Going Loco at the BFI Southbank

by Phil Concannon

January is a dismal month. Grey skies, biting winds and post-Christmas debts tend to darken the mood for the majority of us, but this weekend LoCo – a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting comedy filmmaking – did its best to raise spirits with the inaugural LoCo Comedy Film Festival at the BFI Southbank. Over the course of four days, the festival’s eclectic programme served up a variety of shorts and features, Q&A’s, educational events and even a special presentation of a film that doesn’t exist. The combination of old and new, of dark comedies with breezy slapstick, ensured that the festival genuinely offered something for everyone. In fact, if you’ve long harboured a desire to see a tiny man crawl out of a cat’s anus…well, the LoCo Film Festival was the only gig in town.

But we’ll get to that later. For many, the festival’s major coup was The Muppets, which stirred up a tangible buzz of anticipation as the opening film. This attempt to resurrect Jim Henson’s creations for a new generation is poised awkwardly between satisfying longtime fans and appealing to a whole new audience, but for the most part Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s script successfully hits the mark on both levels. I’m sure there were plenty of in-jokes and references to Muppets history that fans will enjoy spotting, but this Muppet neophyte simply appreciated the film’s effortless charm (led by a never-better Segel) and playful sense of invention. The story follows a familiar “let’s put on a show” template, with the Muppets having to raise $10 million through a telethon to save their studio from the clutches of the evil Tex Richman (a tremendous Chris Cooper), and they pile on the cameos, songs, gags and self-mocking winks to the audience without unbalancing the picture.

Unbalanced is exactly the word to describe The Fairy, the film that followed The Muppets in the programme. This is the latest picture from the filmmaking team of Abel, Gordon and Romy, and if you’ve seen their previous pictures Iceberg and Rumba you’ll know exactly what to expect here. Low on dialogue and high on physical comedy, their work is a blend of slapstick, dance and visual gags, with the central couple of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon being alternately elegant and ungainly as they negotiate their way through an increasingly surreal plot. The story here is that Abel is a lowly hotel clerk and Gordon is the fairy who wanders into his life with three wishes to offer, but the narrative is essentially a framework for a series of elaborate set-pieces. Most of these are laugh-out-loud funny – notably Abel’s bid to smuggle Gordon out of hospital under his coat or a hotel guest’s indiscreet attempts to hide his pet dog – but the pacing feels off. The final half-hour of the film turns into a series of long chase sequences and the laughs get thinner on the ground. This filmmaking trio have imagination to spare, but they simply don’t know when to cut a joke.

They could learn a thing or two from Buster Keaton on matters of concision. As part of the BFI’s monthly Sunday Funday, the festival showcased the work of two silent comedy masters, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and seeing these silent, black-and-white films entrance an audience full of children was a joy. The Chaplin film was The Champion, an Essanay short from 1915 in which the Little Tramp character has already been established but Chaplin’s art has not yet been refined. This boxing-based farce displayed his sharp timing and keen eye for a gag, but it’s an extremely broad piece of work and disappointingly repetitive. However, I guess anything would suffer from being scheduled in a double-bill with Sherlock, Jr., Keaton’s 1924 masterpiece, which wastes barely a moment of its 45-minute running time. This is the great Buster at the peak of his physicality and creativity, crafting a groundbreaking work that explores the relationship between the audience and cinema with astonishing sophistication and wit. It is one of the great achievements in film, and now matter how many times I see Keaton step into that movie screen, avoid that dangerous number 13 ball, or flirt with danger on the handlebars of a motorbike, I remain awestruck by his unsurpassable brilliance.

The other legends being honoured at the LoCo Festival were Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, creators of Steptoe and Son and frequent collaborators with Tony Hancock. In 1962, Hancock asked Galton and Simpson to develop a new script for him to build on their recent success with The Rebel. When he declined to pursue the project, the script lay in a filing cabinet for almost 50 years until their biographer Christopher Stevens discovered it last summer. While I suggested above that many would see The Muppets as the festival’s major coup, this live reading of the long-lost Galton and Simpson script The Day Off was the jewel in the LoCo crown for me. The cast did an outstanding job of bringing the script to life, with most plaudits deservedly going to Tom Goodman-Hill who absolutely owned the stage as Tony, skilfully paying homage to Hancock while making his rendition feel like a real performance, not an impersonation. The Day Off is tightly constructed and full of wonderfully wry dialogue, but there’s a melancholy undertone to the story as Tony’s tentative relationship with a young woman (a charming Susy Kane), which has been built on lies, inevitably collapses. Galton and Simpson were on hilarious form in the Q&A and deservedly received a rousing standing ovation. This was one of those “you had to be there” BFI nights.

Ultimately, however, film festivals are all about finding new talent and fresh voices, and that’s where the man crawling out of a cat’s anus comes in (I know you’ve been waiting for it). The LoCo Film Festival’s Discovery Award will be presented to one short and one feature every year, and the inaugural short film recipient was the utterly bonkers All Consuming Love (Man in a Cat). While a disappointing earlier short called Wild Life had shown that having a great idea is only half the battle, All Consuming Love (Man in a Cat) develops a terrifically imaginative and satisfying narrative from its crazy premise, and its talented creators Louis Hudson and Ian Ravenscroft are names to watch. Similarly, we should expect a bright future for Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley, the co-directors of the marvellous Black Pond, a low-budget but strikingly confident and cinematic debut. This film draws us into its murky tale of murder with bold storytelling and visual choices, and an outstanding Chris Langham leads the note-perfect cast (although Simon Amstel’s supporting role really doesn’t work). Both All Consuming Love (Man in a Cat) and Black Pond emerged as films with a personality and vision that’s distinctly their own, and judging by the quality of these two films, the future of British comedy filmmaking is an exciting one, which certainly bodes well for the eagerly anticipated next edition of the LoCo Film Festival.

Phil Concannon writes about film.

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