A silent night of nostalgic movie magic with Merton

PUBLISHED: 18:27 06 May 2009 | UPDATED: 17:16 16 August 2010

FILM BUFF: Paul Merton.

FILM BUFF: Paul Merton.

ONCE voted alongside Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Spike Milligan as one of the 10 greatest wits of all time, comedian Paul Merton has built a career spanning more than 30

ONCE voted alongside Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Spike Milligan as one of the 10 greatest wits of all time, comedian Paul Merton has built a career spanning more than 30 years on his trademark blend of cutting quips and withering put downs.

It comes as something of a surprise then to hear his own comedy heroes are the stars of silent film, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy.

It is this love of the bygone era of Hollywood that Merton is hoping to share on his latest live tour Paul Merton's Silent Clowns.

"I love silent films," the comic enthuses. "What I love above all is their concentration on the visual. The stars of those films, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, 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."

The show is made up of a collection of clips handpicked by Merton and accompanied by the live piano music of Neil Brand.

"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.

"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."

The second half of the show is devoted to a screening in its entirety of Keaton's celebrated Steamboat Bill Jr. - the story of naïve, foppish college graduate Bill Jr, played by Keaton, who goes to work on his curmudgeonly father's Mississippi steamboat.

While on the boat Bill Jr falls in love with the daughter of his father's business rival who is trying every trick in the book to stop the paddle steamer running.

The film features one of Keaton's most iconic sequences in which a three-storey house collapses directly on top of him. He avoids being crushed to death as he happens to be standing in the space left by a window.

"When we screened the film at Colston Hall in Bristol recently, that scene received a spontaneous round of applause," Merton explains. "The front of the building weighed three tons. 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 was just three inches of 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."

For Merton the scene is just one example of Keaton's peerless dedication to his craft.

"He was constantly striving to produce something wonderful," he added. "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 through in his attention to detail. He was an absolute perfectionist."

* Paul Merton's Silent Clowns is at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on Tuesday, May 12 and the Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells on Friday, May 15. Call the Fairfield box office on 02086889291 or the Assembly Hall box office on 01892 530613 for tickets and information.

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