Paul Merton’s book “Silent Comedy”

“An awestruck and knowledgeable introduction to Hollywood's earliest funsters ... lovingly researched, beautifully designed and gloriously illustrated' - Telegraph

On the surface it may seem slightly surprising that a master of verbal humour should also be a devotee of silent comedy, but Paul Merton is completely passionate about the early days of Hollywood comedy and the comic geniuses who dominated it. His knowledge is awesome - as anyone who watched his BBC 4 series Silent Clowns or attended the events he has staged nationwide will agree - his enthusiasm is infectious, and these qualities are to be found in abundance in his book.

Starting with the very earliest pioneering short films, he traces the evolution of silent comedy through the 1900s and considers the works of the genre's greatest exponents - Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd - showing not only how each developed in the course of their career but also the extent to which they influenced each other. At the same time, Paul brings a comedian's insight to bear on the art of making people laugh, and explores just how the great comic ideas, routines, gags and pratfalls worked and evolved. His first book for ten years, this is destined to be a classic.


“This is an enjoyable read and totally engrossing and quite unputdownable” - Amazon review

“Loved it. A very good read” - Goodreads review

“Thank you Paul Merton for writing such a richly entertaining and interesting read about the era of silent movies” - Amazon Review


Silent Clowns

In this BBC 4 Television series in 2007 Paul Merton profiled some of the great stars of silent comedy, examining their lives and works, and uncovering seldom-seen material


Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns Tour 2009-14


“Paul Merton wows hundreds in Ilkley with night devoted to silent films”

- Telegraph & Argus

”The comedy of slapstick and pratfalls may seem unsophisticated to modern tastes but in Paul Merton's show Silent Clowns, staged in Canterbury last night, the comic brings alive the appeal of early film comedy”

- Your Canterbury

”The comedy of slapstick and pratfalls may seem unsophisticated to modern tastes but in Paul Merton's show Silent Clowns, staged in Canterbury last night, the comic brings alive the appeal of early film comedy”

- Your Canterbury

“Paul Merton's celebration of silent comedy is a joy to behold: eclectic, exciting and heavy on laughs”

- Harrogate Advertiser

“Merton chose his film shorts with impeccable judgement”

- York Press

“Merton's loving commentary, and some pristine prints, concertina a century of entertainment, and make these clowns live again”

- Guardian at Glasgow Film Theatre

”It was a refreshingly different form of entertainment, with a touch of nostalgia from a bygone era”

- Leicester Mercury

We are at Paul Merton's Silent Clowns show - his tribute to early 20th-century wordless comedy - and this is the joy of slapstick in action”

- Guardian at Theatre Royal Bath

Paul about his 2009 ‘Silent Clowns’ tour

One of the most memorable images from all of silent comedy is Buster Keaton standing in the middle of a street as the whole front of a house falls towards him. He escapes serious death by inches as the open window falls in exactly the right place. This stunning moment occurs in Steamboat Bill Junior's climatic storm sequence.

In 2007 I showed this film to 1,500 people at The Colston Hall in Bristol. The spontaneous round of applause that rang around the hall as Buster stepped safely away from the wreckage will long remain in my memory. Steamboat Bill in Buster's last independent feature and is one of his very best. I will show it in its entirety in the second half of my Silent Clowns show. In the first half I will show extracts of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy as well as a couple of Curios from the very early days of French cinema. In between will be entertaining chat.

As on the last tour, Neil Brand will accompany the films beautifully on the Grand Piano. If you have never seen silent comedy on a big screen with a big audience and great live music you will be amazed. If you have seen it before you will need no further persuasion from me.


Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock

Paul Merton continued his love affair with silent cinema in an exploration of Alfred Hitchcock's British films - BBC Four February/March 2009


Paul Merton’s 39 Steps to the Master Alfred Hitchcock

Why does the funny man Paul Merton see so much of himself in the ultimate scary man, Alfred Hitchcock?

The Times - February 26th 2009

Alfred Hitchcock first grabbed me by the lapels when I was 8 — and he hasn’t let go since. I have been entranced by the great director since the moment I first saw his film The 39 Steps, one Saturday morning on BBC Two.

What compelled me then was the bravura storytelling — and that’s still the case. I was also magnetised by the powerful imagery of it all; Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll being handcuffed together for most of the film, the baddie with the missing finger, the breathtaking escape on the Forth Bridge and the extraordinary finale at the London Palladium. With my love of music hall, the London Palladium was like a Mecca to me — no pun intended. It’s breathtaking stuff.

Right from the outset, Donat’s character Richard Hannay is being chased — first by a spy, then by Scotland Yard, then by the head of the spy ring — and that never lets up. You can see it as a prototype for North by Northwest. Hannay is constantly asking himself whom he can trust. The tension is unrelenting and brilliantly sustained. So The 39 Steps marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for Hitch’s work which I explore in Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock, a new documentary about his early career in this country.

Why did I identify with Hitchcock from such a young age? I think we have a shared sensibility. When I was making the documentary, his official biographer John Russell Taylor said that he thought Hitch and I would have got on. Both Londoners, both somewhat apart from the mainstream, both with a love of music hall and sharing a surreal sense of humour.

We also have a link because we were both educated by Jesuits. Whenever Hitch was asked the question, “Why do you specialise in films designed to thrill?” he would always tell the story of how his father taught him a lesson by locking him up in a police cell for five minutes and then telling him afterwards, “That’s what happens to naughty boys.”

