The Flesh and the Fiends

The Flesh and the Fiends. 1960. dir. John Gilling. Watched on YouTube, so you don’t have to.

I drank too much last night. There. I admit it. The truth can’t hurt you (but the alcohol certainly can). It crept up on me, and there you are. A combination of a few days off, a stressful week – the usual excuses. The only reason I’m telling you this – except to satisfy a need of self-confession, in the sure and certain hope that it’ll strengthen my resolve to go teetotal – is to say I’m a little delicate, and struggling to make sense of the morning. So who better to turn to than Peter Cushing. I can quite imagine what Peter Cushing would say to me, if he should stroll into the bedroom where I’m typing this, yawning, and raising a coffee cup with a trembling hand. His eyebrows would flicker up a millimetre. He’d tug his waistcoat down a touch, straighten his cuffs, then say with great clarity and urgency: ‘I would like to speak with you in the LYE-BREH-REH’. And I’d immediately feel better.

So in lieu of that, here’s a film with him in – playing the part of Dr Knox in the Burke & Hare story. A role I can imagine him playing with great asceticism and truth. Because if there were ever a man you could imagine buying and selling bodies, it’s Peter Cushing. It’s also got Donald Pleasence in, which is a bonus.

That’s it. And as Ru Paul would say (another hero): Good luck. And DON’T fuck it up.

00:01 After the Rank Organisation gong (who IS that guy?) – a cemetery at night, and then in big white letters: THIS IS THE STORY OF LOST MEN AND LOST SOULS. IT IS A STORY OF VICE AND MURDER. WE MAKE NO APOLOGIES TO THE DEAD. IT IS ALL TRUE. Which bodes well for a hangover.

00:50 The cemetery looks a bit rundown. Hardly a cemetery at all – more like a pile of trash with a few headstones. The church in the background makes it look official, but apart from that, not a place you’d want to hang around in… unless…

01:03 Two guys with lanterns trudge through the cemetery, drop some chains, produce some shovels and start digging at a grave (whose stone wobbles a bit). Then a blare of trumpets and the title THE FLESH and the FIENDS. Starring Peter Cushing. (Hooray!) Donald Pleasence! (Who-hoo!) June Laverick! (Who?)

02:00 My favourite name – the camera operator Chic Waterson. I don’t know why. I can totally imagine being on the set and saying Hey Chic? D’you want anything? (not an alcoholic drink, though – obviously).

02:32 Back to the two guys digging in the cemetery. The gravestone says To the Loving Memory of Tobias McIntosh. Ironic. Not much loving going on with all these spades and chains.

02:42 They haul Tobias out head first. Not sure what they did with the coffin or how they managed it, but they’re the professionals. Tobias McIntosh looks how I feel – except more motivated.

03:00 A horse & carriage (as opposed to just a carriage, which would be weird), trots into the yard of Dr Knox’s Academy. The year? 1828. The town? Edinburgh. The time? I don’t know, it doesn’t say. Late, anyway.

03:12 A woman in a ludicrous bonnet and fur muff steps out. I wonder if that’s June Laverick? Inside the academy there’s a guy carrying a skeleton on a pole and another guy – Dr Mitchell – reading a book, so you immediately know you’re in a place of learning. Dr Mitchell opens the door to June – she smiles, but her muff is so enormous he might have to open the other door to let her in. He gives her a faint smile. Looks like she’s done this before.

03:39 He didn’t recognise that this is actually Martha, Doctor Knox’s niece (which sounds dangerously like Knock Knees, but whatever). They chat. She asks if she was really so awful three years ago and he says Well you were very young. But he says she’s very beautiful now. So that escalated.

04:01 ‘How is the doctor?’ says Martha.
‘Oh – he doesn’t change. Brilliant! Progressive! Provocative! Verbose as ever… ‘ (the doctor, or you?)

04:06 Dr Mitchell shows her into the lecture theatre where Dr K. has just told a brilliant, progressive and provocative joke and all the students are laughing in a heartily RADA way.

04:48 He’s giving a lecture about the miracle of the human body, but I can’t stop thinking about the miracle of his bowtie. It’s almost as big as Martha’s muff.

04:56 ‘…and so, today, some of you become doctors in your own right…’ continues Dr K – but honestly? His bowtie! It’s like someone used a table cloth, wrapped that round twice and used both fists to make a bow.

06:11 The students give Dr K a standing ovation. But only because it’s Peter Cushing. You’d give him a standing ovation if he came into the room and complained about the Citroen in his parking space.

