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Sweeney Todd

In continuing our recent discussion about the Penny Dreadfuls that populated the Victorian era, it’s worth pointing out that almost all of the popular characters who once defined the era, Spring Heeled Jack, Varney the Vampire, Dick Turpin, Ching Ching, Jack Harkaway… they’re all gone. Sure some band or clever writer might make an obscure allusion to one of those bygone personalities, but as far as popular imagination and relevance is concerned all are dead.

Except one notable exception.

Sweeney Todd, one of the most popular Penny Dreadful characters, a violent, horrific barber who slit mens’ throat while they sat in his barber chair then dumped their bodies in his basement where his neighbor Mrs. Lovett would then mince them and use them as meat in her pies, THIS character is alive and well and dare i say beloved today.

His tale has been told in plays, several movies all the way from the silent era to the 2007 film by Tim Burton (which i really liked), he’s been in a Tony award winning musical by the great Stephen Sondheim, hell he has been in a BALLET. Yes, in 1959 there was Sweeny Todd The Ballet. Which, for the record, is an utterly awesome idea. Black Swan would have been even cooler if the main character was trying to really… you know, REALLY get into the lead role of Sweeney Todd.

Why? Who knows. He’s a great villain.

Originally appearing early in the penny dreadful days of 1846 and written byJames Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest,  teh story was called A String Of Pearls and told in 18 parts. A String Of Pearls involved the mystery of a missing string of pearls expected by Miss Joanna Oakley. Eventually it all leads to Sweeney Todd murdering his patrons for money and Joanna not only finds her pearls but her missing fiance who Sweeney has imprisoned in the basement cooking up the pies for Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop against his will.

Worth mentioning is the fact that unlike all the other anti-heroes so popular at the time who had some saving grace, Sweeney Todd had none. Those familiar with the Sondheim work will know a backstory that did not exist at the time. Sweeney Todd was not out for revenge. He was not wronged. He was a demonic killer who did it for the money. He was the Freddy Kruger of the era. There was no motive beyond simply being bad to the bone.

In 1847, at Hoxton’s Britannia Theatre, this tale from the dreafuls was put up as a melodrama and was quite successful.  From here on in  the character never really died. Two films in the 1920s, another in the 30s and several radio adaptions in the 1940s kept Sweeney Todd alive. Sweeney and Lovett became lovers in some. In a 1946 Sherlock Holmes radio adaption Sweeney was actually sleepwalking when he did it. In a 1970 TV adaption he was insane instead of evil.

Finally, in 1973 playwright Christopher Bond gives us the modern version. Todd becomes wronged, out for revenge, sympathetic instead of purely a boogie man like force of murder. It is the Bond story which Sondheim used to make his 1979 Tony award winning musical, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

And thus Todd remains alive and well, happily… or not so happily murdering poor stubbled customers in his specially designed barber chair of death long into the forseeable future. (The barber chair is special because it hflips upside down and deposits the customers into a hole in the floor where they fall to the dark underground tunnel below. In the penny dreadful version they usually dies by cracking their head open due to the fall and Sweeney would only then go down with his razor to “polish them off”. In the 1847 stage version the phrase “I’ll polish him off” became a catch phrase, the “I’ll be back” of the era.)

Thus we have attended the tale.

I end now with a comparison between the original stage version and the film version. One of the reasons i like the film is because of its lower key you can really appreciate the music and melodies in a marvelously well recorded soundtrack. However, one must appreciate that the stage version throws the high emotion from figures on a stage across an entire theater tot eh very back row which was its original intent. Not to mention you can hear Johnny Depp trying as where the theater guy sounds like he eats musical murder sausages for breakfast washed down with a cup of his enemies’s blood before really feeling like getting up and facing the day.


And just because it has Neil Patrick Harris:

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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Spring Heeled Jack: The 1st Super Villain?

One character who was an early fixture of penny dreadfuls was Spring Heeled Jack. He would leap in out of nowhere, slap you, cop a feel, or rip your dress and then leap away. He could leap over tall shrubbery, spit blue fire, and was impervious to bullets.

If this sounds anywhere between interesting and mildly ridiculous, the character was in fact a real life legend. There was indeed a Spring Heeled Jack who leapt around London,  assaulting women, slapping men, breathing blue fire and dodging bullets. This is his story.

