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The Silent Movie Experience
Published on Thursday, 06 June 2013

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3 stars

The Old Courtroom (venue website)
12, 19, 26 May, 3:00pm-4:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Warning: Contains flashing lights.
 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

In the suitably retro setting of The Old Courtroom, West End musician David Watts treats us to a family-friendly showing of Charlie Chaplain’s 1916 film Behind The Screen – which he accompanies on a keyboard and a percussion set, recruiting eager young volunteers from the audience to fill additional instrumental roles. Famed (as I now know) as the first appearance of the custard-pie fight on celluloid, this energetic movie is enhanced by Watts’ madcap soundtrack, which he skilfully synchronises in a live performance that’s both visually engaging and tunefully fine.

This, after all, is how the movie was meant to be seen.  It’s easy to forget now, but back in the day, every single cinema had at least one musician performing the music for every single film – a hybrid form of art that’s almost lost today.  It’s both fascinating and entertaining to see it brought back to life, and while Watts does cheat a little bit with a rather synthetic-sounding backing track, there’s no denying that his occasionally-frenetic playing melds perfectly with the action on the screen.

But there’s a problem here, and in retrospect it’s an obvious one: Behind The Screen is only 23 minutes long.  To make his show up to the regulation hour, Watts delivers an extended comic prelude – beginning with a stage-managed “breakdown” of his projector, and taking in such gems as a homemade pie-thrower and an entertaining raspberry-blowing machine.  There’s some warm-spirited audience interaction, calling up three “volunteers” for a live re-enactment of a classic movie scene, and an amusing (if lengthy) silent-movie parody with Watts in the starring role.

Parts of the routine worked well, setting us up to appreciate the finer points of the film itself, and Watts’ banter with a young helper who tried to take over the show was a moment of pure unscripted joy.  Overall though, I found the build-up rather too slow, and the kids in the room looked a little fidgety too.  I can’t help feel that the “breakdown” gambit was played too early: I’d arrived expecting to see a movie, and it was frustrating to be asked to wait half an hour before the first full minute of footage appeared on the screen.

The film, though, is worth waiting for.  You can laugh at the custard pies, and the pratfalls, and Charlie Chaplain’s expressions; and you can laugh at the dodgy editing and paper-thin plot, if you choose to.  But as for me, I watched with a sense of wonderment – enthralled by the knowledge that everything I saw really did happen, somewhere in Hollywood a hundred years ago.  The skill, timing and occasional physical courage was nothing short of inspirational, and perhaps Watts’ greatest achievement is that he’s had the vision to update this timeless treat for the children (and young-at-heart grown-ups) of today.

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