Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, BBC4

by | May 25, 2006 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A revelatory expedition into the very origins of physical comedy with Paul Merton as the passionate, erudite guide.

What was good about it?

• Paul Merton’s cherished enthusiasm for silent comedies that was apparent every time he eulogised about Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.

• The incredible live stunts that included a locomotive plunging from a collapsing bridge into a river. Or in Seven Chances, in which Keaton is seemingly pursued down a mountainside by an ever growing mob of vengeful boulders. And of course, the scene where a house front falls on the apparently oblivious Keaton and he is only saved as he is standing below the gap for a window.

• The classic vignettes of Buster Keaton’s celluloid genius that Merton introduced with such deserved relish. The best were when Keaton and his ‘wife’ have their house stranded on a train track as a steam engine hurtles towards it. Despite their frantic efforts they can only save themselves and embrace as they anticipate the collision, only for the train to pass harmlessly along an adjacent track. But as they celebrate a train from the opposite direction demolishes their home.

• The astounding innovation that Keaton and his ilk pioneered. In fact, the lack of dialogue seemed to spur them on to greater feats of imagination as exemplified in Sherlock Jr in which Keaton plays a cinema projectionist who ‘enters’ the film screen. So, at one moment he might be peering nervously over a precipitous cliff only for the scene to ‘cut’ around him placing him at the next moment amid a pride of lazing lions.

• Merton’s frothing disgust at the stereotypical view of silent films, as they are reduced to “large men in false beards kicking each other up the arse in a monotonous fashion”.

• The Keaton film The Goat that followed afterwards.

What was bad about it?

• When ex-Python Terry Jones got a minor detail of a Keaton film wrong, Merton, like all fastidious dilettantes, felt the need to correct the mistake.

• The slightly muddled order of the biography of Keaton that concluded by Merton revealing how he began on stage at an early age where he would ‘battle’ with his father as part of his parents’ popular act.

• As he surveyed an audience who had come to view his appraisal and adulation of Keaton, Merton’s optimism that he “may have passed the comic baton on to a new generation” may have been slightly misplaced among the children looking on as for every little, cherubic face ablaze with laughter, there was another wearing a youthful scowl with arms crossed in juvenile boredom.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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