In 1808 a letter to the Sheffield Times recounted how in their neighborhood existed a legend about a ghostly figure referred to as The Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack who could make enormous leaps and enjoyed frightening passers by.

All well and fine. Fast forward to September, 1837. A man reports he was walking outside a cemetery when a muscular male with devilishly pointed ears and glowing red eyes leapt over the cemetery fence, landed in front of him, then leapt away.

Shortly thereafter a barmaid named Polly Adams and two other women were walking outside Blackheath Fair when a man with the same description leapt in out of nowhere, tore Ms. Adam’s dress, felt up her boob and then scratched her stomach before bounding off again.

One month later, in October, a young servant girl named Mary Stevens was walking to work when the same character leapt in, grabbed her, and began kissing her face while ripping her clothes. She screamed and off he went.

The next day the same guy leapt into the middle of the street causing a carriage to swerve and tip over. Witnesses claim the perpetrator then jumped over a 9 foot wall laughing maniacally. A few days later, same dude appeared again, but this time left deep tracks in the mud from which the police concluded he had leapt from a substantial height. One investigator noted the tracks hinted to some gadgetry being used in his shoes, such as a compressed spring.

In 1838, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan publicized these events and was soon flooded with a barrage of letters all describing similar shenanigans. The mysterious figure was officially dubbed Spring Heeled Jack.

He had two more publicized appearances in 1838, one where Jane Alsop received a knock at her front door from a man claiming to be a police officer, needing a light for “we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”. She brought him a candle at which point he threw off his cloak and vomited blue flame at her face, His eyes, as usual were glowing red and he wore a big helmet. He grabbed her and tore at her clothes with his claws. She screamed and tried to get away. He proceeded to tear at her neck and arms but her sister appeared and away he leapt.

Also in Feb 1838, 18 year old Lucy Sales and her sister were passing along Green Dragon Alley when a figure suddenly spat blue flames her. She was blinded and suddenly dropped to ground having a violent fit that ended up lasting for hours (seizure?). When this happened, the figure turned and quickly walked away.

Spring Heeled Jack became a darling of the penny dreadfuls. Tales of his evil exploits abounded for years and his face gradually acquired a devil-mask that had never existed in the reports prior. After many, many years, as the dreadfuls were cleaning up a bit and catering to a youthful audience, Jack became a good guy, leaping in to save damsels in distress.

As to who he was, Polly Adams claimed among other things that he looked a great deal like the Marquis of Waterford, which was notable since rumors were consecutively flying that the Marquis had agreed to a bet put forth by several friends one night while they were drinking. The Marquis, a known dickhead with a terrible reputation regarding women had bragged he could create a notorious character as a way of “getting even” with police and women in general.

The Marquis of Waterford was in fact frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes and vandalism, and was said to do anything for a bet. His shenanigans and his contempt for women earned him the moniker the Mad Marquis, and it was indeed established that he was present in the London area when the first Spring Heeled Jack incidents took place.

He was a major suspect. However, after 1838, confirmed Spring Heeled Jack sightings dried up until 1843 when a new wave suddenly appeared. However, by this time, the Marquis was married and living in Ireland.

Spring Heeled Jack had some appearances in 1843, in the 1850s and the last confirmed incidents throughout the 1870s. The very last confimred sighting in 1877 is interesting. Spring Heeled Jack leapt into the midst of a squad of soldiers and “slapped one soundly”. One of the soldiers claimed to have shot Spring Heeled Jack and heard a hollow, metallic sound, at which point Jack belched blue flame at him and leapt away perfectly unharmed.  A few days later a mob caught sight of Jack, and laid chase. Though they too claim to have shot him, he never slowed, and jumped right out of the area.

Unconfirmed sightings of jack have continued into the 20th century. There was spree in the 1970s and a sighting in 1986. By the late 20th century demonic ghosts were no longer in fashion and so of course out comes the UFO speculations, claiming that he was/is an extraterrestrial.

If you ask me, most likely he began as the Marquis, but subsequent persons have picked up the prank. Certainly some sightings are probably imagination and embellishment. My bet is every so often some strange lad decides to take his turn as Spring Heeled Jack and delights in a notorious small spree .

Or it’s a demonic alien ghost. Hell, i don’t know. But there you have it, the Legend Of Spring Heeled Jack.


Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Gaffs

From 1830 to 1870, the exact time the macabre and violent incarnations of the penny dreadful were being published, otherwise known as penny bloods, a complementary form of theater was also taking place, Penny Gaffs.

The penny gaff alludes to attending a cock fight for a penny, but the actual penny gaff had lost the chickens and put bawdy performances in their place. The penny dreadful and the penny gaff entwine in many ways, beginning with the obvious; both cost a penny.

As such they were clearly for the lower, barely or non educated classes. Penny gaffs even more so, because you at least needed to be literate to read a penny dreadful. The gaffs being a live event didn’t even require that. It was especially  popular amongst a younger crowd; 20 somethings, teenagers, even many poor children would attend. Because of the high number of underage attendees, there was no price reduction for age otherwise it would cut drastically into the profit margin. Large or small you paid your penny and went in.

You might go into a shop which doubled as a temporary theater at night, or the backroom of a pub, where some makeshift stage had been assembled. The idea was to emulate the popular music hall that the middle classes were enjoying. In the poor areas of London there might be 20 penny gaffs going on in a 5 mile radius.

Each performance would last and hour and a half to 2 hours, then everybody OUT and the next round in and the next show is on. You would pay your penny, go to a room to wait for the performance area to clear, then be herded in.

A Master of Ceremonies of sorts would appear to warm up the audience and introduce the acts. The humor was overwhelming raunchy and low brow. Some singers would sing, often bawdy or patriotic, jingoistic song, some clowing would ensue and short plays and vignettes would be performed.

The short plays are where we find another connection with the penny dreadfuls. They were most often about the same highwaymen, robbers and criminals which appeared the dreadfuls. In fact both the dreadful and the gaff took their criminal protagonists from the same source.

The Newgate Calender was one of the most popular periodicals of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was originally a monthly bulletin of executions. Biographies of some of the executed criminals would appear and by the mid 19th century it was fully of immensely embellished anecdotes about criminals who became infamous and the stars of the penny gaffs and penny dreadfuls.

The Newgate Calender contained heavy handed lessons about the horrors of Catholicism, foreigners,  and every manner of vice while practically bursting into loving tears over the subjects of Protestantism, patriotism, capital, punishment and royalty. Just in case you think things are any different today than they’ve ever been.

The plays and vignettes would feature the exploits of some famous criminal like Dick Turpin or Jack Sheppard. Some would retell and dramatize the incidents of a famous bloody crime, the more Manson-like the better.

The crowd would eat it up. Between the raunchy sex and the violence it was enormously popular amongst both young men and women of the lower classes. The shows were roudy affairs, although with a large degree of patriotism thrown in whenever possible.

Naturally the more puritan aspects of British society considered the penny gaffs to be a hotbed of vice and criminals and labored for years to have them banned.

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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Dreadfuls II: From Blood To Boys

For decades, since their conception in 1832, Penny Dreadfuls, 8 pages of lurid tales printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny, specialized in highly gruesome material.

For the first 10 years or so there was a fair amount of romance mixed in as they initially attempted to rip off gothic novels, but the fact is, the horror and crime titles are what sold and they eventually dominated the penny dreadful landscape. In fact, another name for Penny Dreadfuls were Penny Bloods.

The typical reader of the dreadful was barely literate. The 8 pages were not dedicated to character development and layered themes. The point was to get to the action. Often a literate working class man at the pub would read the latest installment of Sweeney Todd and his murderous shenanigans to a table of his illiterate mates.

However more and more children were becoming literate too. In 1866 Edwin J Brent began publishing The Boys Of England, which featured tales of adventure with schoolboys as the heroes. It introduced the character of Jack Harkaway, who became beloved by an entire generation of british boys, and Boys Of England soared to record sales.

Thus penny dreadfuls began the shift to the youth market. Sweeny Todd and Varney the Vampire continued to sell well and heaven knows, boys ate their adventures up with great relish also, but despite everyone’s assumption that the working class youth was out of their minds with lust for the high gore content of the penny bloods, the truth was that they perferred high adventure and heroism with protagonists they could identify with over the murderous content that had thrilled their fathers.

As far as their fathers went, as the 1800s rolled on more and more periodicals began to be printed cheaply for a working class audience. Newspapers were a little expensive and difficult to read, but sure enough, tabloid press started to appear, culminating in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, the father of tabloid rags, still around today.

