Saturday, 4 May 2013

Sweeny Todd: He'll Polish You Off

This post is dedicated to that ferocious and iconic murderer, Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I'm inspired by a recent purchase: a box set of British television classics, Mystery and Imagination, which I picked up at Movie Mail. It was a speculative purchase; I wanted to see how reliable Movie Mail was, and figured risking a couple bucks on a DVD or two was hardly going to break the bank if it went wrong. As it turned out, Movie Mail was very reliable, but I hadn't expected to enjoy Mystery and Imagination quite as much as I have done.

This British TV series, filmed in the late 1960s and early 70s, took iconic horror fiction and recast it for what was then a modern television audience. You can probably guess where it picked up most of its source material. I hadn't expected Denholm Elliott to be quite as good a Dracula as he turned out to be, for a start, and this was the first time Uncle Silas hasn't bored me to tears; but I want to talk to you about Sweeny, as his adaption is, to my mind, the best of the bunch.

Sweeny Todd's story ought to known to all of you by now: barber operates a murder-and-theft racket, using his neighbor Mrs Lovatt's pie shop as a convenient means of getting rid of the evidence. Since its original incarnation back in the early 19th Century as a penny shocker serial, Sweeny's seen stage, film and television adaptations, some of them more faithful to the novel than others. I'm sure Sweeny & Todd's in Reading isn't the only pie shop he inspired, but it's one I remember fondly from my student days. He's been carving up victims and dumping them in his cellar with aplomb for very nearly two centuries, and his neighbor Mrs. Lovatt's long pig pie empire has only grown in the telling. I couldn't help thinking, as I watched it, how so many would-be authors over that same two centuries, desperate to make their mark, would kill for the kind of fame Sweeny has achieved; and yet nobody really knows who wrote the original, or if Sweeny's character is based on an actual murderer. 

The television episode inspired me to pick up the actual novel - $0.99 on iTunes, someone has clearly half-inched the original from somewhere - and, almost to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Victorian serial fiction is always hit-or-miss; cranked out in a hurry to meet publication dates, with plot and character development secondary considerations at best, it often ends up a disaster. To be fair, Sweeny isn't quite an exception to the rule. Almost every character except for Sweeny is a bit lifeless, and the plot probably wouldn't stand very close inspection, but it holds together remarkably well, and is very briskly paced. Moreover I discovered, which I hadn't been expecting, that the television adaptation - with a truly remarkable performance by Freddie Jones as Sweeny - is actually quite faithful to its source material. Except that it misses out a scene that works wonders in the book, and though I can see why it was dropped I can't help feeling a little sorry that it was. I won't go into too much detail, except to ask a rhetorical question: if Sweeny provides the meat, and Mrs Lovatt the shop front, how do all those pies get baked?

All that aside, where ought Sweeny to fit in an RPG model? Well, as an iconic horror character there's plenty to like about Sweeny. He's the original murderer next door; you see him every day, sweeping his front stoop, always has a smile for his fellow man, and if his apprentice seems afraid of him, what of that? Apprentices are notoriously unreliable. And those pies! The novel, very cleverly, opens with them:

Yes, on the left hand side of the Bell-Yard, going down from Carey Street was, at the time we write of, one of the most celebrated shops for the sale of veal and pork pies that London ever produced. High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it; its fame had spread far and wide; it was because the first batch of these pies came up at twelve o'clock that there was such a rush of the legal profession to obtain them.

Their fame had spread to great distances. Oh, those delicious pies! There was about them a flavor never surpassed, and rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of such a delicious gravy that defies description; and the fat and the lean so artistically mixed up ...

If this were Bookhounds of London, there are two obvious routes to go with Sweeny: Arabesque, and Technicolor. A Technicolor Sweeny relies heavily on the legend - the razor, those pies - but perhaps also ought to rely on film, specifically this 1937 Todd adaptation. I mention it not because it's any good - I haven't even seen it, so I can't judge - but because of its title role actor, Tod Slaughter. Take a look at that biography. Imagine a stage actor who used to play the hero, the Sherlock Holmes, the d'Artagnan, but who's just a little too old for it now, and a little too down-at-heel to refuse parts. Suddenly he finds fame again, except this time he's the villain, the Demon Barber. He can't afford to lose this role, and that means he has to play it right to the hilt. He needs to become Sweeny Todd, body and soul. Someone like that might want to collect every single thing ever written about Sweeny - which is where the Bookhounds come in - and perhaps might go a step too far in recreating his antihero. Say he even opens a mock barber's shop, a kind of crucible in which he plays his role day after day, perfecting it, so he can go on stage in the evening. Actors have done stranger things to keep a job. But suppose one step further: suppose that, in becoming Sweeny Todd, this man somehow recreates not just the title character, but everything that goes with him. Suppose that another shop opens up not far from his own; suppose that a pleasant, attractive woman starts serving the most delicious pies from that establishment. How, the Bookhounds might wonder, was this achieved, and what does it mean?

