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TIMOTHY SPALL - Noose work in Pierrepoint

We can all sit in judgement on huge things - the death penalty, terrorism, war - but until you have to make that decision or you're involved in it, you can't speak. When I was ill, one of the things that struck me was, ‘Oh my God, this happens to somebody else.' You know, this usually happens to the bloke round the corner and they're all going, ‘Oh what a shame.' No, you're the fucking bloke round the corner it's happened to. So, you know, you use your power of imagination and your job is to play the character, not your own personal emotion, but I'm thinking every time Albert did this, he had to see this look in these people's eyes, including women. Call me sexist if you like but your whole instinct is to protect youthful femininity. So when I had to put the noose around Ruth Ellis, I thought, ‘No, this is against nature.'

A lot of myths have developed around Albert Pierrepoint. How much did you know about him and what interested you with regards to playing him?

"Well I'd read the book [Pierrepoint's memoir, Executioner: Pierrepoint] when it first came out in 1974, I think it was '75 I picked it up, maybe '74, but it was around a time when I was starting to branch out and read other stuff apart from Lord of the Rings [laughs], which I have read, and The Hobbit, and I started to get more of an interest in the rest of the world.

"I had grown up as a kid in the last days of capital punishment, and although I wasn't really conscious of it when the last people were executed, in 1964, I do remember having a sense of it. I've since spoken to Mum, I was from Battersea, born and brought up in Battersea, and she said, ‘Oh yes, whenever we knew there was a hanging at Wandsworth, there was always a strange atmosphere around the place, because they always hung them at nine o'clock and people had a sense of dread.' So I, like a lot of people, had a sense of an executioner somehow being this mysterious, somewhat macabre guy, who turned up in a black hood and was somehow a kind of sadist of some kind.  

 "So when that book came out and I read it, I remember being absolutely fascinated by the fact that the man could have been somebody from my street. And that was something that astounded me. But that's all I remember of it, really: that juxtaposing of a normal, jolly, working-class man that could have been your uncle, your dad, or your dad's friend, but turned out to be the most proficient and prolific state killing machine of the last 200 years [laughs]." 

I read the book after seeing the film and I was surprised by the measuredness of his tone. You cover this in the film. There is a real kind of emotional detachment from what he did and what he was engaged in. Did that surprise you when you read it?  

"Absolutely. Well, I read the book twice before I did the film and while I was doing it, and I think it's beautifully written, but one of the things he admits to, and one of the things, obviously, that sustained his success and ability to do it, was that he, and I've seen him in interviews saying this, was able to remove himself from it and concentrate on his duty, which was very important to him. This and his absolute obsession with getting it right, therefore making it the most humane, because it was the quickest and the least fuss would happen. Also, and I know it sounds odd, I think he was a natural at making people feel, at their last moment, like he was in control and he was not going to mess it up for them." 

He wasn't going to drop the ball, as it were. 

"Yeah, he wasn't going to drop the ball or fumble with the lever, or get the drop wrong. As you know, in the book he talks about the craft, and the sacred craft, and the fact it was never discussed with anyone else. But I think his destiny was to become this because his father told him it was when he was young. But also, in his family, I think they were a haulage family and they knew about weights and measurements, and Albert could look at somebody and know exactly how long the rope should be, which was absolutely crucial to whether the break in the neck was instantaneous or not. Anybody without the ability could cause a lot of problems - strangulation - so the craft side of it was very important to him. And like a lot of those crafts that still exits today, like the masons and the patternmakers, that thing that goes right back to a kind of pride and almost a kind of a connection with a spirituality." 

The chilling thing here, though, is that the craft he takes so much pride in is one that is designed to take life.  

"Absolutely. And I think that sustained his ability to do it for so long, and his sense of duty and being a direct instrument of the state and the king, the fact that he was able to do it because that duty was very important to him. Duty of that nature is something we've lost in the present day - unfailing duty to the state, to the king without question. It's a bit like Papal infallibility, similar thing. People did actually assume that the Royal family, if they went to the lavatory at all, there was somebody with a silk cloth to wipe their arse, and they weren't in some way normal. And people in authority weren't questioned. We forget that it's not that long ago that the majority of the people in this country, and the world, thought that that's the way things should be." 

And that's what the film shows the danger of, doesn't it? That total commitment to duty, that you will do something unquestioningly.  

"But that's what the film's about, because he does start to question what it's about. As you remember in the book, he came to the conclusion that it [capital punishment] was wrong because it was revenge and not a deterrent." 

The way I interpreted what he was saying in the book was that he didn't have any moral qualms about it. He said he did everything with a clear conscience, it was only after the James Corbitt execution that he came to the conclusion that yes, it isn't a deterrent, but his reasoning seemed to be more political than moral. You felt that if it had been a deterrent, he'd have carried on hanging people.  

