Pies and murder – two perennials of London life. It‘s no wonder, then, that we have a long-standing fascination with the legend of Sweeney Todd, the serial-killing hairdresser with a sideline in baked goods. As Tim Burton‘s take on the bloody tale hits the cinema, Lee Jackson looks at the truth behind the legend
Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber
‘All that blood!’ exclaims the pie-maker Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Sweeney Todd’, as she spies the murderous barber’s first victim. Tim Burton’s film adaptation, featuring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, certainly delivers that: bloody raindrops dripping over the opening credits; a carmine tide in the city’s sewers; blood gushing (and how!) from the throats of Depp’s victims, choreographed to Sondheim’s soaring score.
In the unlikely event you’re unfamiliar with the Sweeney Todd story, the plot can be summarised succinctly. Todd, a Fleet Street barber, surreptitiously murders his clients and their corpses are profitably made into delicious meat pies by his obliging neighbour, Mrs Lovett. ‘We’ll serve anyone… to anyone’ as the lyric artfully puts it.
Todd is, of course, a Victorian serial killer, though his exploits predate that very modern label. He is, moreover, probably one of London’s most enduring villains. In recent years, Sondheim’s portrayal of Todd has done much to keep his name alive. An unlikely Broadway hit in 1979, blending elements of comedy and horror, it introduced the character to the United States, garnered legions of fans and ultimately made a relatively obscure piece of London folklore world famous. Yet, in the UK, we have always enjoyed the antics of this particular monster in film, television and theatre – Ray Winstone took the title role in a BBC version as recently as 2006 – and discerning visitors to our metropolis can even enjoy a Sweeney Todd ‘attraction’ at the London Dungeon. But where does the tale of the butchering barber originate? It has long been assumed that Todd’s fictional exploits were based on a true story. Many people are still convinced that Todd’s crimes were as real as those of Jack the Ripper. The facts, however, are somewhat different.
Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett, the pie maker" />
The story begins in the 1830s with one Edward Lloyd, an enterprising publisher of ‘penny dreadfuls’ who aimed his cheap weekly serials squarely at the working poor. Titles like ‘The Calendar of Horrors’ and ‘Varney the Vampire’ (a famous blood-sucking fiend, 50 years before Dracula) give some idea of his subject matter. He also specialised in pirated versions of Dickens' works at a time when copyright law counted for little. Thus poorer readers could buy a budget copy of his ‘Oliver Twiss’ or ‘Nikelas Nickelbery’. Lloyd would later found a radical/liberal newspaper and become quite respectable.
Nonetheless, his main legacy to modern culture was a story called ‘The String of Pearls’ published in a weekly magazine during the winter of 1846/47, written by an anonymous penny-a-word hack. Set in 1785, it features as principal villain a certain Sweeney Todd (‘a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow’), and includes all the plot elements that have been used by Sondheim and others ever since. There is the barber’s shop, from which a remarkable number of customers never return (courtesy of a chair that flips them upside down, plunging them to their deaths in the stone-floored cellar), an ill-used apprentice boy (who is consigned to a lunatic asylum, a pair of deeply uninteresting star-crossed lovers (obligatory in any Victorian popular fiction) and the enterprising Mrs Lovett, whose pies are finally discovered to contain something rather more exotic than mince.