Tod Slaughter in the title role of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)
|Born||Norman Carter Slaughter
19 March 1885
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
|Died||19 February 1956
Derby, Derbyshire, UK
Slaughter was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he attended the Royal Grammar School. The eldest surviving son of 12 children, he made his way onto the stage in 1905 at West Hartlepool. In 1913, he became a lessee of the Hippodrome theatres at Richmond and Croydon. After a brief interruption to serve during World War I in the Royal Flying Corps, Slaughter resumed his career and returned to the stage.
During this period, his stage name was N. Carter Slaughter and he primarily played the conventional leading man or character roles—seldom the villain. After the war, he ran the Theatre Royal, Chatham before taking over the Elephant and Castle Theatre in South London for a memorable few years from 1924 onwards that have since passed into British theatrical legend. Slaughter's company revived Victorian "blood-and-thunder" melodramas such as Maria Marten, Sweeney Todd, Jack Sheppard and The Silver King to enthusiastic audiences—not just locals but also sophisticated theatregoers from the West End who might have initially come for a cheap laugh but ended up enthralled by the power of the fare on offer. Slaughter also staged other types of production such as the annual Christmas pantomime where he would cast prominent local personalities in bit-parts for audience recognition. Despite a local protest, the Elephant and Castle Theatre was closed down in 1927, Slaughter's company vacating it several months before the end.
It was in 1925 that he adopted the stage name Tod Slaughter, but his primary roles were still character and heroic leads—not the evil-doers. He played the young hero in The Face at the Window, the poacher Tom Robinson in "It's Never Too Late To Mend", and the village idiot Tim Winterbottom in Maria Marten. He also played the title character in Sherlock Holmes and D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. Silent footage exists of Slaughter acting on stage at the Elephant and Castle in the military melodrama "The Flag Lieutenant" in a documentary entitled "London After Dark". It is said he briefly retired from acting to become a chicken farmer at the start of the 1930s, but it proved a short-lived venture and he was soon back managing his company touring the provinces and outlying London theatres with a repertoire of Victorian melodramas.
In 1931 at the New Theatre, London he played Long John Silver in Treasure Island during the day and the body snatcher William Hare in The Crimes Of Burke And Hare at night. Publicised as 'Mr Murder', he lapped up his new-found notoriety by boasting he committed 15 murders each day for the duration of the run. Shortly afterwards, he played Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street for the first of 2,000 times on stage. Actor and role had found each other much in the same way as Béla Lugosi and Dracula and the seal was set on Slaughter's subsequent career.
In 1934 aged 49, he began in films. Usually cast as a villain, his first film was Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (1935) a Victorian melodrama filmed cheaply with Slaughter as the obvious evil-doer, and identified as such at the beginning of the play. In the old melodramatic style, each main member of the cast is introduced before the play begins and has his role explained. When Slaughter comes on, he favours the audience with a cold, evil grin as the on-stage announcer says "Squire Corder, Lord of the Manor...and a villain! Whose blood may be blue—but whose heart is black as night!". This set the general tone for the whole film series, although the introduction format was not used again.
Slaughter’s next film role was as Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), directed and produced by George King, whose partnership with Slaughter was continued in the subsequent shockers: The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936); It's Never Too Late To Mend (1937); The Ticket of Leave Man (1938); The Face at the Window (1939) and Crimes at the Dark House (1940). Most of these films were 'quota quickies', films made quickly and cheaply to fulfil a government requirement that a certain portion of all films distributed by British studios had to be British made. Many such were forgettable, low-quality films, but the lack of studio interest paradoxically made for quality in one way: it gave the maker, by default, artistic control over the final product. Slaughter made the films, for the most part, exactly as he liked, with all the over-the-top melodramatic acting of a bygone age, just as he did on stage. The result was often a fascinating record of once-popular Victorian sensational fiction (Sweeney Todd, Hawkshaw the Detective in The Ticket-of-Leave Man) and sensational factual cases (Maria Martin, victim of Murder in the Red Barn), done in the style that the original audiences would have expected, but which no other modern filmmaker would have done. If the Victorians could have made feature films, they might well have looked like the works of Tod Slaughter.
There were, however, some non-melodramatic roles in his career. He was a supporting player in The Song of the Road (1937) and Darby and Joan (1937). In Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938), he played the head of an international gang of super-villains.
After the war, Slaughter resumed melodramatic roles on screen and starred in The Curse of the Wraydons (1946), in which Bruce Seton played the legendary Victorian bogeyman Spring-Heeled Jack, and The Greed of William Hart (1948) based on the murderous career of Burke and Hare. These were produced by Ambassador Films at Bushey Studios, who had made a healthy profit rereleasing Tod's 1930s films during the war years.
During the early 1950s, Slaughter appeared as the villain in two crime films King of the Underworld (1952) and Murder at Scotland Yard (1953) and he was still regularly touring the provinces and London suburbs. However, the public's appetite for melodrama seemed to have abated somewhat by this stage and he was declared bankrupt in 1953 owing to a downturn in his touring income. He continued to act in stage productions, however, such as Molière's The Gay Invalid opposite future horror star Peter Cushing, and acting as the Master of Ceremonies at an evening of old-fashioned music hall.
His last two films were each three episodes of the television series Inspector Morley cobbled together for theatrical release. A version of Spring-Heeled Jack starring Tod was one of the first live TV plays mounted by the BBC after the war.
Still performing on the stage almost to the very end, Slaughter died of coronary thrombosis. After his death following a performance of Maria Marten in Derby, his work slipped almost completely into obscurity.
Film historians have revived interest in Slaughter's cycle of melodramatic films, placing them in a tradition of "cinema of excess" which also includes the Gainsborough Melodramas and Hammer Horrors.
|1935||Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn||William Corder|
|1936||Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street||Sweeney Todd|
|1936||The Crimes of Stephen Hawke||Stephen Hawke|
|1937||Darby and Joan||Mr. Templeton|
|1937||It's Never Too Late to Mend||Squire John Meadows|
|1937||The Song of the Road||Dan Lorenzo|
|1938||The Ticket of Leave Man||The Tiger|
|1938||Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror||Michael Larron|
|1939||The Face at the Window||Chevalier Lucio del Gardo|
|1940||Crimes at the Dark House||The False Percival Glyde|
|1945||Bothered by a Beard||Sweeney Todd|
|1946||The Curse of the Wraydons||Philip Wraydon (The Chief)|
|1948||The Greed of William Hart||William Hart|
|1952||King of the Underworld||Terence Reilly|
|1952||Murder at Scotland Yard||Terence Reilly|
|1952||Murder at the Grange||Patrick Reilly aka Clarence Beacham - posing as butler|
|1952||A Ghost for Sale||Caretaker|
|1954||Puzzle Corner No. 14||Sweeney Todd|
- Richards, Jeffrey (ed.) The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939. I.B. Tauris, 1998.