Sweeney Todd - coming soon on BBC ONE
Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd, a dark and enthralling tale of love, obsession and, ultimately, of redemption comes to BBC ONE shortly.
Set in the teeming streets of 18th century London, this new film boasts one of the capital's most illustrious actors as its star – Ray Winstone, originally from London's East End.
Known for the searing honesty of his performances and no-nonsense approach to show business, Winstone now picks up a razor and transforms himself into Sweeney Todd, one of London's most notorious legends.
While it is true that the dark doings of Sweeney Todd have become woven into the fabric of London folklore, what was hard to uncover is whether or not Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs Lovett really did serve up those gruesome pies to unsuspecting customers.
So what inspired producer turned writer, Joshua St Johnston, to bring Sweeney Todd back to life?
He explains that seeing the Sondheim musical was the initial trigger for his screenplay.
"I found myself thinking this would be a great part for Ray, but I wonder what the real story is?"
St Johnston found accounts to be contradictory. "Researching on the internet was very confusing – some sites said Sweeney Todd was a real character and others said he was entirely fictional.
"In the end it was only by visiting St Dunstan's Church in London's Fleet Street, where Sweeney Todd was meant to have hidden the bits of the bodies that didn't go into pies, that I realised he probably didn't exist, as there was nothing there referring to it.
"It turns out that the character was originally created in 1846 in a story called The String of Pearls that ran in instalments in The People's Periodical. It was so popular that before the serial had even petered out some six months later, there was a play of Sweeney Todd being performed at the Britannia Theatre in London's East End.
"In fact," continues St Johnston, "throughout the 19th century new dramatic versions were regularly churned out to great success – but they are high melodrama of a sort that would seem very creaky to today's audiences.
"The Sondheim musical is the version that many people are familiar with these days, but it was only invented in the early Seventies by Christopher Bond, who decided to splice together the stories of The Count of Monte Cristo with The Revenger's Tragedy and put Sweeney Todd at its heart.
"It's a brilliant story, but still very melodramatic, and I decided I wanted to try and write something that felt more like it could be the 'true story'.
"It's an attempt to apply a 21st century understanding of criminal psychology to an 18th century serial killer," says Johnston, whose producing credits include Messiah: Vengeance is Mine and She's Gone, also starring Ray Winstone and which was the debut film for Size 9, the production company co-founded by St Johnston, Winstone and Michael Wiggs.
St Johnston decided to set his story in the 18th century for a variety reasons.
"I chose the 18th century because the original story takes place when George III was a young man, which I reckoned would be the 1760s, and also it was a way of differentiating it from other versions, which all feel very Victorian."
St Johnston's assiduous research took him to the Museum of London. He also examined Georgian medical implements at the Royal College of Surgeons, visited the Foundling Museum, and studied Hogarth's prints as well as reading literature such as material by Vanburgh, Gay, Fielding and Defoe.
What became clear to him was that London of the 1760s was a filthy and terrifying place.
"The streets would have been filled with sh*t, gin addicts, beggars, animal torture passing for entertainment, dead babies… it's not a version of Georgian England what we're often exposed to," he says.
"From reading the histories, I learnt that in the 1760s the Bow Street Runners were in their infancy. It's a fascinating time, because the notion of a police force was unpopular for reasons of civil liberty (much like identity cards today) but the Fielding brothers had seen the need and were trying to introduce a force on the sly.
"I thought it would be interesting to introduce the historical figure of Sir John Fielding into my story."
Summing up the time in which the drama is set, he says: "It was a brutal and brutalising world, and that we don't know of any real serial killers from that time might be more to do with the fact that murder was so easy to get away with, rather than that there weren't any. Maybe there really was a Sweeney Todd after all – he just never got caught…"
Acclaimed producer Gub Neal, founder of the internationally successful production outfit Box TV, whose extensive credits include Cracker, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, Sunday and Boudica, was approached by St Johnston to make his Sweeney Todd screenplay a reality.
"As the prospective producer I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I had fallen into a field of clover. A great title, a great star – it was as if the package had been assembled in heaven," enthuses Neal.
"As the script unfolded, it became clear that this was no burlesque musical horror story. Sweeney was to be portrayed as a real man, someone whose own history was full of suffering and whose life would become a kind of paradigm for the darkness of his age."
