Sunday, 14 July 2013

Left hanging

There's an annual Shakespeare Festival in Victoria, played outside on the grounds of Camosun College on summer evenings. This year, the plays are The Merry Wives of Windsor and Measure for Measure. This will be my first viewing of the former, but the latter is an old favourite of mine.

When I was studying literature in university, I tended to pick poetry and drama courses, because there was, on the whole, less reading required, and because audio recordings of some of the poetry and most of the plays on the syllabus were available in the audio library in the university library. The recording of Measure for Measure was a particular delight. In one of my favourite scenes, the waggish Claudio finds himself apprenticed to the prison hangman Abhorson, a humourless fellow who takes his job seriously and declares (in the voice of someone who sounds like he's been gargling with carbolic acid) that his profession is "a mystery": Sir, it is a mystery. I was thinking of Abhorson the other night during my own private film festival.

I should explain. During several of the past twelve summers I've returned to Victoria, I've held a little event for myself which I call "Persephone's Summer Film Festival". Not every summer, y'understand, because this festival requires two things: reasonable proximity to Pic-a-flic, which is simply one of the world's best DVD rental outlets; and access to the means and a place where I can quietly watch film on my own. (Is that three things? Sorry.)

The acquisition of a laptop computer made the second (and third) thing a constant. When I'm ensconced in the basement guest room of Demeter's condominium building (four blocks away from Pic-a-flic), I can indulge in a recently released film each night, with plenty of time to stroll down and return it the next day. However, with one exception, all my summer house-sits have been across the city, sometimes quite far out of the city, so that has me searching through Pic-a-Flic's crammed shelves of so-called "library videos". These are videos which are no longer recent, and you may rent several at a time and keep them for a week. It's another good excuse to visit Demeter.

While poring through the collections for this week's selections, I happened upon something starring Timothy Spall entitled Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman. I was startled, because I could tell the film was relatively recent, about 2005, yet I'd never heard of it. It also appeared to be a co-production with Masterpiece Theater -- yet I had never seen it. Once I got it into my laptop, I understood why.

Strong cast, strong story (although much dramatic licence has been taken). You may also need a strong stomach. This is the story of Albert Pierrepoint who was, in point of fact, not the last hangman in Britain -- apparently the Americans needed a more salient title -- but a grocer who was also a professional executioner, like his father and his uncle before him. As portrayed by Timothy Spall, Pierrepoint is a man who, like Abhorson, takes putting people to death very seriously, earning himself a reputation for speed, efficiency, and humaneness. He achieves this by sticking closely to his principles of how the job is to be done, with a powerful sense of right and wrong. This is not in the sense of what his victims have done to deserve the death penalty; he doesn't necessarily want to know. As far as he is concerned, when he sets out to perform an execution, he is, for the duration of the job, not Albert Pierrepoint but the instrument of the justice system and once the prisoner is dead, they have paid the price and are now innocent. Between 1933 and 1955, he hanged somewhere between 400 and 600 people, including rather a lot of the Nazi war criminals condemned at the Nuremberg Trials and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

It didn't take long to understand why I had never seen this on Masterpiece Theater. I could say this is an unflinching view of twentieth century British capital punishment, but I flinched quite a bit. We see a good sampling of these hangings and these are shown very realistically. At one point, we see a woman's naked lower body, as Pierrepoint washes her down in preparation for the undertaker, one of the hangman's duties.

However, I think the topic was sensitively handled, although a lot of liberty has been taken with the facts. In order to deliver more drama to the narrative, assumptions have been made about Pierrepoint's relationship with his wife, and when Pierrepoint finds himself having to execute someone he knows (which did happen), the man is portrayed as a close friend when in real life, he was more of an acquaintance. Pierrepoint did write an autobiography which I would now like to read.

As for Measure for Measure, it is not available at Pic-a-Flic. I have been able to view it once more on YouTube, so I feel prepared for the mystery.

1 comment:

JoeinVegas said...

A long afternoon lost in videos - I hope you had popcorn handy as well. Sounds like fun.