The Slapstick Festival is an annual festival based in Bristol which is devoted to silent films, classic films and visual Comedy. Founded by Bristol Silents in 2005, the aim of the festival is to celebrate and champion comedy past and present – and to introduce slapstick to new and old fans across the World. Sadly, in light of the COVID pandemic, the festival is facing an uncertain future and they are seeking financial support to produce more events for the public. I spoke to Chris Daniels, the Festival Director, about the forthcoming virtual fundraising gala – BIG COMEDY NIGHT IN – and his thoughts concerning the future of the festival.
Can you talk a little bit about the history of the Slapstick festival, and provide some of your highlights as the festival Director?
Over the past 15 years slapstick has produced more than 380 events celebrating silent comedy in all its various forms from the great classics Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy to rare and wonderful performers rarely screened in the 21st-century some we have championed and rediscovered include Harry Langdon , Charley Chase, Mabel Normand and Marion Davies. Reaching almost 8000 people now every year, in Bristol, over a long weekend in January slapstick has established itself as the go-to festival for comedians and celebrities who either perform their own form of slapstick performance, for example Harry Hill, and for those who are just huge fans of the great silent comedians of yesteryear like Stephen Merchant, Lee Mack and Shappi Khorsandi.
For me, the highlights of the festival have included giving awards to many comedic national treasures including Dame June Whitfield, Sir Michael Palin, Barry Humphries, Michael Crawford and Sir Ken Dodd not to mention the exceptional comedy duo, French & Saunders.
At the centre of what we do each year is our ‘silent comedy gala’, we screen one of the finest silent comedies from the 1920s starring the greatest performers of all time with 1800 people in the audience and a huge 60-piece live orchestra. These events have helped to transform peoples understanding of silent film & comedy, and it has been at the centre of what brings people coming back year on year to Slapstick Festival in the Southwest.
Discuss the impact of COVID upon the festival.
80% at our funding comes from sales from live events which have not been possible due to COVID19 restrictions. We have been wrestling with furlough issues and I’m working hard to produce fundraising events online and looking carefully and cautiously at how we can proceed in January 2021. We don’t want to lose momentum and a lot of people in Southwest community look forward to Slapstick every year and we don’t want to let those loyal supporters down.
God knows we need a laugh right now more than ever!
Can you talk more about the regular key events?
We more regularly run online events now in the Laughter in Lockdown programme and the Laughing Out of Lockdown (but now that looks like that title might have been premature!) live streamed series.
These include Slapstick Conversations : A series of conversations with great hosts and special guests. Earlier in 2020 Stephen Merchant was ‘in conversation’ with Robin Ince and there was a screening of his favourite Laurel & Hardy shorts. In addition we will be screening silent comedy with live music online this coming January. We plan in 2021 to go ‘back to basics’ and re-champion some great classic titles from the comedy era . The focus is on big films, big stars and world class live music.
How did you came up with the idea of Stand Up to Slapstick at Colston Hall with Graeme Garden?
Originally back in 2010 Graeme Garden suggested that the I’m sorry I haven’t a clue team put on one of their life events and all the money raised would be donated to Slapstick festival.
Following on from this, we realised we needed an annual fundraiser and it was Graeme again who came up with the idea of a stand-up comedy event called Stand Up for Slapstick.
Since that time we have been putting on one or two live comedy fundraisers every year. Thanks to these shows, along with funding from the British film Institute, we keep Slapstick afloat year on year.
What are your thoughts about the Laughing after Lockdown programme?
When these events were originally filmed they were only for us so that we held an archive record these were never intended to be made public as a result as we put out each event we needed to check quality of sound and imagery to be sure that worthy of public consumption.
In some cases this meant we could consider a reduced quality as access felt more important. For example our recording of Eric Sykes receiving his Aardman Slapstick Award for visual comedy back in 2009 was quite static and shot on a single camera, but as it was Eric’s last onstage conversation, it felt important for it to be made available during lockdown.
Discuss the role of the Musical Director Gunter A. Buchwald.
Guenter has been an exceptional partner for the Slaptick festival and each year brings his ensemble of performers to produce delightful improvised accompaniments to many of our classic comedies. In addition Gunter has conducted orchestras and written scores commissioned by the festival; he’s an exceptional musical talent. A good silent film can become a great film if it has the right musical accompaniment – and a poor score can ruin even a great film.
What’s been the role of the partners, patrons and supporters to the festival?
Film Historians Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson are both Patrons and have been supporting the festival from the very beginning. They have brought their wisdom, knowledge and credibility to the programme. We have a magnificent array of patrons from the legendary Barry Humphries to comedian performers Matt Lucas along with Rob Brydon Sir Michael Palin and Goodies Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie. Each of these either offers their time to attend all will supporting some kind of promotional and fundraising capacity. For the most part people who are supporters and Patrons of the festival are great lovers of classic, visual & silent comedy.
Can you give us a teaser about what to expect with the forthcoming virtual fundraising gala?
We wrote to our supporters, patrons, and partners to ask if they would offer us a performance of some kind and some have recorded a serious message to say that we are in need of funding – asking if people would please donate. Others put together the song and before that forest other comedians including Harry Hill and Tim Vine have put together an individual sketch bringing with them their own unique style of comedy and they have allowed us to use that exclusively to stream out live for the fundraising event. We’ve been bowled over by the responses we’ve had and the love for the festival. I think we have had something in the region of 30 contributions from some incredible people.
How can the public support the festival during and after the gala?
People can donate on our website, attend the Big Comedy Night IN (and donate!)
Are you thinking of auctioning comedy memorabilia donated by comedians or a book on the history of slapstick with contributions from Graeme Garden and fellow comedians?
No… ha, ha! But it’s worth thinking about : )
What are your fears for the future of the festival?
It is possible that, like many other festivals and entertainment establishments, we’re ultimately can’t raise the funds to produce the festival as we move into 2021 so if we had one big worry it would be Will COVID settle enough to allow the arts to open up a little in the early part 2021 and if it doesn’t how do we survive until such times. But of course, we are not alone.