Jack Slaughter also known as Sweeny Todd
Athletics 9, Disguise 14, Driving 5, Firearms 4, Filch 6, Fleeing 12, Health 9, Mechanical Repair 8, Scuffling 8, Weapons 14
Hit Threshold: 4
Alertness Modifier: +0 / +2 (inside shop only)
Stealth Modifier: +1
Weapon: razor (-1), rapier (+0, only used in d'Artagnan role, and so only likely to be used if Slaughter isn't immersed in his Todd personality)
Magic: 8 (only accessible when playing Todd, and then unconsciously).
Special: When playing Todd, Slaughter has access to idiosyncratic magic techniques. He uses these most often to improve Fleeing and Weapons; he can spend 2 Magic to gain 1 point, but unlike a player, the Keeper must specify before a roll is made whether or not Todd is making use of this power. His shop acts as a kind of Fane, and Slaughter can only refresh his Magic pool if he spends an uninterrupted 8 hours at the shop. Uninterrupted in this context means without being attacked, or reminded that he is, in fact, Slaughter and not Todd. Shaving - or polishing off - a customer does not count as an interruption. 

Arabesque ought to be a little different. Arabesque might assume that there really was a Sweeny Todd; after all, there's no way to know one way or the other, and the location itself is certainly real enough. St Dunstan's has been there since the Middle Ages, and its crypts - those same crypts where, so it's said, Sweeny disposed of his victims - have a centuries-old history. The church itself, from the characters' perspective, is relatively modern; the old medieval building, clustered close about with shops like Sweeny Todd's, was demolished in the early 19th Century, scarcely a hundred years prior from a Bookhounds point of view. But London has a long memory. If, say, restoration work was taking place, and if a curious member of the public (or clergy) should ask the Bookhounds if they have any records of the building as it once stood, they might discover a secret or two hidden away in their musty old tomes. A street plan could be discovered that shows the layout of the medieval church, as it once stood. It might even include the names of some of those long-dead shop owners, and the location of their premises. It might reveal how the church vaults used to extend underneath those shops - perhaps surprising the restorers, who might not have realized that there was a vault there - and a bit of careful, antiquarian exploration could discover all kinds of things. Even, say, a set of razors and surgeon's tools, in curiously good condition given the passage of the years. But if those tools are disturbed, St Dunstan's as was might awaken, and overtake St Dunstan's as now is. People might discover, particularly after midnight, that they no longer recognize the old church, still less the streets roundabout, which seem somehow to have become narrower, more mazelike. Horses will be heard more often, never cars, let alone the buzz of an aircraft overhead. The streetlamps become smoky and dim, almost as though they were gas, or even candle, rather than electric. And in one of those candlelit shops can be heard an odd sound, as though someone was stropping a razor. Yet people could be lured down those back alleys by the most appetizing smell ...

Now that Bookhounds has been discussed, what of Night's Black Agents? Is Sweeny any good in a modern London setting? Does the Demon Barber lose his charm, when thrust into a world of spies, counterspies, and vampires? Well, no, particularly not when you consider the parallels between a human-pie-creating barber and a bloodsucker, but think about what Sweeny was first and foremost: a thief. Half the plot of the novel revolves around a string of priceless pearls that Sweeny stole from his most recent victim, and is desperately trying to fence; in fact, its original title was The String of Pearls. Given that, I would be tempted to put Sweeny fairly low down on the cospyramid, perhaps at the neighborhood level, and recast the legend as something like this:

There's a gang operating in London that specializes in custom theft. You name the target, so it's said, and they handle the job, no questions asked. Their fee is very high, but they guarantee results. It's also said of them that they don't tolerate welshers; of the two who tried, one a Russian ex-KGB and the other a member of the Cypriot Arif family, neither has ever been heard of since. Yet despite the apparent pedigree of the welshers, and the kind of influence their friends might have been expected to bring to bear, nothing has happened to this gang. Informally known as the Sweeny, mainly for its love of vintage 70s cars, this gang has been operating for over twenty years, and none of its members has spent more than a few days in jail. Very little is known about its membership, and only one journalist - long since gone missing - has ever discovered its leader's identity. Jim Regan's family has been a member of the Worshipful Company of Butchers for over a century, and his boutique establishments have provided some of the finest restaurants in London with meat for the table. The likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver are, it's said, his personal friends. What isn't nearly as well known is Regan's occasional, malicious blackmailing of up-and-coming celebrity chefs. "Mate," he'll say to them, "I don't want to worry you, but - and I say this as a friend - people might get very concerned, if I were to let it be known just what it was you were serving the week before last. Don't believe me? Well, as it happens, I have proof ..." Often video proof, which has never failed to get results. Not that Regan relies on celebrity chefs to help dispose of the occasional annoying snooper, or witness; his London-based empire includes a Fleet Street establishment, Nose To Tail, a Michelin rising star. Its pies, say those who've been, are to die for.  

1 comment:

  1. Very fine post, which I greatly enjoyed. I particularly liked the way you followed through the theme to a possible "Night's Black Agents" London. Very enjoyable indeed!