Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

Man or Myth?

Publicity photo of BBC actors from new production
Publicity photo of BBC actors from new production

The new BBC horror film brings back to life the demon barber once again. Hollywood Reporter Ray Bennett gives this movie very good reviews. "Ray Winstone brings Sweeney Todd, the mythical demon barber of Fleet Street made famous in Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway musical, vividly and scarily to life."  According to Bennett, supporting actors Essie Davis as Mrs. Lovett, Tom Hardy as a young Bow Street runner, David Bradley as Todd's father and David Warner as magistrate Fielding "do exceptional work to match that of Winstone, who gets behind the eyes of a madman to reveal hauntingly how he might have become that way."

"Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" By Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

In the introduction to Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, playwright Christopher Bond begins by telling readers "Sweeney Todd is pure fiction." For two centuries theater-goers and penny dreadful fans have been thrilled with the exploits of Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber who dispatched his customers with a flick of the razor and then had his lover serve up the remains in a tasty meat pie, but few gave much thought to whether or not it was a true story.

Long before there was Freddy Krueger, or even Jack the Ripper, there was the legend of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and most readers assumed it was just that legend. Bond's statement that Sweeney Todd is pure fiction is correct in one respect: the Sondheim musical, which has played to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, is a fictional account of the life of Sweeney Todd.

Sondheim, who penned the music and lyrics, and playwright Hugh Wheeler adapted an earlier work by Bond, who tailored yet another (much) earlier work by one George Dibdin-Pitt. The melodrama by Pitt had its foundation in a contemporary account of Todd's arrest, trial and execution. Bond asserts while Fleet Street was the home of many unstable and unsavory characters over the years, "no one has ever succeeded in finding a shred of evidence as to the existence of a Demon Barber thereabouts."

That's why Bond is a playwright, not an investigator.


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