Monday, 20 December 2010

FBD Blogathon: A Tod Slaughter Christmas

Tod and Me: A Very Personal Retrospective or A Self-Obsessed Reflection on Misunderstood Genius and Why Me and Tod Rule and The World Simply Wasn’t Ready For Us Because It Sucks.

About a hundred years ago when radios were called wirelesses, CDs were considered witchcraft and Jesus was still in short robes, I went to drama school and studied the noble craft of acting.

Any actor worth their fancy trousers will tell you that there is a book that is the actor’s Bible and they also tell you that that book is ‘An Actor Prepares’ by Constantin Stanislavski. ‘An Actor Prepares’ was first published in 1936 and is the first volume of translations of Stanislavski’s books on acting , it is intended to be a learning tool that indirectly teaches the aspiring thespian by example. It is constructed as a fictional diary of a na├»ve young drama student named Kostya and charts his progress through his first year of training in Stanislavski’s ‘system’. Predominantly the book is concerned with the inexperienced Kostya and his classmates, under the tutelage of their teacher and director Tortsov, learning that every preconceived idea they had about the nature of the craft is wrong as it fails to align with the Stanislavski ‘system’.

Broadly, the Stanislavski ‘system’ strives to achieve truth in performance by drawing on the inner creativity and imagination of the actor to allow every action to be stimulated by the inner machinations of the given character. Essentially what this means is that the average drama student spends the vast majority of his or her time scrabbling about looking for a ‘brooch’ that, however well meaning, a ‘friend’ shouldn’t have stuck in a curtain and trying to find the essential truth of that action. The rest of their time is taken up with sitting around while their fellow students discuss all the reasons why they sucked at the exercise.

I think all this is bollocks. I’m fairly sure that Tod Slaughter never read ‘An Actor Prepares’, but even if he had I’m fairly sure he’d have thought this was bollocks too. Tod never strove for realism and truth in his performances, his acting style was not concerned with the miniscule internal motivations that took his character from a to b to c, what Tod did was different, Tod just took his character and ran with it, exploded all over it, began acting and just forgot to stop. With the unstoppable momentum of a runaway cartoon snowball Todd just got bigger and bigger gleefully obliterating all in the general vicinity with the sheer gusto of his own theatrical creations. You see, Tod knew something Stanislavski didn’t, Tod knew joy, he appreciated the delight that could be found in unabashed, bombastic, melodramatic theatrics and simple, uncomplicated entertainment. There are those who say Tod was a bad actor, but they’re wrong, I prefer to think of him as enthusiastic, and charming, eccentrically, irrepressibly charming.

Tod and I clearly have a lot in common, (I mean aside from just our testicular views on Stanislavski and our ‘enthusiastic’ acting styles), I feel a special kinship with the T-Man and naturally, therefore, I am a fierce advocate of his work and largely unappreciated genius.

Tod , like me, was born to a working class family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the North East of England, and, like me, he aspired to something greater and more fulfilling than his working class roots. He (we) found the perfect creative escape in theatre. and his (our) ambitions led to teenage years spent treading the boards in the North East’s finest fleapits. At the age of just twenty, Tod’s inherent verve and entrepreneurial spirit saw him found his own theatre company to showcase his prodigious talent. (In my early twenties I founded my own theatre company because no director in their right mind would employ me ever under any circumstances so I had to employ myself and showcase my alarming ‘talent’). Naturally, Tod and I were both destined for better things and with spectacular cross century symmetry we both wound up in London (he running a series of theatres including ones in Elephant and Castle and Chatham, and me, less impressively, circumstantially forced to dress as the bloody teacup from Beauty and the Beast at the opening of Disney stores to pay my drama school debts.)

What Tod did on stage was essentially what he did film (what I did on stage is best not mentioned). Although he did initially begin his career playing, somewhat bizarrely, romantic leads and comic roles, it wasn’t till he began producing and performing in the kind of macabre, garish penny dreadful theatre that appealed to audiences of the era that he really found his niche. He cackled, he strode, he crept, leered and lurked and joyously perfected hand wringing and moustache twirling all over the stages of the day. Tod essentially created the archetypal villain.

In order to bring the greatest frightfests to his stage Tod wisely ravaged the literature, folklore and real life events of recent history in order to show his talents to greatest advantage. During his stage career he brought such tales and legends to life as Jekyll and Hyde, Spring Heeled Jack, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Burke and Hare and, of course, his arguably most famous theatrical creation, Sweeney Todd, and some of these roles he would later reprise in film.

While my ‘career’ progressed to alarming kids all over the country, and quite frequently mutilating selected works of Shakespeare, in a variety of ghastly Theatre In Education productions, Tod’s took him onto the silver screen where he could rightly shine as the nefarious star he was, and in film he was as theatrical and larger than life as on stage. With a blithe disregard for the change in form Tod commendably continued ACTING (I think his style warrants the capital letters) as only he could.