06:50 Jackson, one of the students, hurries after Dr K. He wants to know why he’s not able to graduate. Dr K gives him a stern talking to, telling him he needs to be more logical and less emotional. And by the way, is he short of money…? (Er..hem). Actually, what he wants Jackson to do is ‘treat the subjects’ (by which I think he means corpses – because Jackson doesn’t look too thrilled).

07:33 Martha sneaks up on Dr K in his study. As Dr K admires her and pours her a drink (I feel queasy…), Jackson comes in and says there are ‘two gentlemen to see him with a stiff’ – which is nice. Dr K leaves with Jackson to check out the stiff; Dr Mitchell pours Martha a stiff one.

08:44 Martha’s acting is creakier than the Academy doors. She takes a little breath before each line, looks down then up again, smiles showing her bottom teeth each time like a ventriloquist’s dummy. She’s a miracle of engineering. They probably keep the battery in the muff.

09:20 Meanwhile out in the yard, Dr K meets the two grave robbers. ‘Nice n’fresh sir. Just a week in the grave,’ says the one with the line. ‘And 100% organic.’ (I added that). Dr K looks at the corpse’s face – which is a bit like me when I woke up this morning – except fresher – and says he’ll give them five guineas.

10:02 Jackson shifts the crate with the corpse in it (I swear the corpse actually blinks – but they did say it was fresh, so…) over to a tank of brine and tips it in. A bit like tuna, I suppose. Only in a shroud and not a tin.

10:25 Scene change. Outside the Merry Duke, the pub where the grave robbers hang out. In the street there are some jolly wenches laughing and carrying on. I’m not sure what a wench is. I think it’s the opposite of what Martha’s supposed to be. With wild hair, frills and no muffs. Inside the Merry Duke it’s drunken debauchery all round, something I roundly condemn. Cut to: Donald Pleasence in a ruined top hat, bad frock coat &c. He looks absolutely amazing and I want this as a tattoo, please.

10:58 Donald speaks in a weird accent – more Irish than Scottish, but hey – Donald Pleasence!

11:15 He says ‘surpraysed’ like he’s from Belfast. But honestly – I don’t care. Turns out both these guys are called Willy. Donald Pleasance is Hare, though, so that’s fine – sorry – foine. I’ll still call him Donald Pleasence, out of respect. Burke is the other one. (And he’s either wearing bad dentures or he’s got weirdly mobile lips).

NOTE: I just wiki’d Burke and Hare. They WERE from Northern Ireland! But it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from Donald Pleasence – solid research, and a squint to die for.

11:53 Billie Whitelaw is one of the wenches. Which is a terrific bonus! What a cast! (Shame about the pub).

12:30 Jackson has gone to the pub to finish paying off the grave robbers. He gets into a fight with a drunken sailor who stole Billie’s skirt and is using it like a toreador. Billie rescues Jackson by smashing a bottle over the sailor’s head. (Every night the same in the Merry Duke. The perils of drinking. Mark my words.)

13:40 Jackson gets mugged outside the pub by Burke and Donald Pleasence. Billie scares them off, then takes him back to the brothel where she works. Everyone there is having as rowdy a time as at the Merry Duke, so I’m thinking Edinburgh in 1828 was quite the place. Her room’s a bit hovelly though. Dinge, with touch of squalour. She seduces Jackson and he almost knocks a picture off the wall in his haste.

16:30 The next morning, Jackson gets dressed and sings the kind of lah-dah-dah-dee-dum kind of nonsense song you might expect.
‘How’s your head?’ says Billie.
‘S’Alright’, says Jackson, innocently. They arrange to meet up again tomorrow.
Outside is a typical street scene – a guy demonstrating how to handle a chicken, a peasant buying fruit, extras haggling over pots, urchins dancing, that kinda thing. A little urchin girl tells Donald Pleasence and the other guy to hurry back home. Turns out some old guy has died. We see him getting nailed into a box by an undertaker in a top hat so roomy it’s probably where he keeps his tools. The old guy was a lodger and owed Burke three pounds. They decide to sell him to Dr K to clear his debt.

22:00 Cut to: a party at the Academy. The opposite to a party at the Merry Duke. Everyone’s hair is done up in curls, and when they get hot they don’t tear their clothes off they wave a fan. Dr Mitchell chats to Martha, but I’m distracted by the extras in the background doing some kind of formal dance. I think one of them was the corpse from the cemetery at the beginning. Certainly moves in the same way.

