Edinburgh, 1828…

Thanks to actor Ricky Callan for posting this one of YeTube (the Scottish YouTube).

I really wanted the credit “book and lyrics” on this one but somehow didn’t get it. Makeup FX supremo Stephen (SLEUTH) Murphy conceived the idea for a musical about Edinburgh’s best-loved mass-murderers (they didn’t really rob graves, they found it easier to manufacture their own corpses) and I volunteered to write it with alacrity.

The first voice you hear is that of Ronnie Corbett, the little Nazi in the original CASINO ROYALE, who lives outside Edinburgh. I’m afraid we wrote a less vulgar version of the script in order to secure his services, which he gave out of the goodness of his heart. Once we’d recorded his VO we stuck all the swearing back in.

Ricky Callan plays William Hare, with Sandy Nelson (Mel Gibson’s brother in BRAVEHEART!) as William Burke. Stephen Murphy directed, handled most of the producing, oversaw the special makeup requirements, and wrote the score.

It’s all shot on location except for Burke and Hare’s rooming house, a little set built in Edinburgh College of Art’s boxy wee TV studio. And the front door of same, which is a miniature (as becomes clear when it’s destroyed — we shot the destruction in slow motion but not slow enough).

Apart from my writing services, I appear as an extra in the hanging scene (far left at 7:57, wearing a wig and pulling a funny face) and did a fair bit of editing on it. Editing dance is tough, especially when you have no coverage (not incompetence, just a limited budget) and everything must be cut to the music, and the choreography is differently timed from one shot to the next.

Another problem was a camera malfunction during the hanging scene — the sound had no firm synchronisation with the picture. So I synched (or “sunk”, as we say) the middle of each shot. As the shot starts, it’s slightly out-of-whack, but just as the audience starts to notice, it goes back into step with the image. Then it starts to drift out, but just as the audience becomes aware of it, we cut to the next shot. Genius.

That was a strange day. Pretty much the start of the shoot, the biggest scene (building a gallows outside St Giles Cathedral on Edinburgh’s High Street, with buses going by in the back of out-takes) and as we set up the news came in of the school shooting in Dunblane. Some anonymous asshole member of the public saw fit to castigate us for our bad taste in filming a death scene on this terrible day,as if we’d planned the events to coincide.

Other locations: the graveyard at the start (I thought it was important to show B&H failing as resurrectionists, even though there’s no evidence they ever tried it, but most people associate them with grave-robbing) is Greyfriar’s Churchyard, resting place of William Topaz McGonagall (the world’s worst poet) and the famous Greyfriar’s Bobby. It can also be seen right at the start of Robert Wise and Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, in a travelogue shot swiftly followed by a studio mock-up.

The dark alleyway is Advocate’s Close, I think. While scouting all the narrow side-streets off the Royal Mile, we found the more spacious close that serves as our main street scene. It had very few modern features to hide, and was a cul-de-sac which we could completely take over.

Stephen and Mhairi, his producer, managed to get some fairly posh place to serve as Dr. Knox’s house, and a disused bar which could easily be rendered 19th century — in fact, since the modern fixtures had been stripped out, that’s basically what it was.

Morag McKinnon, director of forthcoming feature ROUNDING UP DONKEYS, cameos as Bess the prossie. As soon as she heard there was a character of that name, she wanted to play it. I seem to recall writing a series of completely foul couplets before settling on the relatively innocuous ones used. It was worth it to make people laugh. Stephen wanted to have naked corpses on slabs, to “enhance the production values,” so Morag was induced to denude. Both Stephen and I regretted it in the end, since the combination of nudity, death, and rude humour maybe touches on the uncomfortable.

Here’s one of my pal Simon Fraser’s drawings for the end creds, which deserves to be enjoyed at fuller resolution than YeTube can supply:

Simon is a successful comic book artist and illustrator of high-class lesbian pornography.

And here’s the actual death-mask of William Burke:

Whatever you think of our little playlet, (sharp-eyed observers may spot swipes from homages to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher and Dylan Thomas’s The Doctor and the Devils) I can assure you that our version really is one of the most historically accurate accounts of the B&H affair, with only the omission of the killers’ wives, and the precise circumstances of their arrest, being somewhat at odds with exact verisimilitude.

Oh, and the singing.

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12 Responses to “Edinburgh, 1828…”

  1. Pas mal. Certainly preferable to Andrew Lloyd Puccini, but not quite up to Lionel Bart (which I suspect was the aim.)

    Love the dancing barmaids flashing their knickers.

  2. Credit to Stephen for the knickers, and to Squeeze, the costume designer. Stephen is a guy who becomes surrounded by pretty girls wherever he goes, so I guess he decided why not put them in the film?

    I know Stephen was listening to things like Oliver! and Les Miserables, anything with a period flavour. Sweeney Todd was at the back of my mind, even though I’d never seen it.

  3. LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS FILM Morag is particularly good… I seem to remember a fantastic rhyme with Australia at the end.

    I thought the Scottish version of Youtube was yatube!.com ?

  4. “My life is a failure / I’m off to Austrailure.” Near the end of part 2.

    I plumped for YeTube as I thought it’d be clearer to the international audience. “Ya” is quite American.

  5. this is the sort of debate in which we should call in The Scots Language Society….

    yes failure and Australia – excellent !

  6. I wish I’d spent longer on some of the other lyrics. The trouble was I handed in a first draft and everybody liked it so nobody wanted to let me change anything. And Stephen needed the script and lyrics fixed so he could score it and film it. I think I wrote a better version of the last song but he really didn’t want to look at it.

  7. welll hopefully it will become an extra on the DVD!

  8. Great work, tremendous writing. I’m surprised I haven’t come across this somewhere or other over the years, though…

  9. Thanks!

    It’s barely been shown anywhere. One screening at Edinburgh Film Fest, where the sound was faulty…

    I should have promoted it more, but I’m going to sit back and blame the producer and director, since that usually works.

  10. [...] later, Greyfriars Kirk was used as the opening location of BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL, a film written by yours truly. It seemed fitting to acknowledge the debt to Lewton, and the fact [...]

  11. Hi David,

    can you tell me what year B+H THe Musical was made?

    MC

  12. It was 1996 — I remember because the Dunblane Massacre was the first day of the shoot.

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