186 Fleet Street
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Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, offers close shaves. Close… and quite bloody.
1846 – The penny dreadfuls, those cheap weekly serialized stories costing just a penny are thriving among the young British working class.
In November 1846, A String of Pearls: A Romance is published in The People’s Periodical and Family Library.
This story in 18 parts and set in 1785 features a mysterious and murderous antagonist: Sweeney Todd, a barber who kills his customers and whose remains are baked into meat pies by his accomplice Mrs Lovett, owner of a pie house at 7, Bell Yard close to Sweeney Todd’s barbershop situated on Fleet Street.
It doesn’t take long for this odd short story to gain traction and be expanded in further editions: the next year, it becomes a 92-part serial and a melodrama played at Hoxton’s Britannia Theatre.
1850 – A String of Pearls is released as a 700-page book, subtitled The Barber Of Fleet Street: A Domestic Romance.
Its introduction claims to be based around actual events, and that Sweeney Todd really existed.
It’s more likely an urban legend, as no trace of such facts can be confirmed.
However, it wasn’t the first story of this caliber to be published: in 1836 Charles Dickens depicted a pie-maker using cats instead of beef meat in his pies.
Ten years before that, a short story based on the account of the french chief of police had featured a barber on Rue de la Harpe, Paris, killing his customers and… selling their remains in meat pies on his accomplice’s shop down the street.
1973 – Playwright Christopher Bond gives a new tragic spin to the story and expands Sweeney Todd’s backstory, who becomes a wrongfully imprisoned barber returning from a 15-year sentence, only to discover that the man who judged him had raped his wife to death and adopted his daughter. When his plan to kill the judge fails, he goes in a killing spree, slashing the throats of his own customers
1979 – Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim adapts Christopher’s Bond version into the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, whose libretto is written by Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music).
Critically and publicly acclaimed, the musical will spawn numerous adaptations and revivals all over the world for the years to come.
Tim Burton directed an big screen adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in 2007 featuring music by Sondheim himself and starring two of his usual collaborators: Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp.
Actor Tod Slaughter (!) played the titular character in 1936 for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the first talking movie featuring the vengeful hair -and throat- cutter.
As the film is now in public domain, you can watch it below:
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