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Silent Comedy

The roots of Britain's distinctive screen humour

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Early British film comedies have received little attention by comparison with their better known American counterparts, partly because most of the great silent screen comedians (many of them, like Charlie Chaplin, British) were working in Hollywood with higher production values, but also because British humour was regarded as quirky, wordy, anarchic and parochial.

Early films such as Mary Jane's Mishap (1903) or Our New Errand Boy (1905) reflect the trends of those early days in both American and European film, using devices such as facials, physical gags, the chase, and titillation. By the teens Fred Evans, aka Pimple, was making very popular parodies of contemporary plays and films, targeted narrowly at the British market in much the same way as today's television topical sketch shows. In the 1920s Adrian Brunel produced educated spoofs ridiculing film form itself, just as Monty Python was to do so successfully in the 1960s. The common factor here was cheapness, and British filmmakers excelled at making a virtue of low production values.

A little attention to the films themselves, rather than their reputation, pays dividends. Many remain genuinely funny, but more importantly they reveal the origins of a specifically British humour, notably absurdism, parody and the music hall tradition. These films anticipate the indigenous humour of the 1940s and '50s Ealing comedies, Monty Python or Benny Hill for which Britain is justly famous.

Bryony Dixon

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Daisy Doodad's Dial (1914)Daisy Doodad's Dial (1914)

Silent comedy short about a woman who enters a face-pulling contest.

Thumbnail image of Man to Beat Jack Johnson, The (1910)Man to Beat Jack Johnson, The (1910)

Little Willy weighs up for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship.

Thumbnail image of Mary Jane's Mishap  or, Don't Fool with the Paraffin (1903)Mary Jane's Mishap or, Don't Fool with the Paraffin (1903)

Early 'trick' film in which a house servant is careless with fire...

Thumbnail image of Our New Errand Boy (1905)Our New Errand Boy (1905)

The new grocer's boy causes chaos with his mischievous pranks

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)

Daft spoof of Napoleon's ill-fated campaign

Thumbnail image of Two-Chinned Chow (1923)Two-Chinned Chow (1923)

Entertaining silent short using human silhouettes

Thumbnail image of Would You Believe It? (1929)Would You Believe It? (1929)

A toyshop assistant invents a radio-controlled tank

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Hugely popular silent comic character created by Fred Evans

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