23:30 Dr K argues with a cleric about whether there’s a soul or not.
‘Can you see it?’ says Dr K. ‘…between the eyes, in the ‘Ab-DOH-men..?’ He’s a scientist, so maybe that’s how you’re supposed to say abdomen.

24:50 Burke and Donald Pleasence show Dr K the body of the lodger. ‘We heard you like ‘em fresh, sir. This one’s as fresh as a new cut cabbage’.
Whatever. They tip him in the brine.

26:00 Martha and Dr Mitchell are out punting, which is niche. When they get off the punt they run into Jackson and Billie. Jackson introduces Billie to them. Billie looks Dr Mitchell up & down like she’s pricing the job. Dr Mitchell offers them the use of their punt. Billie laughs. She doesn’t want wet drawers. This makes Dr Mitchell and Martha VERY uncomfortable. Jackson and Billie walk off (from the back it looks like Jackson forgot to take the coat hanger out when he put his jacket on). Martha & Dr Mitchell sit down for a picnic. They kiss, Dr Mitchell’s quiff almost knocking Martha’s bonnet askew (and yes, askew IS a word).

28:40 Billie persuades Jackson not to study tonight as she wants to go out for a drink. I’m guessing that’s why Jackson is still a student at 45.

29:20 Burke and Donald Pleasence have drunk all their lodger money in a boozer (I wouldn’t do that, absolutely not, nope). Donald Pleasence puts on some gloves and gets ready to convert one of the other drinkers into hard cash. They lead her outside. A geriatric in a hat with a lamp (the geriatric has the lamp, not the hat). ‘Twelve o’clock and all is well’ he says, staggering along. An early form of Apple Watch, I suppose. Burke and Donald Pleasence take the drinker back to Burke’s lodging house. Burke smothers her while Donald Pleasence dances a ghoulish jig. And there’s no-one dances a better and more ghoulish jig than Donald Pleasence. He gets a box to put her in and freaks out when he sees a rat. Everyone’s got their weak spot.

34:00 They take her to Dr K and agree to provide more. Donald Pleasence offers Dr K some snuff but if there’s one person you’re almost guaranteed not to want to take snuff from it’s Donald Pleasence (playing Hare – the actor himself you’d take as much snuff as he had and be joyfully sneezing all over the place).

35:50 Dr K is lecturing in the theatre. ‘May I draw your attention to the protuberance on the frontal lobe…’ he says, rapping a skeleton on the head with his cane. It gives a satisfying clack. He’s a great lecturer. The protuberance is actually quite big. More like a beluga whale. It’s what made the specimen a criminal, apparently. That’s why criminals are easy to spot. And so difficult to buy hats for. Jackson is caught napping and can’t explain how he would’ve treated this patient other than cutting off the protuberance with an angle grinder.

38:00 Jackson is back in Billie’s flat, waiting for her to come back from the Merry Duke or wherever. When she falls through the door she doesn’t like the expression on his face so sets the flat on fire. He puts it out. He asks her to marry him. She says no, she’s not the girl for him. Half of her wants to be a doctor’s wife and travel around in a punt, the other doesnae.

40:30 Donald Pleasence shows off his new waistcoat. Burke loves it – very harristocratic. A geriatric guy like the talking Apple Watch from earlier asks about the room to let. Donald Pleasence gives Burke a nudge. Turns out his name is Angus, a crofter who walked down from the Highlands, looking for work. He wanted to come to Edinburgh and end his days in peace. Donald Pleasence approves of that. Next thing you know, Angus is boxed up and being carried into Dr K’s back room. Dr Mitchell wonders how Angus got a bruised head, but Dr K appears and says don’t worry, there’s no need to cross examine. ‘We’ve had several prize specimens from these gentlemen in the past’. He’s all about the body, basically.

46:00 A deputation of doctors – as substantial as a three piece suite from DFS – demand to see Dr K on urgent business. Dr K shows them through to the LYE-BREH-REH. Turns out Dr K wrote a scathing article about one of the doctors who lanced an abscess that turned out to be an aneurysm. He gives them a high-handed talk about why this is dumb, and so on, and unethical – which is rich coming from someone dealing in briny cadavers.

49:50 Back in the Merry Duke, Billie is drinking plenty (not me, not any more, nope). She goes to the brothel to finish off the night. When Jackson finds she’s not at home in the hovel, he goes to the brothel, too. Confronts Billie but she’s mean to him. He runs away. She runs after him (maybe to set him on fire, not sure). Falls to her knees in the middle of a deserted street, and gets found by Burke & Donald Pleasence (and yes… .I admit that doesn’t have the same ring as Burke & Hare – but c’mon… Donald Pleasence!)

