Anyone who watched the recent series The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story (2019) will know how misogynistic assumptions can hamper an investigation and an obsession with the killer can reduce their victims to statistics and social judgement that puts part of the blame on to themselves. After all, society says, what were they doing out on their own anyway?
Historian Hallie Rubenhold’s recent book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper attempts to redress the balance by giving prominence to the stories of the women that were killed. But still the vast majority of material on serial killers focusses on the perpetrator. Is this because they, as the twisted instigator are the driving force? Largely, but I think it also helps that the vast majority of the victims are women and so a patriarchal society feels inherently safe to observe and sit in passive appraisal. People want a definable distance between such victims and themselves. So when the victim could be any old bloke who walks off the street into and into the sanctity of an all-male environment, like a barber’s shop, it captures the imagination.
The grooming and shedding of hair has long been synonymous with a civilised society. Barber’s shops have a long history not just as salons but as places of healing and social hubs. From Ancient Greece to well, Desmond’s (1989-1994) they’ve been used as places of gossip and informal networking. In the middle ages the men who cut hair also performed surgery, dentistry and other medical services not carried out by doctors, barbers being seen as men skilled with blades. The sign of a Barber-Surgeon – that of bloodied rags drying round a pole – survived into modernity. The role of barbers as a place of male intimacy and camaraderie can be typified in 20th century Britain with the euphemistic question of whether the customer might require ‘something for the weekend?’ the most socially acceptable way for men to acquire prophylactics. And this is what sets the barbers apart from other male environs like the pub, vulnerability. Because after all, if you don’t trust someone you pay to put a blade to your throat…
So take someone who’s good with sharp objects and a safe (and intimate) space for men and you have an environment perfect for horror. And that’s before we get to the unwitting cannibalism.
Sweeney Todd first appeared in the Penny Dreadful serial A String of Pearls (1847). A writer has never been formally identified although James Malcolm Rymer and perhaps Thomas Peckett Prest are the most likely candidates, apparently drawing on local legends of the time. The story (assuming you’re not familiar with it) concerns a barber who murders patrons by means of a trap door under the barber’s chair (before or after slitting their throats). Their flesh is then used for the meat in Mrs. Lovett’s nearby pie shop. The story made an immediate impact with a stage play adaptation from George Dibden Pitt underway before the serial’s completion. Since then it has never really left UK public consciousness, with over 20 productions on stage, screen, television, radio and ballet, most famously Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical, later made into a film by Tim Burton (guess who that starred).
At the time of writing there’s a Sweeney Todd experience in The London Dungeons. The version we’re looking at here comes from Thames Television’s anthology series Mystery and Imagination.
Mystery and Imagination began life with ABC television under new producer Jonathan Alwyn, a director on The Avengers, Armchair Theatre and Out of this World. It adapted short stories of writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mrs. Oliphant, and saw the first TV productions of M.R. James, initially with the recurring character of Richard Beckett, from Sheridan Le Fanu’s The Room in the Dragon Volant. The programme ran for three series between 1966 and 1968 before refranchising saw the show move to Thames, and a new format. The running time lengthened to 90 minutes (with adverts) and reduced to three episodes per series. This set up lasted for two series, in 1968 and 1970. Sweeney Todd was the second episode of series five and thus the penultimate Mystery and Imagination, broadcast on 16 February 1970. The adaptation was written by experienced TV writer Vincent Tilsley who’d adapted a number of classic texts and would shortly go on to create the overlooked The Guardians (1971) with Rex Firkin. It was produced and directed by Reginald Collin, best known as the producer of Callan.