I think that’s merely a convenient story, though. Hitch revealed what really gave him his mistrust of authority when he talked about his Jesuit education in an interview with European journalists: “I wouldn’t say the Jesuits were hard-boiled, but those were hard times . . .” He couldn’t say, “The Jesuits scared the hell out of me” — that would not have been a diplomatic answer in Italy, France or Spain. But what he meant was, “The Jesuits can put the fear of God into you if they get their hands on you.” I know what he’s saying — the Jesuits made me what I am today too!


I first saw Psycho when I was 19. It’s such a viscerally powerful film. The idea of killing off the leading actress, Janet Leigh, after 40 minutes was revolutionary. To cast a star who then disappears soon after the beginning was such an audacious stroke. The publicity in cinemas featured cardboard cut-outs of Hitch with his finger to his lips, as if to say, “Shhh, don’t give the secret away.”

Disposing of Leigh so early on was typical of the director. He always knew exactly how an audience would feel, and here he is playing with them. They have come to see a Janet Leigh movie, and she is suddenly murdered in the most extraordinary way. You wouldn’t go to see a Judy Garland movie and expect to see her hanging from a tree by the end of the first reel — well, not unless it was directed by Quentin Tarantino.

The other thing that I found mesmerising about Psycho is that its impact is all down to the power of suggestion. After the shower scene you see hardly any violence. You don’t need to — by then, Hitch has got you right where he wants you. Once he’s taken the audience to that pitch they’ll jump at anything. He doesn’t need to overkill it — literally. Like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin he felt he owed an obligation to his audience. For Hitch, the audience was the most important thing. If he didn’t keep them riveted he felt he had failed. You should never insult your audience or let them down.

He was simply a master at manipulating the audience’s emotions. In Psycho, after Norman Bates has murdered Marion Crane, Janet Leigh’s character, he puts her body in the boot of her car and pushes it into a swamp. But halfway the car stops sinking. It’s stuck, and Norman looks around nervously. At that moment, the audience are internally screaming, “Sink!” They’ve come to a Janet Leigh film, and now they’re rooting for the guy who murdered her!

Eventually — I say “eventually”, it’s actually about 20 seconds — the car sinks and we feel this enormous sense of relief. Hitchcock toys with us so brilliantly. The audience can do an awful lot for you if you’ve got them to the right place. If you haven’t, they’re looking at a car that won’t sink. That’s what I latched on to as a 19-year-old and have held on to — the art of storytelling.

Hitchcock’s first ten films were silent and, as I show in the documentary, he never forgot the lessons he learnt while making them. For him the visual was always paramount, if not universal. He had the most remarkable eye and created shots that no one else would have thought of. Many of his most memorable scenes in the talkies have no dialogue at all — think of the shower sequence in Psycho, the scene where Cary Grant is pursued by a crop-dusting aircraft in North by Northwest, or the moment where the birds mass on the children’s climbing frame before attacking the school in The Birds.

In some ways I think Hitchcock has been misunderstood and I’m keen to restore his reputation. He had a great sense of humour, but he often had to conform to the stereotype of the Master of Suspense.

He was pigeonholed, as figures in the public eye often are. People imagined that a film as strange and creepy as Psycho must have been made by someone strange and creepy. But that’s selling him short. He can imagine Norman Bates, but that doesn’t mean he is like him. You can imagine a pregnant woman without being pregnant yourself. One newspaper wrote a headline: “Hitchcock — Psycho or Genius?” Why not say: “Hitchcock — Lifeboat or Genius?” That sinister image was created by a biography of Hitch, Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. I know it’s always exciting to look at an icon in a different way, but I think that interpretation overlooks the essential wit of the man.

His crews thought he was great and, contrary to popular belief, so did actors. Cary Grant and James Stewart, two of the biggest stars of the time, didn’t have to appear in Hitchcock films, but they both starred in several. They thought he was incredibly gifted and really trusted him — that’s why they came back to him again and again.

He has always been my favourite director. And, 29 years after his death, he’s still one of the most famous film-makers in the world. I never tire of him. I certainly never got jaded making the TV programme about him. He really informed my work as a director on Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock. He was such an ingenious film-maker, and I’ve tried to pay tribute to that. We shot sequences in the British Museum as a nod to the terrific finale in Blackmail. And there are lots of visual flourishes in the documentary that are a homage to the great man. In one sequence a spinning record merges into a cup of coffee being stirred. I play another sequence backwards, so that a champagne-glass is emptying as the bottle appears to be filling up. In another scene shot on London Bridge, I have reversed the traffic and run it at twice the normal speed. If you look carefully you can see seagulls flying backwards very fast. Not everyone will notice those touches, but they underscore how inspired I am by the director.

Why do I still adore Hitch after all these years? I think it’s because I relate to his outsider’s perspective. Being brought up in a Catholic household, I sometimes felt cut off from the mainstream. The first time I heard Jerusalem being sung in church was at Peter Cook’s memorial service in 1995. I was amazed because everyone else seemed to know the words. I thought: “Eight hundred other people are singing along quite happily here, but it’s not part of my culture. I’ve missed out.” But as an artist, I think having an outsider’s eye is really important. In that, I feel a real kinship with Hitch.

But above all, my love of Hitchcock’s work stems from his storytelling. He had an innate understanding of how an audience would react, and how to grip us from start to finish. Why are Charles Dickens adaptations still so popular? Because they engage an audience and take them on an emotional journey that reaches a satisfying conclusion. Same with Hitch: the power of storytelling never goes out of fashion.

Look at The 39 Steps. I can’t think of another film released in 1935 that still has the same impact today as it did back then. It still has the same freshness and the same riveting quality that first held me as an eight-year-old watching BBC Two on a Saturday morning. So my headline would be: “Hitchcock – Genius or Genius?”