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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Pierrepoint – the last hangman


Pierrepoint is an interesting film, Directed by Adrian Shergold, who cut his teeth with the British television industry and was responsible for The Second Coming, the 2003 production with Christopher Eccleston.

Interesting, also, that Albert Pierrepoint was not the last hangman in the UK, as he retired in the mid-fifties, although the last executions were carried out in 1964.

Grisly subject for a movie, you might think, and of course it is. A grisly subject altogether, and rather embarrassing that a so-called civilized nation left it so late in the day to abandon such a barbarous practice. (There is a world map showing the status of the death penalty in different countries – who got rid of it and who still thinks they can’t live without it.)

Albert Pierrepoint is played by Timothy Spall and his wife, Annie, by the excellent Juliet Stevenson, currently two of the most talented British actors on the scene. To cast them together was an inspiration.

The film looks at the social and moral problems of this couple. Because Albert Pierrepoint, whatever you may think of him, is a success at his chosen profession. He wants to be good at his job and spends not a little time and effort in making sure that he can take a pride in his work. Annie supports him, because she is a good wife. The side-issues of guilt and paranoia only slowly, insidiously, make themselves felt as they corrode the inner lives of the couple.

Watching this film I was soon emotionally engaged and continually conflicted. By the end of the ninety minutes my mouth was dry and I was drained by the inability of the protagonists to see their own complicity in the dismantling of their sensibilities and their own utter and total alienation.

Pierrepoint personally hanged hundreds of condemned prisoners during twenty years in the job.

I leave Albert Pierrepoint outside when I enter the condemned man’s cell, he said. And there is a moment towards the end of the film when he stops eating during a meal with his wife, something unrecognisable on the end of his fork. He gazes out, beyond the camera, and for a snatch of time we see that he is not there. Pierrepoint, the man, has left himself somewhere else, his identity has been obliterated by the demands of his profession.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge. Albert Pierrepoint.

8 Responses to “Pierrepoint – the last hangman”

  1. Thanks for this view, John. I’d read The Sunday Times review which said the film was pornographic in content, e.g. a scene of the cleaning of the dead body as performed by the executioner. You’ve provided a different context, and one that I can understand and relate to. When I read the ST review, I was shocked because I had no idea that the executioners also performed this particular task.

    Based on the ST’s review, I’d have avoided this film at all costs. Now, following your comments, I think I may find a movie that enlightens and educates me. It’s not pornography, it’s fact and history. What I make of it is yet to be told, but I will come back with comments.

    Thanks for sharing your views.


  2. […] I find it hard to contemplate capital punishment without feeling sick. This film, reviewed here by John Baker, I hope, will be cause for some re-thinking in those who support the death penalty. […]

  3. Gulp Friction » Pierrepoint - the last hangman says:

    […] I find it hard to contemplate capital punishment without feeling sick. This film, reviewed here by John Baker, I hope, will be cause for some re-thinking in those who support the death penalty. […]

  4. Sisyphus says:

    Films of this nature do nothing to alter the debate.
    Proponents of capital punishment will will find justification here; opponents will be revulsed.

    Sorry, but there IS a pornography in the ritual killing of a human being, no matter how horrific the crime committed by the condemned person.

    jb says: Don’t be sorry, Sisyphus, your last sentence makes perfect sense to me. Oh, but you’re dead wrong about the film not altering the debate. Everything alters the debate. That’s why we debate things, to make a difference.

  5. […] too has a professional appearance and lots of worthwhile content. You might compare, for instance, John Baker’s thoughts on the public executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, with my […]

  6. Nicole says:

    I was very lucky to see this marvellous film in a very small privately owned theatre. Lucky being from the perspective of a typical english movie, where the quality is the simplicity and subtle writing, the acting (no over acting), no need for hours of loud special effects and scripts spelling out the obvious. I have a passion for movies that rely on quality writing, quality acting, and a director who knows the value in holding and nurture a moment. Pierrepoint was filmed within a limited setting, and theres not much one can do with the inside of a prison/pub but it was such a thought provoking film that the audience reads their own script so to speak, from it. I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions while watching the movie, and could have talked about it for hours afterward. While these movies are not block busters, a few of my favourites are: Waking Ned Devine, Death at a Funeral, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, History Boys, and from across your channel, Conversations with My Gardener, to mention but a few. While it was a grave (pardon the pun) subject, I recommend Pierrepoint unreservedly.

    jb says: Hi Nicole. I’m partial to a bit of understatement myself. So refreshing in the loud spaces we seem to inhabit these days.

  7. Reel Suave says:


    So we are over with that now for the missed chance by the Oscars for one of the most miraculous performance probably in this decade by Timothy Spall.

  8. Brian says:

    After watching the film we had a lively debate about the death penalty.

    I am against it for two reasons:

    1) Most Important – we get verdicts wrong too often

    2) Would it not be better to make a brutal killer totally miserable for the rest of his natural life, (no TV, no soft prison life PLEASE)

    jb says: So collective revenge is more important than rehabilitation or education, Brian?