emulated movement, It was first used in 1892 to screen a series of animated short films, heralding the beginning of a century of developments in animation.
Using the Théâtre Optique, drawings came to life and became more fluid through rotoscoping. They also eventually appeared in colour, thanks to the film tinting technique. This continued development would go on for years and years, to this day still animation techniques are getting more and more complex and intricate.
With all this constant development some films can get lost in the past, but one filmmaker’s innovation is still being used to draw constant inspiration. Wladyslaw Starewicz is the founder of modern stop motion animation, originally a professor of biology he was asked to create an educational film exploring how beatles would engage in a fight. But it appeared the beatles would not fight under the lighting required to film the event, angered by this Sterewicz took matters into his own hands and ended up creating the principles for what would be the basics of stop motion.
He would attach the separate limbs of the bugs to strings, occasionally replacing specific body parts with plastic, the result was these incredibly realistic and human-like movements. Sterewicz went on to create many more incredible films, all using beatles and other bugs but
telling incredibly human and emotional stories. The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) tells a simple story of infidelity, a short tragic comedy made using stop motion bugs. The incredible attention to detail is what made this film the masterpiece it is, every minute movement is accounted for and the result is this magical piece of cinema. Stop motion animation would stay true to its originator, continuing to be an art form for absolute perfectionists whose obsession with precise details allows them to create some of the most jaw dropping films.
Think of Fantastic Mr Fox by Wes Anderson or the incredible Wallace and Gromit series by Aardman Animations.
Both Anderson and Aardman have noted that their inspiration came from Wladyslaw Starewicz. Indeed, if you were to watch Le Roman de Renard – roughly translated to The Story Of The Fox – you would see many similarities between it and Fantastic Mr Fox.
As we mentioned before, animation is an ever-adapting and changing art form. Contemporary examples of stop motion have become intertwined with CGI technology. But by no means has this changed the principles it was founded on. They are still about perfectionism and continue to tell incredibly human and emotional stories.
Aardman studios’ recent body of work showcases perfect examples of this. The Academy Award winning studio began as a project by two students, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, animation fanatics who made innovative strides in claymation.
Now a major film studio, Aardman uses thousands of talented artists in combination with CGI technology while still staying true to the art of stop motion and continuing to tell entertaining and beautifully charming stories.
At Slapstick, we have an incredibly close relationship with Aardman and appreciate the lengths they go to to keep such a timeless art form alive. We will be welcoming Peter Lord back to the festival this year to discuss some of the animations that inspired him and celebrate the unique blend of surrealism and visual comedy that animation does best.
Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. All three began their careers more than a century ago, yet all still maintain their places as the greatest names in on screen comedy. Their films are still constantly discovered by new generations of lucky audiences who can now see them with worthy musical accompaniment – in Chaplin’s case, of his own composition.
What was special about these three was that they were not only the stars, but conceived, wrote and for all practical purposes, directed their own films. They were the total creators. Needless to say, they performed all their own stunts, however perilous: there could be no doubles for such personalities.
For Slapstick 2022 we have chosen each one’s last or penultimate silent film. Talking pictures had arrived, with The Jazz Singer (1927), but our stars did not rush to adopt sound, and Chaplin, though he was to make use of musical sound-tracks, did not speak on screen until 1940.
Keaton’s marvellous The Cameraman (1928) was the first film he made after giving up his own studio to move to MGM – a sacrifice of independence which he rightly came to regard as the worst mistake of his life. His budget was assured, but he was an employee, subject to the producer’s final word and whim. He was no longer permitted to risk doing his own stunts – and no-one else could do them.
Perhaps the producers had not yet learned to exert their full control when he made his first MGM film The Cameraman (1928). Despite the studio, The Cameraman (1928) still has the qualities of Keaton’s great silent films: his uniquely expressive physical comedy that belies the “stone face”, in the service of a gripping narrative.
The film was Keaton’s penultimate silent movie, as was Harold Lloyd’s spectacular The Kid Brother (1927). Lloyd, like Chaplin, retained his creative autonomy and was one of the comparatively few actors to make a triumphant transition to sound films.
Lloyd, sporting his indispensable lens-less horn-rimmed spectacles, plays Harold Hickory, a hick from Hickoryville, who plays the substitute housewife in a family of overly manly men. He has a chance to prove his worth and clear his family name when a group of con artists menace town.
It is an ingenious blend of slapstick, horror, romance and inventive gags. It was one of Lloyd’s own favourites and one of most impressive monuments of silent comedy
Upon release, it was a smash hit, both at the box office and among critics. Made at the apex of Lloyd’s career – and of silent film – it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive pieces of silent comedy.
It is as common for filmmakers to have a favourite as to have a film they try to forget.
In Chapin’s case the making of The Circus (1928) proved the worst year of his working life. The trouble was not the film but the circumstances surrounding its production.
Throughout the year he was battling a merciless divorce case brought by his wife Lita Grey. Her lawyers fought – and sometimes succeeded – to take possession of Chapin’s assets, including the studio and the negatives, which the crew was always having to secrete or smuggle elsewhere. This was only the start.
The shooting began with the difficult tightrope scenes for which Chaplin and the film’s romantic lead Harry Crocker, had been tirelessly rehearsing. The scenes were successfully shot – but the lab fouled up all the negatives.
Then the set was destroyed by a fire. Because of delays, when they went back to reshoot location scenes, they found the places had been transformed by Hollywood’s rapid development.