55:00 They take her to their lodgings. Donald Pleasence murders her. Mrs Burke comes in. ‘What’s she doing here? Did you touch her?’
‘No’, says Burke. ‘Donald Pleasence just killed her.’
‘Oh. That’s alright then,’ says Mrs Burke.

58:20 Jackson is working late in the lecture theatre. A porter wheels in a body under a sheet, as casual as if he’s pushing a tea trolley.
‘The Dr wants some drawings taken before we put her in the brine,’ he sniffs.
Jackson goes over, pulls back the sheet, sees Billie, collapses.
Dr Mitchell comes in – his quiff preceding him by a full five seconds.
Jackson rushes past him, muttering ‘Burke & Donald Pleasence! Burke & Donald Pleasence!’

59:00 Jackson confronts Burke in the lodging house. Starts strangling him, figuring to work up to pummelling via assault. Donald Pleasence saunters up behind him and stabs him in the back.
‘That’s one subject we won’t be selling to Dr Knox’ he says, wiping his knife on his cravat.

1:02:00 Daytime, the market square. An early form of social media shouts about the murder of Jackson. A street urchin called Daft Jamie who witnessed Burke & Donald Pleasence dragging him along smiles to himself and runs off.

1:03:20 Dr K identifies the body of Jackson at the police hovel – sorry – station. ‘D’you know why anyone would want to kill him?’ says the policeman. ‘Nope,’ says Dr K., neglecting to tell them about how yesterday he’d bought the body of Jackson’s girlfriend off Gumtree. Dr Mitchell covers for him. They talk about it in the cab home. I’m sure Dr Mitchell’s cleft chin is actually deepening the further into this mess he gets. Pretty soon he’ll have two chins, one facing the other. Maybe that way he’ll get a film to himself.

1:05:00 Daft Jamie tries to shake Burke & Donald Pleasence down. Apparently he took a ring off Jackson’s body and wonders if he should take it to the police. They say he should bring it to their house tonight, instead. Don’t go, Daft Jamie. It’d be… well… daft.

1:06:00 Martha (we haven’t seen much of her since the punting incident) – she appears at the Academy to Dr Mitchell. ‘I have a confession to make,’ she says. She’d overheard the students saying that Dr K isn’t particular where he gets his bodies. Dr K comes in. He’s wearing a cloak. He stops when he sees them talking, takes off his top hat, slams the door and walks forwards. I’m worried his cloak has caught in the door.
It hasn’t.
‘Can we discuss the lecture tomorrow?’ he says. ‘The subject is… the heart.’

1:08:00 Daft Jamie stops by a pig pen and laughs at the pigs. Maybe that’s how he got his nickname. But no – he calls two of the pigs Burke and Donald Pleasence, so he’s not that daft. He carries on into their dark house, though. Which IS daft. They attack him. There’s a big messy fight and somehow he escapes. They catch up with him and murder him in the pig pen. All this is secretly witnessed by Maggie, one of Billie’s friends from the brothel.

1:11:10 Maggie runs into the market square shouting murder. ‘It was Burke & Donald Pleasence! I seen them!’ She takes the police to their house. Then on to the Academy (this is a shortened version.. obviously the police are EXTREMELY thorough)

1:13:00 Back at the Academy, Dr Mitchell warns Dr K not to buy any more subjects from Burke & Donald Pleasence. I mean – you can have TOO fresh, and what with Daft Jamie going missing and everything. ‘Oh – d’you mean this one?’ says Dr K, flipping the sheet back. Yes. THAT Daft Jamie. The police arrive. ‘That’s him! That’s Daft Jamie!’ screams Maggie, pointing to the body on the slab, which I’m pretty sure is definitely Daft Jamie. I recognise him from the pig pen.
‘Have you examined the body yet?’ says the policeman, like it was the most natural thing in the world to come looking for Daft Jamie and find him on a slab.
‘What was the cause of death?’ he says.
‘Violence,’ says Dr K, cleaning his hands on a dirty cloth. ‘Without any doubt.’
I don’t get the feeling this policeman will EVER make detective.

1:14:00 Outside the Merry Duke a posse is forming in the classic way, flaming torches, cudgels, the works. ‘Burke and Donald Pleasence have been murdering people under our noses!’ shouts the landlord. ‘Let’s get after them!’