"It was but I think - now this is something he didn't write about, and wouldn't write about - in studying him as a man, the look in his eye, studying and seeing between the lines in the book, because that book is contradictory and he will say things like, ‘I never had any qualms', but he also says an amazing thing, he says, ‘I received, after the execution, the body of the hanged man with the same reverence I would receive the broken body of Christ.' Now, also I think within what I've just said, there's an amazing sense of power that only that would give you in connection with God, the despatching of a human life in the name of God, the state and the king. And to be a delivery man and a publican, to do that, a person who is an inconsequential human being, having said all that, I think there is a look in Albert's eye - and this is me totally speaking - that was not ruthless and was not in anyway psychotic, but there's a sense of Angel of Death, and I don't think he knew he had that in him." 

He didn't know at the beginning or until after he had resigned? In the preface to his memoir he says that that he believes he was called to do the job by a higher power. That it was a kind of calling or vocation. 

"I think given the luxury of hindsight he made a lot of decisions about what he was doing. But at the time I think he was involved in what he was doing, like a lot of people who do extreme things, whether they be state backed or not. All the Nazis, they were given their mandate, and it was natural to them because they were in charge. Albert is a different thing, because don't forget we're talking about capital punishment, which in a lot of countries is still going, and is done in a lot worse ways. So as much as you and I might intellectually disagree with it, which I do, emotionally I might not if somebody I loved was killed. That's what I feel. Intellectually my whole system says, ‘No, no, no, the state is being as barbaric as the barbarian if they take their life,' but if somebody hurts somebody I love, I'm the fucking barbarian who wants to kill the person who killed them. So there is a whole different, as far as I'm concerned, ambivalent, complicated reaction to it.

"Another fascinating thing Albert said in the book, and I think the film tries to catch, is a slow but definite erosion of his ability to separate himself as the executioner and the man. I think the film tries to say: ‘Whatever you think about this process, a human being is going through the process and slowly and surely coming to the conclusion, totally and utterly, that it's wrong.' "One of the things that Albert said, and I think this is a feeling he had doing it, and he says it in his book and it's not in retrospect, he says, ‘I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of the people I had to execute were sad, pathetic, lost individuals caught on the wrong foot.'" 

Yes, their crimes were frequently crimes of passion rather than ones committed in cold blood. 

"Absolutely. And I think he knew that at the time, and every time he had to remove that from his mind, the crack happened a little bit more and more and more and more. . . There's all sorts of stories that aren't corroborated about his, not kindness, but what I said before about his sense of [said compassionately], ‘Alright, lad, come with me.' I mean the thing was he was determined to make sure of was that there was no fuss. A lot of it was to make sure they weren't going to give him any trouble when he dropped them. But it was also about making that moment as quick and as efficient as possible, and he insisted, always, on looking in their eyes to make sure they were okay. But is that kindness? Is that messianic? Is that power, or is it a combination of all of them?" 

It's like we mentioned before that in his every day life he was a delivery man and a publican but on some days he would go and do this. So I wondered if there was a feeling of exceptionalism, like when he talks about a higher power in the book, something that, in a sense, set him apart from the common herd as it were. 

"Yes, I think so. I think so. We all have it in us. I mean I'm lucky, I'm an actor, and therefore I get a lot of custard I probably don't deserve. I go away to places, I get to stay in nice hotels -- I'm a working class bloke that happens to do an exceptional job."   

You still feel that way? 

"A little bit. I still remember walking up Latchmere Road thinking, ‘Ah, there must be more to life than this.' But I think everybody has a sense that they want to be exceptional. Very few people in this day and age feel that they shouldn't be exceptional. There's something in the media and retail advertising that makes us feel we all deserve to be exceptional. So I don't think it's unusual. But I think you've understood what I'm trying to say. There's nothing more exceptional than that, if you can do it. Whether you think it is right or wrong, it is the most exceptional thing, apart from being the Saviour of the world. . .  I remember what I was going to say. . . In one of his interviews, and it made absolute sense to me, somebody asked him, ‘What would you have liked to have been had you not been an executioner?' [Spall adopts a Yorkshire accent and speaks in a high register] ‘It might sound quite strange,' he had a very high voice like that, but I elected not to do it because it would have been like, ‘Leaning on a lamppost on the corner. . .', ‘You might find it strange but I'd have very much liked to be a doctor.'" 

The film's subject matter is tremendously morbid. Did wonder to yourself, when you were approached to do this, whether you wanted to be in this space for however long it would take to complete the project? 

"Yeah, yeah [sighs]. It was only tough a few times, though, and the toughness of it made me understand it more." 

Do you mean the hanging sequences? 

