The dramatic proof of the festival’s success was the opening show on January 12. The 1500 seats of Bristol’s Colston Hall were sold out (the numbers have grown from 699 in 2004 and 1000 in 2005 – suggesting a powerful word-of-mouth effect). The audience, of whom a large proportion had never seen a film before, responded rapturously to Buster Keaton’s STEAMBOAT BILL JR., getting every gag and frequently applauding the highlights. Even for festival habitués this was a revelation – the way that a perfect print, the right music (an improvising trio) and, most vitally, a big, real-life audience, can restore every bit of their original brilliance to the old masterpieces.
Whether through something intrinsic in the films themselves, or the special show-biz magic woven by Merton and the festival’s creator and director, the unstoppable Chris Daniels, the first-night spirit prevailed throughout the festival’s four days. Bristol Slapstick absorbs its sizeable audiences into a curiously intimate and familial atmosphere, which encourages everyone to talk to one another, and to enter uninhibitedly into any interactive activities devised by the various guest presenters (who included the Oscar-winning animator Richard Williams, the founder of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, Neil Innes and silent comedy expert David Wyatt).
The festival’s guest of honour was Jean Darling, the glamour infant of Hal Roach’s OUR GANG, and one of the rare survivors of the cinema’s golden age of silents. At 84 her charm, wit, irony, beauty, story-telling skills and even her splendid singing voice are undiminished (she sang in the original production of CAROUSEL, establishing a record unbroken run of 850 performances).
The Slapstick Festival confirms Bristol’s increasing stature as a centre of British film culture. Setting aside a couple of flourishing porn video factories (which don’t appear in the phone book), Bristol is the home of Aardman Animation (Wallis, Gromit, the Chickens and all) as well as a number of smaller production units, and two thriving media centres, Watershed (which parents Slapstick and the associated Bristol Silents) and the Arnolfini. Aardman has been a generous patron and sponsor of Slapstick and this year generously provided a presentation trailer which comfortably tops those of most of the world’s major festivals.