From his debut in 1935 Tod went on to delight movie audiences for many years as he brought to life a whole host of memorable ne'er-do-wells on the big screen. His most notable movie performances of this period included; Maria Marten/Murder in the Red Barn (1935), The Greed of William Hart (1948), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), The Face at the Window (1939) and Crimes at the Dark House (1940).

And this is where our careers (please insert your own inverted commas in relation to me) diverge slightly. Now, and I’m sure you’ll agree, although our lives have been all but identical up to this point, while I, enraged at not getting my own way enough of the time exited the theatrical profession in an epic internal hissyfit of epic proportions and quietly sulked, Tod continued to work in film, TV and on stage right up until his death in 1956.

Tod provides an important link between British horror on the stage and British horror in film, he practically invented Hammer before Hammer was even conceived and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he paved the way for what Hammer later achieved. I meanwhile provide the vital link between whiskey and quasi bitter diatribes about how my career could have been if only I had the breaks and people weren’t so stupid, the Great Midsummer Night’s Dream Whiskey Frenzy of 1993 could also never have happened without me.

It ludicrous that Tod Slaughter is so little known. He’s a horror star and his name is Tod Slaughter, for Christ’s sake, people should be all over that. Yet, in the grand scheme of general horror history he is all but ignored and the mass populace would not recognize his name or image. (I feel his pain, it’s hard being me and Tod.) It was alleged that whilst filming Marathon Man Sir Lawrence Olivier in reference to Dustin Hoffman staying up all night in order to play his character as having stayed up all night in a scene said, ‘why don’t you try acting, darling, it’s much easier.’ Tod Slaughter tried acting. He tried acting with glorious abandon. He tried acting with every limb, every muscle and with every fibre of his being. He tried acting so hard and so big that there was really wasn’t a screen or stage anyway capable of containing him. And while he may not be that well known, may not be lauded and may not receive the accolades that go to his peers, those of us lucky enough to see him never forget him and love him for it, and that is his legacy.


  1. Great post! I love Sweeney Todd :D

  2. Oh my good Jinx! I cannot tell you how much I love this post. You perfectly capture that sense of ACTING (not only are the caps appropriate, but I caught myself yelling this word in a similar fashion several times while watching Slaughter at his diabolical best) that Tod brought to his roles, but you do so with the same amount of enthusiasm that he is known for.

    I agree wholeheartedly with all of your points, especially that Slaughter isn't nearly known well enough amongst even horror fans. I hope to at least inform the masses in some small way of his greatness, and I'm beyond thrilled to have an excellent writer such as yourself (and this amazing article) helping me to do so this Christmas season! Insanely great work!

  3. Great job, Jinx! I particularly love your ecstatic list of Tod's tactics: "He cackled, he strode, he crept, leered and lurked and joyously perfected hand wringing and moustache twirling all over the stages of the day." What a vivid description of his acting! Also love "He tried acting so hard and so big that there was really wasn’t a screen or stage anyway capable of containing him." You capture the man perfectly.

  4. Thank you SO much! Tod means a lot to me, I really am unreasonably fond of him, and I'm just so completely thrilled that Joe decided to do this blogathon to celebrate him and that I was able to participate. Thanks for being awesome, Joe!

  5. Fantastic! You know your man, and no mistake.

    The fun is trying to imagine what he was like off-stage. Imagine walking into a pub with him. Imagine him doing his shopping. Imagine being his postman and having to the ring the bell because you've got a parcel that's too big for his letterbox.
    I'll bet he was never off-stage, and what you got was the full Tod Slaughter bit, all the time.

    Loved reading this. I fell in love with Slaughter when Channel 4 showed most of his films in a series on Friday nights. I think I must have been twenty or so. I'd known of him for years but never actually sen him at work. Wow!
    But it's not just his performances that make those movies great - they really are beautiful little films in their own right. I still watch them all a couple of times a year. I also read Peter Benchley's Jaws once a year in the bath, but that's not strictly relevant here.
    You should track down where he was born, and post a photo of yourself proudly camped out on his doorstep...

    And if we don't speak again before the day: Merry Christmas, Jinx!

  6. There's an awesome story about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man. For the famous "is it safe" scene, Hoffman apparently prepared by keeping himself awake for 36 hours and running to the point of exhaustion. After they were done, Lord Larry reputedly said to him: "You know, you could have tried acting. It's much easier." Apparently, this is apocryphal, which is too bad. I get the feeling that Tod might have sided with Olivier here.

  7. A great post; sorry I missed out on this week - I don't know if I've seen any of those films - this definitely makes me want to search some of them out.



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