1:16:00 Burke & Donald Pleasence run away to hide in a warehouse. The crowd approaches making improvised rah-rah-rah noises. I’ve never SEEN so many hats. Burke and you know who bolt the warehouse door but the police have an enormous truncheon that takes a dozen of ‘em to carry and they batter down the door. Donald Pleasence throws Burke down the stairs at them, like skittles, then runs into the back room. The mob drag him back. The last we see of the mob, they’re making even more improvised rah-rah-rah noises and waving their hats in the air. So that WAS a successful mob. The long queue at the studio catering wagon was TOTALLY worth it.

1:18:46 Cut to: Martha embroidering in a drawing room. Quite a contrast. Her improvised embroidery stitches are about as believable as the crowd’s rah-rahing. Dr K paces nervously about. His bow tie is enormous again, which is no doubt a sign of anxiety. Dr Mitchell comes in. ‘They’ve arrested Burke & Donald Pleasence’ he says.

1:19:00 In the courtroom (things moved quickly back in 1828 Edinburgh). Donald Pleasence comes to the witness stand. Then cut to: a town crier announcing the verdict. Burke guilty! Dr K no charge! That’s the fastest courtroom scene I have EVER watched. And all the better for it.

1:20:40 Dr K turns up to give his lecture. The theatre is almost empty – and the students that have turned up have been fighting. A brick comes through the window. ‘Take your seats,’ says Dr K. ‘The subject of today’s lesson is neurology.’

1:21:25 Burke is led up to the scaffold. His last words are about how they hadn’t been paid for the last subject, and if they had, he’d have been able to afford a nice pair of trousers to meet his public. Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence slips out the back door of the police station, ignoring a blind beggar, which is never a good look. Various people step out of the shadows and confront him. They blind him with a torch, then when he collapses the blind beggar feels his way toward him along the wall.

1:24:50 Another mob has gathered outside the Academy (it’s obviously quite the season for mobs). He walks through the angry extras to his carriage, then gets taken to the medical council to be struck off. So not a great day, all in all. Dr Mitchell joins the medical council. He’s so concerned with events, his dimple has merged with the crease in the middle of his forehead, like a giant cottage loaf put aside to prove. He makes an impassioned plea to the council, which is – to sum up – you’re all a bunch of immoral crooks, so don’t you dare strike him off. They’re outraged, but can’t immediately disagree.

1:28:00 Dr K is walking through the empty marketplace. A little girl runs up and asks for a hennie to buy some sweets (I’m guessing a hennie is a penny – or, if it is an actual hen, I wonder how many sweets you’d get for it – probably a lot).
‘I haven’t any money,’ says Dr K, smiling in that warmly sinister way he has, ‘….but if you come to the house I can get you some.’
‘Oh, no,’ says the girl, running away, ‘You might sell me to Dr Knox.’
Dr K looks stunned. This is the first time he’s realised what he’s done. AND he hasn’t shaved.

1:29:00 Back at the Academy Dr K has a heart to heart with Martha. He admits he knew how the subjects died. He’s become an ogre, he says. He’s failed. He takes a book and wanders out of the LYE-BREH-REH. Dr Mitchell comes in. He says the medical council has exonerated him. Dr K carries on to the lecture theatre. He’s never missed a lecture, he says. ‘It’ll be quite a novelty, talking to empty walls. But at least they won’t criticise me.’ No – but the decals can be hurtful.

1:33:30 The lecture theatre is actually full, and all the students give him a standing ovation when he comes in. (Which proves my earlier point). Dr K gives a speech before the lecture. ‘Let us consider the Oath of Hippocrates. The sacred oath of our profession… blah blah … and never do harm to anyone.’ He cleans his glasses. The music swells…


That’s it! So what’ve I learned?

  1. Donald Pleasence had a squint and a whispery voice, which was perfect for playing murderers, psychos and Tory politicians.
  2. A hennie is a pennie but a hen is an oviparous feathered biped and easily forged.
  3. Burke & Hare are bodysnatchers. Not to be confused with Farrow & Ball, who make paint. Both make a killing.
  4. A large bow tie may look freakish and weird, but if there’s a fire in your hovel you can unravel it at the window and climb out.
  5. Punting looks fun but it’s really only for doctors

4 thoughts on “The Flesh and the Fiends

  1. You are a brilliant writer, poet, photographer and artist (screw you Oxford comma 😜). You have become one of my favourites (that’s not how we spell here…must be a typo 😉) in all of these categories. I only wish I had some o’ that.

    Please, for the sake of this most unexceptional daft ‘merican (AKA GOD 🤪), keep calm and write on Dude! ✌️


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