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March 21, 2007

Christie Davies is moved by Pierrepoint and gives us his reflections on hanging: Pierrepoint/ The Last Hangman - Adrian Shergold

Posted by Christie Davies

The Last Hangman (earlier title)
Directed by Adrian Shergold
certificate 15, 2005, general release 2006

Pierrepoint, Britain's official hangman, who executed hundreds, was a good man, employed by a civilised society to perform an unpleasing task, which he did throughout with dignity and discretion. All this is well brought out in Adrian Shergold's sober, appropriately understated, well acted, well-directed film. A very British film about a very British hero. Timothy Spall, who plays Pierrepoint, exactly captures him, a quiet methodical Englishman with the national virtues of duty, decency and fortitude.

It is very much a period piece, the period 1932-1956; we aren't like that now. Indeed it coincides with that brief civilised time of quiet British virtue so well described by George Orwell and Geoffrey Gorer. All this is well observed in the film - the quiet streets, Pierrepoint's well-run pub, the general sense of friendliness and solidarity and of surviving the war. Happy days, when the lights were lower, just the right wattage for this soft-lit film. For older people it will be a nostalgic reminder of their childhood, for younger ones, a glimpse of a society almost as distant as that to be seen in films about the birching of Lady Jane Grey or Sherlock Holmes in the fog. The makers got the details right; it is in its way a costume drama.

The film not only has a very ordinary British hero but a very ordinary British heroine, Pierrepoint's wife Anne, sensitively played by Juliet Stephenson. At first she did not know of her grocer's delivery man husband's sideline as an executioner, though she must have been puzzled by his occasional, irregularly timed business trips, but she found out, possibly from his ledgers and said nothing. When he did tell her, she replied that she already knew. Here is the backbone of society, the loyal working-class wife, fond of her husband if undemonstrative, feeding him, needing him, standing by him, watching over the family's finances. Duty, fidelity, respectability: the quiet, civilised British virtues of all but a raffish aristocracy and a despicable lumpen. How it was in the days of capital punishment.

It is not easy to make a film without any more spectacle or drama than the routine clunk of the gallows, and with no particularly larger than life characters and no executioner's song, but this one succeeds and is far more moving than the usual Hollywood excitements. We are shown many traditional British hangings but they are all quick, efficient, unemotional. Out of the condemned cell, onto the scaffold, hood on, noose on, push the lever forward, the quick drop, instant death, all within about seven seconds.

Pierrepoint was competitive about speed and careful in calculating the correct length of the drop from the executionee's height and weight. No Syrian style slow strangulation, no Iraqi style heads pulled off. He was invariably calm, phlegmatic and respectful of the person he was hanging. No Middle-Eastern taunting. Field Marshal Montgomery got to know of his technical skill and personal qualities and we see him in the film insisting that Pierrepoint be the hangman for Nazis convicted of war crimes. For Monty, Pierrepoint the executioner embodied British civilisation. He would do things properly, not like the brutal Soviets or the erratic, excitable, and in the case of Goering corrupt, Americans or the French with their hands still dirty from the épuration.

The British army are shown treating Pierrepoint with fitting and appropriate respect, the officers assigned to assist him address him as "sir", even the ruperts. There were so many Germans to be dealt with, that they had to be hanged in batches, but Pierrepoint laboured long hours to fulfil his duty of killing them, much as a soldier would have done. The soldiers helping him found it stressful. Lieutenant Llewelyn says to him in the film,

I thought it would be like being a sniper. Get them in your sights and that's it….but its different when you meet them face to face.
This is precisely how executions or assassinations differ from the way modern war is usually done. Britain has put up a statue outside the LSE to Air Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, whose men killed several hundred thousand innocent civilians, including children, in air-raids; all distant and impersonal. They died far more painfully than anyone Pierrepoint dispatched. Why is there not a statue to Pierrepoint in Southport, where he had a pub, or outside Pentonville? Pierrepoint served his King and hanged the guilty for us. One task was as necessary, or as unnecessary, as the other and in either case a brave and competent man had to do it. It is significant that Lieutenant Llewelyn speaks of the "sniper", an unpopular figure among soldiers because he slowly and carefully picks off individuals he can clearly see. Most riflemen, let alone gunners, rarely do that. Their lives are about mass, speed and distance.

