Monday, 21 January 2008

The Hack and the Slasher

Thomas Peckett Prest must be kicking himself, or at least he would be if he wasn't completely dead, and buried six-foot underground.

Prest is widely considered to be the creator of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a character currently enjoying a blood-soaked revival on the big screen in Tim Burton's gloriously gothic musical-slasher movie of the same name. If only Prest had the immense foresight to predict the popularity of his gruesome creation, then he could have wound up being a very well-off corpse indeed.

Johnny Depp found shaving the Invisible Man very difficult work.

However, Prest was a hack writer, a quill-for-hire who spent most of his life penning comic parodies of Charles Dickens' oeuvre (including such ingeniously-titled classics as Oliver Twiss and David Copperful), and pulpy, schlocky stories of thrill and suspense for the popular penny dreadful publications. These were cheap, lurid periodicals published in Victorian Britain to occupy an increasingly literate working class with undemanding and unsophisticated entertainment. Sort of like the TV networks do in our modern, enlightened times.

Literary infamy was doubtlessly the last thing on Prest's mind, as he was far too busy churning out cheap tat for the penny dreadfuls. Indeed, his lasting creation, Sweeney Todd, first appeared as a mere secondary, supporting character in the completely non-terrifyingly titled story The String of Pearls: A Romance, a sure indication as any that Prest had no idea that he was sitting on a potential goldmine.

When Sweeney Todd went on to prove far more popular than a poxy string of pearls, the character soon found himself taking centre-stage in a theatrical adaptation by George Dibden Pitt in 1846, to great success. It must have been a bitter pill for Prest, as the unattributed author of the original tale, living in less copyright-savvy times - he made approximately zero pounds and noughty-nought pence from this popular stage adaptation of his own work.

By failing to even sign his own work, Prest went on to miss out on further healthy royalty cheques from a multitude of stage and film adaptations over the next one hundred and sixty-odd years, culminating in both the prolific Stephen Sondheim stage musical, and the current Tim Burton movie, itself based on the Sondheim musical. Which, in turn, was based on Christopher Bond's stage play, The String of Pearls. Which, of course, was based on Prest's original, cheap and un-cheerful serial.

Can you hear that sound? It's the sound of money slipping through Prest's skeletal fingers.

The moral of this story is clear. Firstly make sure you get credit for your work, and make sure you copyright it to the hilt. Secondly, don't sideline your best characters in a stupid story about a sailor and a necklace.

And now finally, for those interested in my incredibly important opinions: Burton's Sweeney Todd is a fantastic triumph; a supremely entertaining slice of musical macabre which succeeds on every level and completely fulfills my expectations for a Burton-directed horror musical. The cast are uniformly fantastic, with Johnny Depp turning in another great performance and proving to be more than adept at singing in a mock-Cockney style, resulting in him sounding something like David Bowie, which of course is no bad thing.

In short, Sweeney Todd has made the transition from penny dreadful, to million-dollar wonderful. I loved it.

I think Prest might have liked it too.

- Fanton.

Read The String of Pearls in its entirety, courtesy of the Victorian Dictionary.

And don't forget to read The Astonishing Adventures of Lord Likely, another completely excellent Victorian tale destined to become a classic for centuries to come.


Roufa Tav Gosou & Mimi Lass said...

Mock-acting is what Johnny Depp does best!

Howard said...

Wow, I guess being lazy doesn't really pay.

Roufa Tav Gosou & Mimi Lass said...

Being lazy is likely a reward in itself.

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