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Pierrepoint (2005)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Pierrepoint (2005)
35mm, colour, 91 mins
DirectorAdrian Shergold
Production CompanyGranada Television
ProducerChristine Langan
ScreenplayJeff Pope
 Bob Mills
PhotographyDanny Cohen
MusicMartin Phipps

Cast: Timothy Spall (Albert Pierrepoint); Juliet Stevenson (Anne Fletcher); Eddie Marsan (Tish); Christopher Fulford (Sykes); Simon Armstrong (minister)

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The life of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's most famous twentieth-century hangman.

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At the time when the early part of this film is set, the British Board of Film Censors maintained a list topics forbidden from British films, one of which was "hanging, realistic or comic". Presumably the intention was to avoid sensationalising the subject, but it would also have discriminated against Adrian Shergold's sober, thoughtful film, whose numerous hangings are certainly realistic, but never gratuitous.

Instead, the film gets inside the head of Albert Pierrepoint, the best known of Britain's few professional 20th-century hangmen. Played magnificently by Timothy Spall, he's depicted as a consummate professional. The film goes into considerable detail on the technical aspects of hanging, from measuring the most appropriate rope length for the body's weight (famously, Pierrepoint could judge this by eye) to cutting down and cleaning the naked corpse afterwards, a task he performs just as dispassionately.

Pierrepoint's conscience also extended to his victims, as far as was possible. When he breaks the record for the shortest length of time from the cell door opening to the final execution, this is not to show off but because he felt that the prisoner might panic if kept in too much suspense. Similarly, when sent to Germany to hang large batches of convicted Nazis (which turned him into a reluctant national celebrity), he proposes hanging the women first because they'd be more likely to be frightened.

His macabre profession aside, Pierrepoint's life was as uneventful as that of any other public servant (when he wasn't hanging people, he ran a pub with his wife), so an incident in 1950 proved a gift to the screenwriters. The subplot that kick-starts the final act seems contrived, but he really did hang an old drinking companion (Eddie Marsan) after he murdered his lover in a fit of humiliated pique.

The film suggests that this is when Pierrepoint first questioned the morality of his profession, and glosses over the fact that six years separated this event from his retirement. Although the latter was ostensibly over a disputed expenses claim, he must also have been influenced by having to run an increasingly vociferous gauntlet each time he reported for duty. But like Pierrepoint himself (and Krzysztof Kieslowski's chillingly dispassionate 1987 Polish film A Short Film About Killing/Krotki film o zabijaniu, an acknowledged influence), the film takes no sides in the capital punishment debate - it merely shows the reality behind the rhetoric.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Breaking the record (4:40)
1. Breaking the record (4:40) anamorphic
2. Government business (3:49)
2. Government business (3:49) anamorphic
3. A national hero? (3:21) anamorphic
Production stills
Daybreak (1948)
Spall, Timothy (1957-)
Stevenson, Juliet (1956-)