Thus the adult audience drifted away and the youth audience drifted in. From the 1870s to 1900 penny dreadfuls became cheap adventure serials for boys. (We’ll touch on what on earth girls had to bloody well amuse themselves with, although Victorian society being victorian society the content is not nearly as interesting and indeed was mostly morality and virtue lessons.) Dreadful after dreadful started throwing the word ‘Boy’ into every title.

Boys could not often afford the penny to buy their favorite dreadfuls, especially if they wanted to follow more than one. And thus the great tradition of the Boys’ Club came to the rescue.

Men form clubs. Boys form clubs. Groups of boys would pool their money together to buy their favorite dreadful(s) and pass them around.

New stars emerged.  Tom Wildrake, Jack Harkaway, Tom Merry, Billy Bunter… Tom Wildrake, introduced in 1870 was particularly influential on the genre as it established certain tropes most later heroes followed. The story goes through the hero’s school days after which he gets on a boat and sets sail for some exotic location, like the Wild West or the Orient and of course high adventure ensues.

By the 1880s the transition was complete. Penny dreadful were entirely youth based and many groups concerned with the corrupting infulence of the penny dreadfuls on their children were publishing their own versions, with careful morality tales always built in.

Dime novels were big in the states. They were the cheap mass market paperbacks on the 1800s and they would be imported to England and serialized in the dreadfuls.  The American West was in fact a source of never ending fascination and gave rise to characters such as Deadwood Dick, an immensely popular wild west outlaw who, along with Sexton Blake, lived long past the end of the dreadfuls. Deadwood Dick not only found himself the subject of many pulp adventures but starred in movie serials in the 1930s. He was so well known, that a number of actual American men living in infamous Deadwood, South Dakota adopted the name to increase their notoriety.

As the 20th century hit, perdiocals featuring adventure tales were being put out which were longer, featured more stories, and cost a bit more. Thus the transition to pulp books began.

The moral watchdogs of Victorian society had been decrying the dreadfuls for decades. Interestingly, the transformation of the penny dreadful from lurid to youth entertainment had done nothing to silence the critics. Indeed, the most vocal elements against them were opposed to escapist fiction of any type, especially for the the young. They blamed escapist fiction for juvenile crime utterly ignoring such petty reasons as poverty and prostitution. Actually, at the height of the storypaper boom juvenile crime went down.

In 1893 published Alfred Harmsworth took it upon himself to end the penny dreadful market and its corrupting influence upon the young by publishing story rags at a HALF penny, but with well written, highly moral tales. He began The Union Jack. The Union Jack story is quite famous as within a few years the Hamrsworth publication had resorted to the exact same level as the penny dreadfuls he was trying to run out. The creator of Winnie The Pooh, A.A. Milne was quoted as saying “Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.”

Leading up the WWI another change that signaled the end of the penny dreadful was the invention of the comic. Basically, the cheap rags that were the penny dreadful started becoming devoted to reprinting comic strips and eventually serialized comics, which attracted the young and the barely literate formally wooed by the dreadful. Adventure tales moved to pulp magazines and with the paper drives of WWI the era penny dreadful was well and truly finished. Afterwards it was comics and pulps.

By the late 20th century of course the comic book had become dominant and people such as myself grew up reading the fantastic, serialized adventures of mighty heroes battling nefarious villains in fantastic and often cosmic settings. Comic books combined what had been the comic and the pulp.

As for the literate once catered to by the pulp, in recent years there has been a sudden explosion in the market for childrens and young adult books. Spurred on by Harry Potter the young adult book market occupies a place the penny dreadful and the pulp novel once did. Supernatural elements, gothic romances, adventure stories, fantastical heroes, it’s all there. Hell, VAMPIRES! Remember the runaway success of the Varney the Vampire penny dreadful? Well….vampires, still around. Still selling. Still dominating the same market.  And even better, the writing of young adult fiction, while not always pulitzer prize winning, is consistently better then many of the predecessors AND is quite friendly to the female market, offering girls also fantastic and imaginative adventures.


Posted by on February 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Dreadfuls. Before the comic book, before the pulp…

The comic book probably remains the dominant medium for fanciful, fantastic literature pumped out industriously for youth consumption. Actually if you ask me, the comic book has been replaced by the video game, but if we stick to just literature it’s the comic book. Before the comic book were the pulps, which ruled the mental landscape of the young for decades and gave us characters such as Tarzan, Conan, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Sexton Blake (we’ll get to him later this week), The Spider, etc.

