We're back! A mere fifteen months since our last gathering, Aaardvark presents The Great 1996 Reunion Video Night, featuring all your old favourites: silents old and new from Buster Keaton and Eric Sykes, hilarious mayhem from the Goodies, a brand new compilation of the many film and TV appearances of a certain Mr Spong Mollikin, spinster of this parish, and finally the world, nay universal, premiere of Aaardvark's greatest hits, completely re-edited and digitally remastered, in glorious stereophonic surround sound (and all through one speaker, folks!).
After The General, The Navigator was, of all his films, Keaton's personal favourite. This was the film that put his name along with Chaplin and Lloyd's in the public mind, and it grossed over $680,000 (only Battling Butler was more successful). Following Keaton's film revivals in the 1960s, The Navigator quickly came to be established as his greatest work after The General, and when the international film critic's poll voted the latter the 7th greatest film ever made, The Navigator was not far behind at number 14. In recent years, the realisation of the importance of Sherlock Junior and Our Hospitality to the development of film has tended to diminish The Navigator's acclaim rather unfairly. Time Out describes it as "one of the funniest of all Keaton features", but goes on to say that it is "prevented from becoming one of his best only because it (necessarily) lacks the lovingly detailed backgrounds and incredibly beautiful visual textures of films like Our Hospitality, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr." This is a fair point, but the real genius of this film is that it deliberately limits its scope, and yet still produces an epic. Chaplin probably thought he was really clever to do a solo act for 15 minutes in One A.M., but here Keaton makes almost an entire feature film with one setting and only two characters. The awesome power of the ghost ship on which Buster and his intended fiancée find themselves provides much of the epic quality of this work, and the gags stem directly from their efforts to adapt to life on such a vessel. But what Keaton is really doing in this film is giving us the first major exploration of the way his character relates to women.
There is always a love interest in Keaton's films - his character always recognised the necessity of women, and pursued them, even if he was more interested in the challenge than in the end result of marital bliss (indeed, often he would provide an ironic coda to his films showing just how over-rated was that particular state, his own marriage to Natalie Talmadge being something of a disaster). But as long as there are women around, he will always do his best to make them happy. The famous critic Walter Kerr has written, "He is thus respectful, honourable and adoring. There is just one terrible hitch. The pact that Keaton has long since made with the not entirely sane universe - his plea of nolo contendere, his willingness to go along and let it ride - is a pact that no girl, no woman, can ever comprehend or agree to. Women take arms against a sea of troubles, and so double them. Women are activists, highly rational creatures who would not think for a moment of going fishing while trouble was afoot, certainly not of standing still until a falling building fell. Instead, they do things, and the doing, alas, completely upsets the ever-so-tentative, ever-so-delicate harmony Keaton's watchful waiting has achieved.
In The Navigator, then, Keaton shows us just how much trouble the girl (played by Sherlock Jr's Kathryn McGuire) can get Buster into. When they run up a rescue flag to alert a passing ship of their presence, it is she who replaces the one Buster has chosen with one she thinks looks prettier - of course, it turns out to be the quarantine flag and the ship turns away. She then insists that Buster follow the departing vessel; cut to one of Keaton's most memorable images, that of Buster in a tiny rowing boat attempting to pull the whole enormous liner after him in pursuit of the other ship. It is she who insists that they play a game with a pack of soaking wet cards - Buster goes through the hilarious motions of shuffling and dealing these cards as if they were good as new, simply because he doesn't want to disappoint her. It is she who insists that he puts on the diving suit to repair the outside of the ship, a cue for some brilliantly innovative underwater film-making by Keaton. No matter how hard she tries to help, it will always go wrong. When Buster falls in the water she throws a life-belt down to him - it hits him on the head and knocks him unconscious!
All this serves only to bring them together - the more Buster suffers at her hands, the more he increases his efforts to help her. But it is only at the very end of the film that they can finally come together - the ship has been taken by cannibals and Buster and the girl, now in the water, cling together and prepare to give themselves up to the sea. At last she has accepted his philosophy, and immediately they are rescued - Keaton's faith in the universe emerges triumphant (at least until she kisses him, and sends his whole world literally spinning in the closing gag).
The Navigator is brilliant for many more reasons, and features some of the most haunting images of all silent film, not least Buster rising god-like from the sea to rescue the girl from cannibals. It features some of Keaton's funniest routines, such as the famous scene when Buster and the girl first realise each is not alone on the ship, and desperately try to find one another, resulting in one of the most perfectly choreographed pieces of visual comedy ever made (and which James Agee used to represent the whole genius of silent comedy in his famous Life article of 1949). There is also the only truly funny deckchair routine ever filmed, to which Keaton adds the extra dimension of having the girl asleep in the deckchair while he struggles to put it up. All this and much more makes The Navigator a true masterpiece, one of the pinnacles of film comedy.
For our last term of Video Nights at York, I had hoped to be able to show an episode which was not available on video, and which had never been repeated on terrestrial TV. Unfortunately the batch did not arrive until too late, but here at last we can present a Goodies classic you will quite definitely NOT have seen (unless you're rich enough to have UK Gold, of course). There's not really much I need to say about it - it guest stars Jack Douglas, one of the regulars from the later Carry On films, and features all the usual visual hilarity which make the Goodies so infinitely better than the tediously pseudo-intellectual rip-offs of Q perpetrated by the over-rated Pythons.
NB - Amazing fact for Doctor Who fans: the royal throne used in the Key to Time classic The Androids of Tara is actually Tim's chair from The Goodies! Oh, if only the BBC still knew the meaning of the word "economy"...
A bumper compilation put together specially for tonight from the all-too-tiny Spike collection of the Jazz Archives. Of course there's plentiful material from Q (much of it taken from the unbelievably brilliant new BBC Video Spike, which no self-respecting human being should be without), but we really only scratch the surface of Spike's once-colossal TV output, with clips from Milligan's Wake, Monitor, Have I Got News For You, numerous chat shows, and the delightful An Evening with Spike Milligan, which (if you don't count his new children's series, Wolves, Witches and Giants) is the first time Spike's been given his own TV programme for FOURTEEN years (and needless to say it was not the BBC who gave him it). Let's just hope it won't be the last time as well.
Spike's film career is easier to represent - unlike Sellers, he never became the great film comedian which he so clearly deserved to be. Most of his film work, therefore, comprises scene-stealing cameos in other people's films, but he has on a few occasions been able to write and star in some projects of his own. The clips being shown tonight are taken from the following:
So there you have it - forty years of TV and film clips from the world's greatest living comic genius. And don't forget, Spike's new book (Black Beauty according to Spike Milligan) is just out, and it's only a few weeks until the next volume of Goon Show Classics comes out on cassette...
Perhaps Eric's funniest TV silent, this features him and Tommy Cooper as furniture removal men, foiling Richard Briers' attempts to move into his new home. Jimmy Edwards and Bernard Cribbins are among the guest cast, and the great Irene Handl makes one of her last appearances. Apparently, Eric is now trying to get a film project going with, of all people, the American comic actor Walter (The Odd Couple) Matthau, so fingers and toes crossed!
As a prequel to the documentary to end all documentaries, a brand new compilation of Aaardvark's finest video moments, with all your favourites featuring libraries, toilets, pomegranates, bicycles, matchboxes, elephants, newsflashes, violins, hats, psychoanalysts, Vidal Sassoon and Electric Crocodiles from Venus. All this plus a couple of extracts from the forthcoming epic documentary spectacular - to be screened at the next Aaardvark Video Night (Christmas, perhaps?). See you then...