The Internet Movie Data Base is a fantastic resource for researching, commenting on and reading about film and TV, especially when you get the dreaded “What were they in?” moment.
Easily solved by this superb website which exhibits the internet at it’s best.
There is however, a major error when you look up the fantastic Adrian Shergold film “Pierrepoint”, as the writing credits go to the poor mans Danny Baker, Bob Mills, famous in the 90’s for his “hilarious” David Seaman’s Football Bloopers, and even worse, Phil Tuffnell’s Cricket Nightmares. Just horrible.
But it’s true. Counter checking proved that the Lard Man so called Comic, was indeed responsible for the brilliant, understated and chilling script, so sensitively played by Timothy Spall and Juliet Stevenson, two better performances you will be hard pressed to find on TV this year. Yes. It’s ITV. Suprising but that’s life.
Pierrepoint was the most prolific hangman of the 20th Century, notching up 608 executions between 1933 and the mid 50’s when, racked with doubt, and having been turned from popular hero executing 47 Nazis, to hate figure of the Abolitionists who were beginning to take the ascendancy in the wake of the Ruth Ellis and Timothy Evans cases, he decided to retire.
Both cases were notorious, Evans a clear cut miscarriage of justice and Ellis shown no mercy by a barbaric and inhumane system. Add in the unbelievable execution of the mentally incompetent Derek Bentley, (Let Him Have It is one of the best British Films of the 90’s) meant that the groundswell for abolition became a tide and in 1965 Capital Punishment was suspended for a five year period, and once the evidence showed it’s futility Parliament voted for permanent abolition in 1970.
This film is not, however about the Capital Punishment as an issue in which the makers want us to take sides, more about Pierrepoint’s struggles with himself.
Delivering groceries, being a pub comic and eventual ebullient mien host in his own hostelry on the one hand, to developing into Britain’s number one hangman due to the efficiency and humanity in which he was able to dispatch his victims.
He took pride in the speed that he was able to execute people due to his fastidious study of the practice and although able to detach himself from the victim, he showed compassion by executing the youngest woman first in the Nazi series as “she will be most frightened”.
Indeed he was incensed when they were a coffin short after one day of dispatching organisers of Belsen, being told to “dump it in with the others”, that he threatened to walk of the job.
“They’ve paid the price and the slate is clean”, was his motto as he prepared the bodies for burial with the utmost dignity and respect bringing humanity to a grisly process.
And it was his inherent humanity that caused Pierrepoint to question what he was doing when a particularly personally harrowing execution is performed.
I have to admit I’m sceptical about this particular incidents reality as it seems far too coincidental and contrived but it does give the writers the vehicle to develop the story as we see the hangman finally break, receiving no sympathy from his oddly cold wife (Juliet Stevenson), who seems more capable of denial than her husband.
I made a detailed study of the Holocaust when I worked at Robert May’s School, and talking to survivors it comes across that it is somehow easier for them to deal with the horrors than those who inflicted them, as for the Jews there was no choice, whereas the perpetrators were often racked with guilt and many committed suicide in the years following the war as there was some element of deciding whether to actively participate or to be a passive onlooker.
And I suppose the same is true for Pierrepoint, as he chose this trade and eventually playing the two parts became too much to bear. A stunning film and one that questions why we do what we do. This is a must see picture which for me, is right up there with the likes of The Shawshank Redemption in the existential stakes.