Neal was pleased that the leading man could sum up the piece so succinctly.
"Ray put is very clearly when he said, 'Sweeney is London. He's this man whose very life becomes a response to the inhumanity of the city'.
"Not since I had been involved with Cracker - over ten years ago - had I felt that here was a chance to tell a story that got right into the mind of character and the motivation of the killer."
Co-producer Caroline Hewitt, whose recent credits include Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Bright Young Things, is equally enthusiastic about St Johnson's multi-layered story and praises Winstone's performance.
She explains that there is an understated emotional intensity running through Sweeney's character.
"Ray is brilliant at showing us Sweeney's gentle and kind side, in spite of his emotional inarticulacy. He makes Sweeney totally compelling and believable.
"Watching Ray's performance, we gradually understand how this shy and self-effacing barber has been rendered impotent by his background and see that when the past revisits him, Sweeney is capable of committing acts of terrible savagery. His killing is a kind of warped cathartic purging for him.
"Yet despite these heinous deeds," says Hewitt, "Ray manages to keep Sweeney sympathetic.
"The audience will gradually learn how Sweeney was brutalised by a wrongful imprisonment in Newgate gaol when just a mere boy.
"The abuse he suffered there has left him unable to love or form close relationships. This damage is brought to a head when he meets and falls deeply in love with Mrs Lovett, but cannot love her in a conventional way."
Producer Gub Neal also makes the point that it's not often that writer, producer and director can all grapple with the idea that only bad and not good people can do bad things, and argues that such universal truths that reflect real life greatly enrich drama.
"Josh has portrayed Sweeney as a man capable of great compassion and love, but whose only ability to exert power over the world was to murder."
To make a film that promises so much would ideally take weeks, but this was not to be.
Ray Winstone was committed to The Departed, a film with Martin Scorsese, and due to start another movie with Robert Zemeckis, in which he stars in the title role as Beowulf in the last week of September.
So time and money, but not talent, were limited for the new realisation of Sweeney Todd.
However, under the stewardship of Box and a team of adventurous BBC executives, the production moved east to Romania's Media Pro studios near Bucharest, where other Box dramas have been successfully made, including last year's hit, GunPowder, Treason and Plot.
"Luckily both the director, David Moore (who had just completed filming Wallis and Edward in Lithuania and Latvia) and our production designer, Michael Pickwoad, signed up to the project," says Neal, and in less than six weeks the film was cast, sets under construction and a crew assembled.
"One of the advantages of shooting everything in a studio," explains Neal, "is that you get to construct what you want.
"Fleet Street, a key location in the story, where both Sweeney and Mrs Lovett's shops are set, was adapted from the remains of a French street left over after the filming of Andy Garcia's Modigliani."
The speed at which the design, the costuming and wigs were assembled was remarkable. Complex prosthetics were made, not just for the murders but also for Mrs Lovett's progressive affliction from that scourge of 18th century life, the pox.
"Fortunately, we had a top make-up designer, Penny Smith," explains Neal. "Her deftness with plastic skin-boils and wigs astounded everyone – not least our beautiful leading lady, actress Essie Davis, who was bowled over by the veracity of her pox-laden 18th century make-over."
Despite the pressures placed on everyone, there was plenty of good humour to alleviate the underlying anxieties about the schedule and telling the story of a serial killer, says Neal.
"In this respect Ray was a great asset. His escape from Sweeney on set was to shower those around him with jokes, usually of the rudest kind. But it's the test of a great actor that he can step out of part, land a punchline on an unsuspecting electrician, and jump back in the rhythm of the scene as if he never left it."
Sweeney's scenes were shot in just three weeks before Winstone had to leave for the dazzle of LA.
"But then," reports Neal, "with one week to go, the scorching sunshine vanished and a storm of rain swept down from the Carpathian Mountains.
"Drenched by precipitous flooding – our Fleet Street no longer looked like London but a Caneletto impression of Venice! Supporting artists literally waded through rivers of rain as the production managers pumped, dredged and swept water away.
"But somehow the wrath of the weather was no match for the determination and madness of our collective will to complete Sweeney Todd. And now the measure of our success is that the viewers enjoy it," concludes Neal.