We open on a studio set of Fleet Street (St Dunstan’s clock in a convenient sell). There’s no location work here but any of the usual allowances one makes for 70s TV production cheapness is largely redundant in this very theatrical adaptation. A TV play in the truest sense. We focus on a young rich man (Doctor Who fans may have fun identifying Australian actor Lewis Fiander and recalling his joyfully scene-chewing turn as Tryst in The Nightmare of Eden (1979)) as he’s enticed into the barber shop of Sweeney Todd (Freddie Jones) who spots the string of pearls he’s carrying. Todd takes care to remind the gentleman (and the viewer) of the barber’s bloody history (barbarism?). He also laments on the innocence of youth, seemingly equating hirsuteness with corruption. These opening scenes give a useful build up to mood and tone, with Jones’s eerie mumblings particularly unsettling, but the camera work is rigid, limited by the raised set so when the gentleman asks “what’s that?”, there’s no corresponding close up or cutaway to show what ‘it’ is and the viewer’s forced to wait for Jones to walk over and pick up the knife (or is it a saw?) and the tension suffers for it. There’s also a seemingly awkward sequence where Todd looks in the mirror before “polishing off” the gentleman and the lighting changes suddenly, as if he’s undergoing some sort of transformation. It’s jarring but it does pay off later…
With the gentleman dead the action shifts to Mrs. Lovett’s (Heather Canning) pie shop, full of Hogarthian grotesques shouting loudly about how good the pies are. There’s no real time given to establish that the pies are human flesh nor is the manner of their production discussed or demonstrated. It’s just assumed the viewing public know that Sweeney Todd kills people and Mrs Lovett makes them into meat pies. Similarly Mrs. Lovett’s motives are not discussed in any great detail, she’s demonstrably manipulative and money seeking but it’s as if her motivations are irrelevant; she’s Mrs. Lovett therefore she’s a wrong ‘un. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the same were true of Todd but the truth is this production is all about what drives him and why. Everything else is window dressing.
In a flashback sequence we see Todd’s unloved childhood, abandoned by his mother and step father to a quack doctor, Crumbles (Callan regular Russell Hunter) who beats and berates him to be a man. Crumbles is quite hairy too. So in a none too subtle fashion we’re given a serial killer’s origin story and invited to sympathise. But yet, there’s something else going on here.
Todd tries to sell the stolen pearls to a dealer, Brogen (Peter Sallis) but without provenance they won’t fetch market price. Todd then flees to Rat Castle, a den of cut throats and cut purses where the pearls are examined by someone called Mandel (also Peter Sallis, and spot Heather Canning in the background playing Molly). One awkward jump cut later and we’re back at the mirror in the barber’s shop. What is happening? We see things as Todd sees them but other characters don’t behave the way we might expect and they tend to look alike if they play similar roles in Todd’s life. Todd then repeats the cycles that begat him, fearing his apprentice is nearing puberty and thus becoming sinful and corrupted, he sends him to an asylum run by another quack doctor, this time Fogg (but again played by Russell Hunter).
Everything is becoming overblown and exaggerated. Now in 2019 this may be harder to discern from standard 70s genre TV fayre, and even at the time of broadcast its historical setting wouldn’t have made this too obvious but the signs are there. Todd’s basement is less underground storage facility and more gothic dungeon. The beadle that visits Todd to investigate the awful smell is so hammed up it’s like actor Barry Stanton was told to caricature Francis L. Sullivan’s roles in David Lean films (worth noting that Barry Stanton would later play an old ham massively overacting the part of the postman in The Young Ones episode Nasty (1984)). Finally the woman-disguised-as-young-boy trope so ridiculed in Black Adder II (1985) fools Todd completely even when it’s blatantly obvious to the viewer. At what point you come to the conclusion that all of this is happening in Todd’s head rather than a shoddy production will depend on how well disposed you are to the limitations of multi camera studio productions. Ultimately the revelation that Sweeney Todd is a deluded, confused old man in need of help is both refreshingly surprising and vaguely disappointing.
Nevertheless this is a confident production made with care and skill, hanging everything from a strong performance from Freddie Jones. It has its cake and eats it by subverting the very clichés of gothic fiction it relies on. Yet the fictional nature of Sweeney Todd should not disguise that in focusing on the killer at the expense of the victim, the deaths on society’s margins can be so much entertainment for the masses.