"Yeah. A lot of the hanging sequences where he didn't know the people, but the final going into the cell for Tish - which is based on absolute truth, by the way." 

Yes, I didn't know it was true until I read the book. I thought it was creative licence, a dramatic construct. 

"[Emphatic] Hard to believe. It's true. It looks like an artifice and a device, but it's true. As we know. The first week of shooting, and we didn't have long to do it, we had about four weeks, the whole thing, was all of the executions. Now they recreated the Wandsworth Prison execution chamber which, for a start, was remarkable, because it was so ordinary. It also happened to be very redolent of primary school gyms. You know: wooden floor, cream and green walls, no climbing bars but rope; it felt just like that. And in the middle of it was this trapdoor. It seemed like some bizarre, bleak, Victorian playground. The other fact was that about 40-60% of these guys were between 19 and 30, and they'd committed crimes of passion. The next thing was two of the people I had to hang, and one in particular, were close personal friends of my son [Ralf Spall], who is also an actor, and is 23. So, all of those factors were very, very affecting on a human level.  

"Okay, it was make-believe. It was artifice. But, you know, doing that to a young man who was terribly frightened, a couple of times I had to stop myself from thinking, ‘This would be like hanging your son.' Which then, of course, when it came to hanging Tish, was almost unbearable, but not just because of who he was, but also because he was so grateful. I think that in the movie was very affecting, because whatever the movie's about and its progression, and I think the cleverness in its writing, it's about that moment where it says, ‘Nothing really matters until it's personal. You don't understand anything until it's personal.'

"We can all sit in judgement on huge things - the death penalty, terrorism, war - but until you have to make that decision or you're involved in it, you can't speak. When I was ill [he was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1996], one of the things that struck me was, ‘Oh my God, this happens to somebody else.' You know, this usually happens to the bloke round the corner and they're all going, ‘Oh what a shame.' [Laughs] No, you're the fucking bloke round the corner it's happened to. So, you know, you use your power of imagination and your job is to play the character, not your own personal emotion, but I'm thinking every time he did this, he had to see this look in these people's eyes, including women. Call me sexist if you like but your whole instinct is to protect youthful femininity. So when I had to put the noose around Ruth Ellis, and that woman before, I thought, ‘No, this is against nature.'"  

There are strange comparisons being made throughout the film about the scientific methods employed by the Nazis and the scientific methods employed by Albert and the British. Are we being asked to make moral judgements, to consider whether one is right and the other wrong? Is it deliberately creating a moral quandary? Is the death penalty right for some people and not others? This was the problem, says Albert in the book: that no one could decide who it should be for. 

"I don't think it is. Most people I would think would say it's one of the most accurate anti-hanging films, but it doesn't actually say that, really. Because what it's saying is, ‘This is what happened to the bloke who had to do it, and he thought he was going to be alright.' That interesting juxtaposition between the Nazis and Albert's position as the vanquisher of the Western world, the Allied Forces, of course says, ‘Well these bastards deserved it but the only difference is he's doing it in a justifiable way, because they lost and they were bad.'"  

You mentioned your illness. Did that experience give you a sharpened sense of the value of life and what is important? It's interesting that here you are playing a character who is taking life. Again, it's a sharp juxtaposition. 

"Yeah, yeah, I don't think you can - I don't want to big myself up about it - but it was an experience I had, it was a life-threatening problem and I got over it, but I had to go through a horrible journey and come to terms with the fact that it might all end. What I learnt was actually dying, or the possibility of dying, is fundamental and something you can't change. But what is painful is the consequences of that in connection with the people who love you. Which I think we always forget when people are bad and they're going to be executed, or they die, and even if they're bad they die. Because when somebody dies, they're dead; but the people who know them or love them are the ones who suffer. So when you hang somebody, you're hanging about 10 people. There's this scene where Tish's Mum comes to beg his case, which is a fact. His mum's not bad. Her sister's not bad. Her friends aren't bad. When you hang somebody, or you execute somebody, or you imprison somebody for life, you're imprisoning a lot of people's love. They're suffering. So I think that is another reason why I think I understand that, because the ramifications of that are huge and it goes across the board: how can a terrorist legitimately choose innocent people? It's because somebody's arbitrarily chosen one of their kind. So it's an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth thing. So having had a peek over the precipice, without being profound about it, makes you understand the frailty of human life." 

Has that experience changed the way you live your life or the way you choose your work? 

"Uh, all of those things but not to a degree where you would think they're that obvious. I think they made certain choices more acute. And I'm in a position, luckily, although, you know, one doesn't want to be smug about it, where I'm choosing my projects carefully. I don't feel so much under pressure or so impatient that I need to chase my tail as an actor. Because getting older, and partly being around long enough, and I hope partly having a reputation, all these things, if you're lucky, means that it gets better as opposed to worse."