In the very early days of Channel 4, the station had less programmes than it had air time. Initially, there were interludes between shows to cover the gaps but, quite quickly, they turned to the past for help. It was here that I first saw ‘The Human Jungle’, 'The Twilight Zone', ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ - and, as you may have guessed, I liked them. They also showed old films – some so old they seemed to go back to the dawn of cinema, so old that they demanded to be watched in a completely different way (I’m sure they showed silent films, for instance, but may very well be wrong). It was like the Wild West for a while: anything went. It was rather cool.
‘Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street’ is a film that found itself dusted off and unleashed on the UK by Channel 4 nearly fifty years after it was first released, one of a series of films starring the semi-forgotten Tod Slaughter (not his real name. His real name was Norman Slaughter). Slaughter was an ‘expressive’ actor manager from Newcastle who had successfully revived a number of lurid Victorian melodramas on stage in the twenties, and then on film from the mid-thirties.
Slaughter specialised in maniacs, and was very good at them. He never essayed supercool, intellectual killers, or cat stroking megalomaniacs, concentrating instead on twitching, shouting, foaming at the mouth killer loonies. He gives some of the most gleefully ridiculous performances of all time, somewhere between panto and genuine mental illness. For all that, he’s still a better actor than Terence Stamp, and much more fun to watch.
When revived on Channel 4, these were old films of old productions of even older plays and, as such, they seemed alien and bizarre, not least with regard to the performances (see above), which all teeter between ham and hysteria. Everything about the films seemed old fashioned, outmoded, ancient, antique - from the dead cast (Slaughter had died in 1956; his company were almost all middle aged) to the blurred, scratchy prints and the noisy hum of the often inaudible soundtrack. You could be forgiven for thinking they had been excavated during an archaeological dig.
Yet ‘Sweeney Todd’ still made a big impression – I remember kids at school enthusing about it, particularly in terms of how exciting and violent it was. Having re-watched it recently, however, I simply couldn’t connect that impression with the stagey, shouty, cheap, creaky, washed out and worn non-spectacle I was seeing thirty years later - eighty years after it had been made. Then I realised that, although the film never actually provided much in the way of murder and mayhem, it had worked a little stage craft and let us see what was not there – it felt exciting and violent, and all the gory details were provided by that wonderful and underused commodity, imagination. Fancy that.
As a postscript, I'll just add that I performed in a Victorian melodrama while at school, one that Slaughter had great success with: 'Maria Marten and the Murder at the Red Barn'. It was a brilliantly overwrought piece of gothic, full of declamatory statements, fixed poses and intensely serious expressions, so much so that it was difficult to perform without bursting into laughter. It was an enormous amount of fun.
For the record, I played Tim Bobbin, the village idiot. Typecasting: the curse of any great actor.