Slapstick Festival Laughs in Lockdown

This time last year the future looked tragic for Bristol’s annual Slapstick festival of silent and classic screen comedy. 

Ever since it began in 2005, Slapstick has earned the bulk of its running costs itself, thanks largely due to the willingness of a wide range of crowd-pulling celebritiess to take part as advisors, curators, festival event hosts and, crucially, in year-round fund-raising efforts. 


But restrictions and closures due to the pandemic ruled out any live between-festival income generators and set Slapstick’s planners facing a financial banana skin. 

A year on, however, and the Slapstick team are smiling again, having just delivered – with the help of BFI FAN Covid-19 Resilience Fund, Bristol City Council grants and advice, training and support from the Film Hub South West, and its community of members – a live-streamed version of the festival watched by broadly as many pairs of eyes as when it was venue-based (7,200)! Slapstick’s online edition notched up:  

  • Viewers from all parts of the UK and 19 other countries
  • Live contributions from guests (including musicians playing live accompaniments to silent films), in Germany, France and the east & west coasts of the USA 
  • Record sales of full festival passes (292)
  • The festival’s first spotlight on comedy artists of African heritage 
  • An approval rating of 4.5/5 from those who completed the audience survey  

Slapstick – Live in Lockdown promotional image

Slapstick events manager Jacqui Ham says:There’s some irony in that the rescue has hinged in part on a festival dedicated to celebrating the very earliest days of cinema and vintage TV making the most of new screen-based technologies – video channels, streaming services, online hangouts, live chat and virtual cinemas.  But what was truly invaluable was the support we had as a member of the Film Hub South West network.” 

The support kicked in first when Slapstick realised it could raid its film vaults to keep the idea of the festival alive while also boosting the nation’s spirits and wanting to do some technical brain-picking 

Enter: Laughter in Lockdown – a regular release for free viewing on YouTube of previously unshared and unique archive footage featuring (among others) Sir Ken Dodd, French and Saunders, The Goodies, Eric Sykes, Tim Vine and Victoria Wood and much more  

Clara Bow

So far, the films have notched up more than 100k views in total and introduced many new film and comedy fans to the Slapstick name. 

The next challenge was to bring in enough money to cover the upfront costs of staging a multi-faceted screen festival, including finding and securing the rare, and or fragile old silent films which are central to every Slapstick event and, as the festival often does, commissioning new scores. 

The answer was Slapstick’s Big Comedy Night In – an admission-by-donation online variety show hosted by Robin Ince and offering up sets by Frankie Boyle, Jo Brand, Rory Bremner, Rob Brydon, Abi Clarke, Jack Dee, Hugh Dennis, Stephen Fry, Harry Hill, Lee Mack, Stephen Merchant, David Mitchell, Sir Michael Palin and Lucy Porter. (to name only a selection). 

Here again, Slapstick was able to test and promote the idea with support from Film Hub South West, its members, and friends before staging a show which raised more than double its initial £5,000 target and gave a major boost to the festival’s online profile; mailing lists and social media followings. 

By October, it was clear Slapstick 2021 could go ahead but the new questions arose – when and how?

This was where our Film Hub membership truly came into its own. Pitch Pot funding meant we could be more adventurous with content. It was an advantage that we could pick so many brains about the best platforms and so on to use. And when we settled on using Eventive’s virtual cinema package, to hear what others had to say about any pitfalls to avoid or ways to improve the experience for viewers. Jacqui Ham

Noel Feilding, Lucy Porter, Rob Brydon, and Matt Lucas

In addition, Film Hub training meant the issue of accessibility was not overlooked and led to one of the festival’s most popular events being subtitled and a helpdesk operating every morning to answer any user queries. 

The shift paid off in several ways but the stand-out one is how international it made a previously Bristol-only festival – drawing in both participants and audiences from all across the UK and from 19 other countries, including musicians playing live in Germany, the Netherlands and New York; speakers from Los Angeles, Paris, New York and Washington DC and viewers living as far from Bristol as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Turkey and Finland. 

It has also changed the festival’s thinking 

In an apt echo of the switch that many of Slapstick’s most honoured stars – such as Chaplin, Keaton and Stan Laurel – made from traditional music halls to the ‘new-fangled’ medium of silent cinema, it appears that online elements are now almost certain to become a regular part of the Slapstick programme. 

Pam Beddard is a Bristol-based freelance publicist & marketing advisor with a special interest in film, factual television and screen festivals. As well as looking after press & PR for Slapstick, she is the PR/marketing consultant for Afrika Eye, Cary Grant Comes Home and We Are Tano and has also worked for – among others – Calling The Shots, Creative England, Film Africa, Film Bath,  the F-Rating and Wildscreen; assorted TV indies and on the regional launch of BAIT (Mark Jenkins/ Early Day Films).

  • Visit her website here


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