But the pulps did not invent the wheel nor start the fire. (It was always burning since the wor… ow! Okay, stop throwing things at me) Before the pulps, there were the penny dreadfuls.

Penny dreadfuls began the entire concept of the continuing adventures of some action hero,  as well as featuring numerous other types of stories from gothic horror to robber barons, famous criminals and pirates to tales of young street urchins battling out gang wars in the alleys of London.

In the 1830s a peculiar situation arose in Britain due in no small part to decades of tireless effort from liberalists. It was a situation which had never before been seen in Europe, or indeed much in the entire world. A significant portion of the non elite, now in the industrial revolution known as ‘the working class’, were literate. Non wealthy people could read.

Britain being the bastion of capitalism, it was only a matter of time before markets arose to cater to this phenomenon, and in the 1830s they did.

Gothic novels were all the rage and in the mid 1830s Dickens achieved great fame serializing his novels. However, for the worker and his family, these things were bloody well expensive. The swarm of gothic novels popular at the time featured melancholy star fated lovers, family curses, huge, moody castles and dungeons, some supernatural element, some air of menace and mystery, and of course women poised to faint at any given moment. Gothic novels were hardly the shining stars of literature (until Poe came along). Indeed, they were lit-candy for the upper and burgeoning middle classes.

In the 1830s a few enterprising individuals, in particular Edward Lloyd, had the idea of taking these popular Gothic stories and some knock offs of this new Dickens chap who was all the rage, and printing them on very cheap paper, in short formats of 8 pages. Each one sold for a penny. For a penny you could buy some dreadful tales of criminality, gothic tales, horror or eventually adventure stories.

For a long time the tales of various criminals and horror sold the best. They were not aimed at youth in particular, and the working man, after a long, brutal day at the factory could sit home in the evening and enjoy the same kind of literary escapism as the classes above him. Obviously it’s no big mystery why tales of daring men working outside the law to make fortunes at the expense of rich dandies sold so well.

William Strange began the entire enterprise in 1832 with The Penny Story-Teller. However it was Edward Lloyd in 1836 who really blew it up. The son of a farmer, he began by producing monthly story collections, tales of pirates and highwaymen as well as The Calendar of Horrors, all at 6 pence for 24-32 pages. He soon moved to the 8 pages for a penny weekly format and became insanely successful.

For one thing, the first thing he did upon moving to the new format was to shamelessly rip off Dickens. Dickens had his wildly successful weekly installment of The Pickwick Papers? Well, Lloyd churned out The Penny Pickwick,a cheap imitation that did its job. Remember, this was in the age before copyright, and indeed it was through such things as this that copyright law came to be in the first place.

Eventually Lloyd realized he had stumbled onto something that produced endless sales that went far beyond Dickens knock offs. He realized it was the very notion of a continuing adventure. He started experimenting with characters who would feature in their own never ending series of episodic tales, and this was indeed the magic idea.

Characters such as Dick Turpin, a robber and smuggler executed a century before became an enormous success and by the mid 1800s, there were numerous, different publications featuring his adventures, one even dedicated to the adventures of his horse. Robin Hood also became a popular penny dreadful figure and it because of the dreadfuls that he remains known today. (The dreadfuls led to pulp and children’s novelizations which led to the Erryl Flynn movie which led to….)

Horror was a huge part of the penny dreadfuls and one of the most popular characters introduced in that genre was the infamous Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. For all of you familiar with the Sondheim musical, yes, this is where he comes from.

Also worth mentioning is Varney The Vampire. Many fun staples which continue to thrill readers today can be traced back to the dreadfuls. Varney predates Dracula and it is from Varney (ridiculous name, i know) that we get the majority of the all the present day vampire tropes we know and love.

Edward Lloyd used all his earnings to start a newspaper empire and in his later years became utterly ashamed of his penny dreadful enterprise and would employ young men to go around town, find his old dreadfuls, buy them and destroy them. One however did the opposite. He went around town, bought them all with Lloyd’s money and saved them. He eventually sold them for a fortune and thus they remain preserved today.

By the 1860s however the audience had shifted and it was boys and teenagers who were purchasing dreadfuls. We shall look at how the dreadful evolved because of this and follow them to the pulps tomorrow.

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Posted by on February 12, 2012 in Uncategorized


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