When Truth Is the Hangman's Victim; the Film Pierrepoint Claims to Be a Faithful Recreation of the Official Executioner's Life, but Peter Hitchens Reveals How It Rewrites History to Suit the Case against Capital Punishment - and Pours Scorn on a More Honourable Generation

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), April 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

When Truth Is the Hangman's Victim; the Film Pierrepoint Claims to Be a Faithful Recreation of the Official Executioner's Life, but Peter Hitchens Reveals How It Rewrites History to Suit the Case against Capital Punishment - and Pours Scorn on a More Honourable Generation


Byline: PETER HITCHENS

If you want to make people content with their rotten lot, then blacken and defame the past. Revolutionaries have always done this, pretending that until they arrived all was misery, gloom, poverty, oppression and pain. It is an article of faith with our liberal elite that the days before their beloved, liberating Sixties were such a time.

Heaven knows, the post-war years were not paradise. Who yearns for chilblains, collar studs, bread and marge, outside loos or semolina? Who wants to cower in a seaside shelter at Rhyl while the rain slants down from a black sky, and call it a holiday? But you had a much better chance of living your life unburgled, unmugged and unmurdered than you do now, and a surprising number of people remember those brief times as a happy and contented interlude before the chaos of today began.

Yet a whole industry now works hard at defaming the day before yesterday, especially the late Forties and Fifties. Film after film depicts this era as crabbed, dismal and cruel.

Last year we endured Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, which invited us to admire a backstreet abortionist as an angel of mercy.

It is a curious thing that a generation which regards the arbitrary disposal of millions of innocent unborn babies as a social good, gets into a moral lather over execution - after trial and appeal - of a relatively tiny number of convicted murderers. But this unthinking scorn for the days of capital punishment is part of modern liberal faith, I suspect largely because it helps a rather callous generation feel superior to their forebears.

Dump the old in care-homes, abort or abandon your children, take dangerous drugs, drive like a lunatic, but give money to some Geldof charity and be 'against' capital punishment and your soul is shriven.

We have already had two movies about supposed injustices on the gallows: Dance With A Stranger, about the last woman to endure the death penalty in Britain, Ruth Ellis, and Let Him Have It, about the controversial hanging of Derek Bentley.

Now comes Pierrepoint, an apparently biographical film about the official executioner who despatched Mrs Ellis, Mr Bentley and scores of others. Let us first of all say the visual recreation of a lost age is mostly superb; the muted colours, the hard work, the leaner look of the people.

But once the film goes into close focus, there is a feeling that we are having our brains gently manipulated. Albert Pierrepoint is played by Timothy Spall. He is a superb actor, but he strongly resembles an undertaker whose clients keep failing to settle their bills, and who eats lots of Mars bars to keep his spirits up.

That might be the way some people would wish to imagine the official hangman, but in fact Albert Pierrepoint was one of those rather cheery, terrier-like Englishmen, dapper and spry, who used to be found as NCOs and foremen, running Army camps and factories and warships with tidy competence.

Competence was his great gift. He prided himself on the humane speed of his work; a matter of seconds from his arrival in the condemned cell to the fall of the trap and instant death.

Having witnessed the drawn-out proceedings of two American executions, I can say with feeling that this rapidity was a great act of kindness.

The film, to its credit, portrays this.

It also has the honesty to show Pierrepoint hanging a series of German Nazi war criminals; executions modern Left-wingers must find it hard to oppose. Bizarrely, some of these hangings are shown to the accompaniment of a Strauss waltz.

The serious problems with truth begin with the appearance of another chubby, gloomy character who also actually existed - but not quite in the way shown here. His name was James Corbitt. He drank in the pub where Pierrepoint was landlord. The two men even sang duets together, as people did in pubs in those days. …

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When Truth Is the Hangman's Victim; the Film Pierrepoint Claims to Be a Faithful Recreation of the Official Executioner's Life, but Peter Hitchens Reveals How It Rewrites History to Suit the Case against Capital Punishment - and Pours Scorn on a More Honourable Generation
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