Image for Paul Merton's Weird and Wonderful World of Early CinemaNot currently available on BBC iPlayer

Duration: 1 hour

Paul Merton goes in search of the origins of screen comedy in the forgotten world of silent cinema - not in Hollywood, but closer to home in pre-1914 Britain and France.

Revealing the unknown stars and lost masterpieces, he brings to life the pioneering techniques and optical inventiveness of the virtuosos who mastered a new art form. With a playful eye and comic sense of timing, Merton combines the role of presenter and director to recreate the weird and wonderful world that is early European cinema in a series of cinematic experiments of his own.

Last on

Fri 22 Mar 2013 00:45 BBC Four

  • Production Blogs

    Production Blogs


    If you think the above title is weird and incomplete then you are correct. For it’s become a blot on Miranda our Production Coordinator’s daily landscape. As she points out, our official title ‘PAUL MERTON’S WEIRD AND WONDERFUL WORLD OF EARLY CINEMA’ does not fit on any of the BBC's many weird and not so wonderful forms.

    We were pretty relieved when we managed to get it to fit on screen during the edit. The show opens in the manner of a silent cinema screen card. Paul had this idea along with many other inspired thoughts while he was editing the film. About a year ago he had expressed the wish to make this film about early French and British cinema and comedy pioneers but at that embryonic stage we advised him not to mention the ‘E’ word (Europe) lest it send potential commissioners, followed by viewers, running for the hills. Although coincidentally Paul’s recent series on Channel Five is all about Europe.

    As Paul will tell you in his web interview this documentary celebrates some of the very first stars, film pioneers and visionaries, most of whom you may never have heard of.

    And so we hope that if you watch this you will not have switched on having consulted your TV listings thinking it was going to be about CATS, CARAVANNING or CARPENTRY.

    This has been our third outing with Paul on BBC FOUR, as he further explores his passion for silent comedy and we are soon to begin working on his latest project, this time on BBC TWO as he heads for those hills for PAUL MERTON’S BIRTH OF HOLLY...

    Kate Broome, Producer


    After the last time I worked with Paul Merton - on a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s early, and predominantly silent, British films - I vowed never to work again with stuffed animals and children, or is that stuffed children and animals? A comedian’s props are one thing; a surreal comedian’s props are quite another matter. In detailing Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood career, I was required to find: a sick bucket, a pair of handcuffs, a large bunch of helium balloons, a ferula (an instrument of corporal punishment), a nun, a duvet, a sachet of butter, and a stuffed penguin.

    This time around - a documentary about early silent cinema - stuffed penguin was off the menu, and a pony was considered, although we never got as far as deciding whether it be dead or alive. Instead, a Victorian ladies bathing costume was required (for Paul, but of course), together with a sowester, a string vest, a Colt revolver, a few goldfish, a beach peep-thru board, a gendarme, and a choir of singing teeth.

    This all tells you of course, not only about the spontaneous workings of Paul’s mind, but also the manner in which he begins to set the scene for an alternative documentary. To explain; these incongruous items were required for sequences or vignettes featuring Paul, which he uses as light-hearted relief within the narrative, usually to illustrate a point about the original material, so whilst last time saw him ‘interview’ Alfred Hitchcock, this time round he transforms himself, not only into French film maker Georges Melies, but Melies’ Pere too, and then proceeds to have a frosty confrontation with himself.

    Some may find it surprising, daunting even, that Paul brings much of his improvisational skill to his role as director and on a tight schedule and budget but his skill and decision-making keep the script very fresh, and the production very organic. As with his comic style, once he has started on a train of thought, he remains faithful to it, but perhaps the most pleasing aspect of working with him is the sense of it being a team effort, which he generates and encourages.

    I have no doubt that for our next venture with Paul - a three-part series on the birth of Hollywood - among the requirements might be a mountain of custard pies, a crate of Californian oranges, the great wall of Babylon itself, brown shoe polish, a cardboard loudhailer, and perhaps a stuffed ostrich topped off with the head of Fatty Arbuckle.

    Matthew Thomas, Researcher

  • Paul Merton

    Paul Merton


Paul Merton
Paul Merton
Kate Broome
Executive Producer
Michael Poole
Paul Merton

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