Finally, with relief, they set up the film’s final scene in a remote location, where the whole horse-drawn circus train goes off into the distance, leaving Chaplin deserted and alone. All was ready, but when they returned in the morning, everything had disappeared, stolen by mischievous students.
Incredibly the film was finished – to become one of Chaplin’s finest and most faultless silent comedies, with scenes of incredible virtuosity like the hall of mirrors or the climactic scene where Chaplin, balancing on the high wire, is assaulted and de-trousered by a gang of monkeys. It received a special award at the very first Oscar ceremony (nothing like today’s spectacle – just a banquet in the Roosevelt Hotel). But for Chaplin it would always evoke memories of that tormented year.
Forty years later, in 1968, Chaplin finally felt able to return to the film, to release it with his own accompanying score, and a title song, ”Swing Little Girl”, for which a top pop singer of the moment, Matt Monro was contracted. However, Chaplin’s musical arranger Eric James however decided that the 81-year-old Chapin performed it better, so it is his voice we hear over the titles of The Circus.
These three great films all have one notable cast member – a monkey, who saves the day for Keaton, leads the de-bagging of Chaplin, and helps Lloyd sail. This unique simian star is Josephine, whose showcasing career in major films extended from these three films and Street Angel (1928) all the way to Arabian Nights (1942).
But Josephine is not the only thing these films have in common. They represent the finest work of the three great comedy legends of cinema, and they mark the climactic end of the silent era. They also happen to ALL be featured at the 18th edition of Slapstick Festival. Be sure to seize this opportunity.
The following is a review of The Real Charlie Chaplin, originally published for Silent London and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author Pamela Hutchinson.
THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN
It’s a bold, almost alarming title. At this distance, can it be possible to uncover The Real Charlie Chaplin? And if there is something hidden in the biography this most famous of filmmakers, one that can without trepidation be called an icon, might those of us who love his films really want to know?
Rest easy then, as this documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) has no disturbing revelations. That is, as long as you have already been reading those large gaps between the lines of his biography. Chaplin liked the company of young women – girls, in fact. He married teenagers. He sometimes (often?) treated them badly. It’s a been said before and it is stated again here without excuses or attacking the women such as Lita Grey who testified to his ill-treatment. This has been trumpeted in some quarters as a belated #MeToo reckoning for Chaplin. That would be very belated. In truth we have always known this, but some fans refuse to hear it.
We learn also that he was temperamental, even as a child, that he was prone to self-pity, and finally was a distant father. The last words in this documentary are given to his daughter Jane, who waited years to get to know her famous dad, and found herself finally alone with him when she had all but given up hope. Also to his final wife Oona, who wrote so much about their life together and then destroyed her own words before she died. Thus the films ends as poignantly as it had began, in Chaplin’s tough, deprived childhood, and his own cruel abandonment by his father. Such cycles are common, we understand. Chaplin was flawed. The films, mostly, are not.
Many devotees will flinch at even that, but The Real Charlie Chaplin is no hitpiece: it’s an elegant, and sympathetic introduction to the man’s work and life, narrated in soothing tones by actress Pearl Mackie. She played Bill Potts in Doctor Who, and she’s from south London, as are the two directors – which matters, just a little. The Chaplin story as they tell it is a diverting way to spend two hours. We follow his path from rags in London to riches in Hollywood to comfortable if perhaps bitter exile in Switzerland.
We see his brilliance and creativity in comedy, his sudden fame and prolonged success, as well as the grisly moment that a certain faction of the American establishment turned against him. His punishment was extreme, in proportion to his previous adulation, you might say, rather than his supposed political crime. His incriminating remarks on communism are quoted here, which are all in a direct line of thought from his cathartic early film comedy, described in this film succinctly as: “The Tramp not only stands up to the man, he gives him a kick up the arse for good measure.” Fellow traveller? Of the funniest kind.
However, it was the murky, messily unresolved case of Joan Barry, dredged up for political ends, that really did for him. The motives of his accusers were far from honourable and no one comes out of this episode with a clean slate.
Illustrating the tale, here are film clips, archive images and the occasional set of distressed mock intertitles. There are few dates and facts – it’s a story rather than a lecture – but there is a certain candour in its tone, despite the absence of shock revelations. As a primer on his career, it gives more the sense of the man and his art, rather than a full filmography. As such, it’s possibly to pick at the odd dropped stich: the voiceover states that Chaplin scored his films, before going on to describe him making The Kid. You could read that as ahistorical, or you could concede the broader point that eventually, musical composition was another string to his bow. A caption on screen refers to Minta Durfee but the voiceover calls her “someone” which tells you the knowledge level that the film is aimed at.
There is something new here, and it provides a dash of welcome cockney colour, if nothing else. A recently rediscovered interview conducted by Kevin Brownlow in the early 1980s with one Effie Wisdom, a neighbour and friend of Chaplin’s from his youth. In re-enactments, Wisdom is played by Anne Rosenfeld, and Brownlow is played by Dominic Marsh. Wisdom recalls in uncanny detail conversations from their childhood and from his return visit to London as an old man, as well as the thrill of seeing him perform on stage as a young boy, and his native accent: “Common, like me.”
If you’re looking for the real Charlie Chaplin, perhaps it’s Effie Wisdom’s young pal we need to think of, the boy who hadn’t had his elocution lessons yet.
The Real Charlie Chaplin will be screened on Saturday 29th January 2022 at the Watershed in Bristol.
The above article was originally written for Silent London (see https://silentlondon.co.uk/2021/10/14/london-film-festival-review-the-real-charlie-chaplin/) and is reproduced with permission of the author Pamela Hutchinson