Crime and Punishment

Does England's greatest hangman really deserve cinematic rehabilitation?

Albert Pierrepoint, the Lancashire grocery deliveryman who doubled as England's most prolific and self-effacing executioner between 1934 and 1956, was not, as the title of Adrian Shergold's new drama suggests, Britain's last hangman, but he was certainly its most diligent. For two decades, Pierrepoint secretly hanged more than 400 men and women, among them the wartime traitor William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw-Haw), a bunch of notable Nazis convicted at Nuremberg, Ruth Ellis (the murderess immortalized by Miranda Richardson in Mike Newell's 1985 Dance With a Stranger) and enough wrongly convicted suspects to make you wonder how well he slept at night. By his own account, insomnia was not a problem, and whatever qualms about capital punishment he expressed in an autobiography long after he retired were abstract to say the least. Pierrepoint was a rabid professional from a family of hangmen, and it was a point of pride with him to bring to every assignment precise, technical skill and a lack of interest in the private circumstances of his victims. If food delivery was his day job, Pierrepoint saw execution as a religious and pro- fessional calling—and a source of much-needed extra income.

What you make of all this will likely determine how you rate Shergold's softly revisionist take on this stickler's life and work, which reaches for complexity but ends up, as you'd expect from a partnership with Masterpiece Theatre, rendering Pierrepoint palatable as a decent, principled chap who was just doing his job. Many commentators have been cheered by the fact that, when not measuring neck circumference, Pierrepoint was a convivial mein host and a frequent burlesque performer in the pub he took over with his wife using the capital he made from his gruesome sideline. That's true as far as it goes: He does not appear to have been a sadist, but his monomaniacal focus on efficiency and his capacity for compartmentalization are creepy—and scary. In other words, delicious fodder for a pungent piece of retro-noir, which is not what we get in Pierrepoint—The Last Hangman.

Like most television directors, Shergold is good with actors. Jowly, impassive, and rigid with righteous dignity, Timothy Spall makes a wonderfully meticulous Pierrepoint, perfecting his timing and technique with every hanging before returning home to the missus, a thanklessly colorless role nicely inflected with a touch of the sinister by Juliet Stevenson. Shergold, who was mentored early on in his career by Mike Leigh, also has down pat the dreary gloom of wartime England in a northern industrial town, with its dank streets and cramped row houses. A solid realist, he nonetheless makes for an awkward, often trite, and sometimes downright mystifying stylist whose fondness for the deer-in-headlights close-up inserts inadvertent comedy where psychological insight should be.

Timothy Spall, Mary Stockley as Ruth Ellis, and an extra put on their best stiff upper lips.
photo: Ken McKay
Timothy Spall, Mary Stockley as Ruth Ellis, and an extra put on their best stiff upper lips.

Even more jarring is a disastrous excursion into jauntiness in a set piece where Pierrepoint hangs more than a dozen prominent Nazis to the accompaniment of a Strauss waltz, followed later by his "compassionate" hanging of a pub pal (Vera Drake's Eddie Marsan) who killed his faithless girlfriend. Worse than that, though, is the attempt to rehabilitate Pierrepoint as a conscience-stricken humanitarian in the second half of the movie. There is no evidence, in Pierrepoint's memoir or elsewhere, that he suffered a crisis of conscience, and his later admission that in his experience capital punishment served no deterrent purpose came with no sense of personal culpability. Indeed, when Pierrepoint retired, it was because the government failed to compensate him for reprieved prisoners.

In the movie his decision is portrayed as the outcome of guilt and depression, with Spall contorted in agony as the forces of anti-capital punishment gear up to vilify him for the work he's carried out to the letter for God, country, and Field Marshal Montgomery. Poor soul. Shergold never draws a parallel between Pierrepoint's emotional detachment/obsession with process and that of the Nazi functionaries he so expertly put to death. In lieu of latent fascism, Pierrepointgives us Richard Strauss.

 
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