Tag Archives: sweeney todd

The Sweeney

Sweeney Todd has been very much on my mind lately. I recently saw a really excellent production of the Sondheim musical at Twickenham Theatre (ave atque vale). Then I heard that another production is to be staged at the venerable Harrington’s pie shop in Tooting, which also sounds like it’ll be worth seeing. And between these, I’ve been working on props and puppets for another Sondheim musical (come and see it, it’ll be awesome).

Sweeney Todd So who was Sweeney Todd? The tale has various forms, but the basic essence is that Todd is a murderous barber in Fleet Street (No. 186 to be precise) who kills his customers by means of a special chair (pictured left) and his trusty razor. The bodies are disposed of by his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, in the form of extremely tasty meat pies.

The story first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful called The String of Pearls: A Romance (“romance” meant something different then). Its enduring popularity led to its being retold in various versions over the decades, most of which played with the details a little – maybe Mrs Lovett was actually his lover, for instance. Oddly, the detail that he sliced his victims with a razor while preparing to shave them, which you’d think would be a pretty good starting point for such a horror story, was added in later versions. Christopher Bond’s 1970 play recast Todd as an anti-hero with a revenge motive, and this was carried over into Sondheim’s 1979 musical and the Tim Burton film version thereof.

Some folklorists would have you believe that Todd was a real figure, and certainly he shares with Sherlock Holmes the honour of being a London character so vivid that he almost seems to transcend fiction. But one thing we can be almost certain of is that he was not real. There are no surviving contemporary accounts of such a man, and the concept of a barber who kills his victims with a descending chair like some perverted version of a Thunderbirds launch sequence prior to serving them in delicious pie form would definitely be the sort of thing that would make the papers.

Stories of cannibalism were nothing new even then, and even the gruesome detail of the unwitting cannibal declaring the meat delicious was pretty long in the tooth – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Historia Regum Britanniae of a king marooned on an island whose servant was so loyal that he gave the king a slice of his own leg, which the king declared to be the most toothsome thing he’d ever eaten, and he had the good taste not to say, “I’ve heard of self service, but this is ridiculous!”

A popular suggestion is that the inspiration came from the legend of Sawney Bean, the 15th century patriarch of a family of cannibals who preyed on unwary travellers in Galloway. The fact that “Sweeney” sounds very much like an Anglicised version of “Sawney” leads me to think they’re on to something here, although admittedly other than the cannibalism, the two stories have little in common.

However, I wonder if there might have been a source of inspiration closer to home. I’ve written before about the epidemic of food adulteration in the 18th and 19th centuries – suppose our unknown author took this to its logical conclusion? Looking for a name for the chap who’d do such a thing, he recalled an old Scottish tale. Perhaps he even adapted it from an already existing urban legend.

I’d love to explore this further, but my dinner’s ready.

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Ebenezer Scrooge versus Sweeney Todd versus Big Ben

christmas-carol-poster-2You may have seen these posters around the place. Yes, they’ve made yet another version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I swear must be the most filmed book in the  entire world ever. This version, as you can see, stars Jim Carrey in 3D motion-capture glory (I hear he switched the lights on in Oxford Circus last night, good for him). He also appears to be getting some sort of sexual pleasure from that bollard there. No doubt this will be explained in the film itself. I won’t be going to see it, having already seen the versions starring Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Ross Kemp and Scrooge McDuck.

But I’m wandering from the point I started with, which is that the British posters feature, very prominently, the sight of Big Ben under construction. I have my own theory as to why this is, quite apart from the fact that Big Ben is shorthand for “You Are In London.” You may recall the Tim Burton-directed Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago. The publicity campaign for this ran into a little trouble over this image:

sweeney

If you take a look to Mr Depp’s right, you’ll see Big Ben emerging from the fog of Olde Londone Towne. This caused consternation among certain historically-minded folk, who pointed out that Big Ben (or, if you want to be pedantic, the Clock Tower) wasn’t built until 1859, and the story of Sweeney Todd is set at some point in the 1840s. The poster was pulled. The scene in which Todd sails under the 1894-built Tower Bridge was left in, which strikes me as a far greater anachronism (the filmmakers’ excuse was that it is depicted as still being under construction, builders at the time apparently being shite). One might also point out that the ship that brings him in would have docked at Rotherhithe rather than into the heinously busy Pool of London. One might further point out that Tim Burton’s version of London in Sweeney Todd is a Disneyfied vision of 19th century Olde Englande marketed towards weekend Goths, and actual historical accuracy might freak them out. Frankly we’re lucky Sherlock Holmes didn’t step in to save the day.

I actually quite liked the film, I should point out.

So anyway, yes. That, in my characteristic rambling style, is why I think the London version of the posters for Yet Another Christmas Carol make a scaffolding-clad Big Ben bigger than the main character – to show that they’ve actually done a bit of research unlike some we could mention. Of course, if you want my opinion, and you’re going to get it whether you want it or not, I think these people could save themselves a lot of trouble if they just went with St Paul’s Cathedral as the London landmark. It’s a better symbol for London than Big Ben, which isn’t even in the goddamn City.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/well-at-least-he-didnt-die-poor/ – The real-life historical figure that was the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.

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