Six Damn Fine Degrees #53: Barker, his name was. Benjamin Barker

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“Sweeney Todd was a barber of the old school, and he never thought of glorifying himself on account of any extraneous circumstance. If he had lived in Henry the Eighth’s palace, it would have been all the same to him as Henry the Eighth’s dog-kennel, and he would scarcely have believed human nature to be so green as to pay an extra sixpence to be shaven and shorn in any particular locality.

A long pole painted white, with a red stripe curling spirally round it, projected into the street from his doorway, and on one of the panes of glass in his window was presented the following couplet:

Easy shaving for a penny,
As good as you will find any.

We do not put these lines forth as a specimen of the poetry of the age; they may have been the production of some young Templer; but if they were a little wanting in poetic fire, that was amply made up by the clear and precise manner in which they set forth what they intended.”

— James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, The String of Pearls: A Romance (1846/47)

This passage is from the beginning of The String of Pearls, which was published as a penny dreadful serial from November 1846 to March 1847. It is the first story in which we meet Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. “How it was that he came by the name of Sweeney, as a Christian appellation, we are at a loss to conceive,” the writer prevaricates, “but such was his name.” This barber rented an entire house, of which he utilised only the shop and parlour. The rest was empty, and Todd could not be persuaded to let it at any price. The reason? Todd had a contraption by which he could drop customers down a hatch, killing them, after which their bodies were sold to the wildly popular pie-shop run by his accomplice Mrs Lovett for, well, filling meat pies. It goes without saying that the pies’ contents were as unknown to the innocent patrons of Mrs Lovett’s establishment as they were to the poor customers of Mr Todd, the barber.

This story is set in the London of 1785. So although The String of Pearls was published in the Victorian era, the setting is not Victorian. Under George III, mere property crimes were hanging offenses, criminalising the urban poor. Small wonder then that events in the story never end happily, most people are villains, destitute, or both, and crime is everywhere. The higher echelons are corrupt, the little people are compelled to resort to petty fraud, and life itself is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Urban myths like this one must have been well known to readers of this story. Tales of dodgy pies made of cats and even human beings are referenced in such serials as Dickens’ Pickwick papers (1836-1837), and Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-1844), among many others.

Modern audiences will remember the tale mainly from the Sondheim stage musical version, based on the melodrama by Christopher Bond (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1970), who added the revenge plot and, finally, gave Sweeney Todd his Christian name: Benjamin Barker.

Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in Sweeney Todd

These later stage and musical versions tell of this Benjamin Barker, barber by trade, who was sent to a penal colony on a trumped-up charge. When the story begins, he returns to London as Sweeney Todd, a deeply cynical, angry man. He believes the world is an evil place, and his one goal is to be reunited with his wife and daughter, who were left behind in the capital. When his landlady Mrs Lovett informs him his wife is dead, the last link to his own humanity is severed, and together they cook up a lucrative plot: kill people and process them into pies. Though Todd’s primary goal is revenge on Judge Turpin, the man who is responsible for his banishment, his wife’s fate, and now also holds Todd’s daughter captive, he is not particular. However many lives, be they virtuous or villainous, are lost to Todd’s blade, until his bloodlust is sated and his revenge is complete, he will murder indiscriminately.

In 2007, Burton’s film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was released, a faithful adaptation of Bond’s play, with music and lyrics by Sondheim. This gloomy modern version stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, which in this case may not seem an obvious choice. Not only is this a full-on musical-movie horror, the singing parts are challenging, and neither actor is a schooled singer. Depp was in a band, of course, which may or may not have helped. And though his seems a rather light voice to sing the lines of the monstrous Todd, his belting is perfectly serviceable. Bonham Carter’s singing part is clearly challenging, but her interpretation of the part and her acting generously make up for it. And, to be frank, watching a Grand Guignol-style bloody Burton-directed musical tale of butchery, complete with the full-on theatrical make-up and costuming (the production design is by Dante Ferretti): who cares if the baritone is a little too light and the bass-notes aren’t always quite in range.

The source itself is responsible for the, for lack of a better word, glee of this bloody romp of murder, cannibalism and unspeakable villainy. It is at times hilarious, albeit macabre. It is also full of the kind of double entendre that is evident even in the original. “I can guarantee the closest shave you’ll ever know!” (2007) or “There ain’t a shaving shop, although I say it, in the city of London that ever thinks of polishing anybody off as I do” (1846).

The cast is a sight to behold. Alan Rickman is delighted to be nefarious as Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall is extravagantly sleazy, and Sacha Baron Cohen is almost jubilant as Todd’s seedy competitor in the barbering business. Bonham Carter plays Lovett not as a vulgar harpy with aspirations above her station, but with a hint of vulnerability, which softens the stark plot somewhat. Together with the smashing orchestral score and Darius Wolski’s brooding cinematography, it makes a delectable musical penny-dreadful, just perfect for the darkening days of November. Bon appétit!

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