French physician Joseph Guillotin was born on 28 May – just two hundred and sixty-one years ago. Contrary to what you might think, he did not actually invent the guillotine; he merely leant it his name after advocating its use in the removal of head colds. Or something like that – you can’t expect me to remember all the details, it was a long time ago.
One of literature’s most famous campaigners against the guillotine is, of course, the Scarlet Pimpernel. He was portrayed by Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews, in 1934 and 1982 respectively, while most recently Richard E. Grant got all pimply in the BBC television series. He can be seen rescuing some nobs from Madame Guillotine herself in The Scarlet Pimpernel: Valentin Guitar (1998).
Butler Edmund Blackadder (rubber-faced Rowan Atkinson) had to make sure his swash was firmly buckled in ‘Nob and Nobility’, an episode from the third series of the popular historical comedy which is available on both Blackadder: Blackadder the Third – Dish and Dishonesty (1987) and Blackadder: The Complete Blackadder the Third (1987). Needless to say, his and smelly sidekick Baldrick’s cunning plan to emulate the Pimpernel goes hopelessly awry when the French embassy in London is taken over by revolutionaries.
One famous fictional victim of the guillotine was lawyer Sydney Carton, who decides to do a far, far better thing than he has ever done in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Ronald Colman took on the role in the 1935 film, and Dirk Bogarde in 1958. A 1980 BBC adaptation is also available as part of a box set: Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit/Oliver Twist/Christmas Carol/A Tale of Two Cities. The events surrounding Robespierre’s mass executions are also related in the historical drama Danton (1983), starring Gerard Depardieu.
Before Mr Guillotin took to promoting the falling blade, the axeman’s block was the favoured method of dispatch. Henry VIII used it to rid himself of two troublesome brides: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. The former’s tale is told in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and The Six Wives of Henry VIII: Anne Boleyn (1969), while poor old Cath is represented on The Six Wives of Henry VIII: Catherine Howard (1969). All six of Henry’s ladies are also payed bizarre tribute to by Rick Wakeman with the imaginatively-titled ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, which is available for you to enjoy on Rick Wakeman: Chronicles – Live (1974) and Rick Wakeman: The Very Best of Rick Wakeman (1975).
Executions (1995) is a rather gruelling documentary detailing the history of capital punishment, and would probably make even Henry think twice before giving the old thumbs-down. Or perhaps not. The plight of those on death row is effectively portrayed in factual dramas I Want to Live! (1958), which stars Susan Hayward as gas chamber victim Barbara Graham, and Dead Man Walking (1995), which features Sean Penn as the murderer who corresponds with Susan Sarandon’s nun prior to his execution.
The Chamber (1996) stars Gene Hackman as an unrepentant Ku Klux Klansman who has 28 days to go before the deadly pellets are dropped, while Sharon Stone is the sentenced prisoner who finds a reason to live with the arrival of attorney Rob Morrow in Last Dance (1996). Witness to the Execution (1993) features Sean Young as a television exec who comes up with the bright idea of broadcasting the events of the gas chamber live, while Fallen (1998) moots the possibility of life after death when a serial killer returns to continue his crimes after his own execution.
It kind of makes you wonder why Mr Guillotin bothered.