When he returned from Germany Pierrepoint, after being seen on Pathe Pictorial News, nostalgically shown here in black and white, complete with crowing cockerel, became a recognisable public figure, something he never wanted or relished. When he returned to his home town, his ordinary, decent neighbours cheered him:

Good for you, Albert. You showed those Nazis. Have a pint on me, Albert.
Another well depicted period piece.

The film only fails when it tries to depart from ordinariness - the stripping and displaying of the naked corpse of a young hanged woman, the female Nazi concentration camp guard, who when being weighed so that Pierrepoint can get the drop right, tells him he is doing the Jews' work, Pierrepoint's imagining that a scarecrow has the face of a man he has just hanged, a man seeing through a keyhole the local scrubber being humped, doggy-style - all these scenes should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

There are, though, touches of the real Pierrepoint's emotions, as when he is angry that the army has failed to provide enough coffins for him, in which to lay the corpses of the recently hanged Nazis for burial. They too were human beings to be treated with equal respect; it fits with the view Pierrepoint expressed in his autobiography:

A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man, she is a woman who the church says still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death. The gentleness must remain.
Pierrepoint gave others his respect but he also demanded respect for himself and his position. He was angry when a prison failed to provide him with the proper cooked meal to which he was entitled and he resigned when he felt slighted at not being paid after he had travelled to carry out an execution and then there was a last minute reprieve. It wasn't the money, it was the insult.

All this is well shown in the film, as in his quiet, perplexed sense of hurt when a savage mob of vicious, frenzied, upper-middle class, anti-capital punishment hooligans try to break through a police cordon and attack his taxi, shouting "murderer" at him. These were the same people who would have disapproved of their fellow-countrymen and women who, in that same era, sometimes sought to pursue a prison van leaving court with a convicted murderer and bang on the side. In the view of the high-minded, it was wrong to express anger against someone who had shot a bank clerk or raped and strangled a child or poisoned her husband, but Pierrepoint's feelings did not matter. Pierrepoint felt these insults because for him being an executioner was a calling, not revenge, not pleasure, not just a bit of extra cash. In telling you these details, I am not "giving away" the plot of the film for there is no plot, just a tale, the tale of our hangman.

Today the word "respect" has lost all proper meaning. It is demanded by and accorded to amoral young thugs because you know that to "diss" them is to be beaten up, much as you would be in Palermo or New Jersey if you didn't grant "respect" to the Mafia. It has even become the name of a despicable political party. In Pierrepoint's day respect had value and was a value and he knew it. In this too the film is an evocation of the past, a ghost story of a moral Britain which has died.

At the very end of the film a written message is shown on the screen, a quotation from Pierrepoint, that implies that he came to see capital punishment as futile and pointless. The quotation is certainly genuine but it is misleading. Later still Pierrepoint became alarmed at the massive rise in levels of violence and killing in Britain and was much more equivocal. It would be as easy to find a quotation from one of his interviews to indicate that he wanted hanging restored.

It is implied in the film that Pierrepoint came to doubt his role as hangman after he had had to execute a regular from his pub with whom he had become friendly. The man had killed his girlfriend, a flighty and wanton slapper who had made him jealous. Pierrepoint could no longer divide his life between being the impersonal King's executioner and being Albert or "Tosh", as his now-to-be-hanged customer, "Tish", called him. Maybe, but Pierrepoint remains an enigma. I do not believe in capital punishment anyway, so I do not care what Pierrepoint thought, nor was I in any way influenced in my views by what I was shown on the screen. In fairness, it is not a loaded propaganda-mongering film heavy with message.

Rather I saw the film as an unintentional elegy for a better and more civilised Britain than ours but one which had this curious habit of hanging people. Watching the film, I realised that, however much I might disagree with the act itself, capital punishment was an integral part of our past moral order - one better than today's - and contributed to it.

An excellent film for those who think, but not for those seeking mere cheap entertainment.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, a detailed study of the politics of capital punishment.

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