Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Execution of Gary Glitter

My notes on The Execution of Gary Glitter (2009)‘I don’t think they really should have the death penalty, but I think he should die.’

British television has a tradition, all the way back to The War Game, of using science fiction as a way of debating current events – it’s always controversial, and means a lot of announcements throughout that this is not a real news program but a fiction set in a parallel world.

The premise here is that, after the Soham murders, the UK parliament has bowed to public pressure and reintroduced the death penalty – for murder and the rape of a child. Paul Francis Gadd, aka Gary Glitter (Hilton McRae), is repatriated to Britain after serving a sentence for child sex offences in a Vietnamese jail, and finds himself on trial at the Old Bailey on what is now a capital offence. It’s presented as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but is less insistent about it than many other efforts in the sub-genre: there are lengthy scenes of Gadd talking with his defence lawyer, John Carter (Adam James). The title pretty much tells you where it’s going – and the issue of capital punishment is reduced to a pair of mad-eyed, fanatical women sloganeering on either side of the fence outside Pentonville. The details of the process are credible, with a just-promoted warder (Alan Brent) explaining ‘I’m called officially “a hanging technician” … words like “hangman” come with too much baggage’ and a set-up whereby a false wall in the death cell turns out to be a sliding door to the gallows. It draws on Ann Widdicombe, Miranda Sawyer and Gary Bushell as talking heads about pop and execution: a problem I have with the issue is that – though I know it’s wrong – I can’t find it in me to hate convicted sex offender Glitter (who I didn’t like as a singer) any more than I loathe and despise Widdicombe or Bushell, neither of whom I really think should be hanged.

McRae is surprisingly persuasive as a Mandarin-bearded, jail-canny, unforthcoming Glitter, though writer-director Rob Coldstream isn’t interested – and probably couldn’t get away with – an actual extended trial that hashes over whether or not he’s guilty enough to deserve the death penalty under the (let’s not forget) made-up legal system which obtains in this imaginary country. A believable development has a remix of Glitter’s old hits with snippets from his testimony being a download hit on the day he is hanged – he gets the news that he’s number one again, then is furious when he hears what’s been done with it.


One thought on “Film review – The Execution of Gary Glitter

  1. KIM: when I posted this on Facebook soon after transmission of the show, it started an interesting debate in the comments – which I reproduce here. It includes comments from the much-missed Carl Ford, a lot of 2009-specific politics, and some Biblical debate.

    Valerie Laws: oh dear this could start a trend. you could postulate anything being made a capital crime – tomorrow, Gordon Brown faces the electric chair for bad handwriting, next week, a mass cull as bad trouser-wearing becomes a hanging offence and Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson go on the lam in handcuffs…

    Carl Ford I think the fact that the filmmakers decided to use inane rants from Widdicombe, Sawyer, and Bushell (don’t these so-called celebrities realise they come across as ridiculous 99% of the time to anyone with a handful of brain cells) lets us know what side of the fence they are on as regards the capital punishment issue.
    Unfortunately, their entire stance backfires when you present the show to an audience whose ethics are compromised by the current political and social decline this country is suffering.
    The programme ended with the old statistical chestnut that purports that 57% of the public were for bringing back the death penalty in certain cases and I don’t think the stats would have changed at all following a viewing of the show.

    Kim Newman I think the statistic usually comes from a question like ‘do you think Ian Huntley should be hanged?’ The real question that needs to be asked is would you have thought Gerry Conlon should be hanged?

    Elizabeth Crusher McCarthy As Gary might say It’s Good To Be Back… in whatever form… pseudo-political pseudo-documentary included.

    Trista Perez Incredible. I must see this! I always have to laugh when I attend sporting events here in the states. They always play Gary Glitter’s Rock n Roll Part 2! It’s a weird tradition that nobody (to my knowledge) questions.

    Tim Mander Did Gadd know about or contribute to this docudrama? frankly if he did not he must have viewed his portrayal and subsequent execution as well…how do I put it incredulous?!

    Dave Hutchinson If they wanted to start a debate about capital punishment, I don’t know why they couldn’t just have run A Short Film About Killing.

    Lee Burgess Personally I thought the programme premise was interesting, but they could have done it using a fictional character with an unknown background. Glitter is a well known guy with a dark past. What could have been a deeply affecting examination of a subject that is very real was turned into some kind of farce. The end was obviously intended as a question but what it actually did was prove the point that the death penalty is something that has been proven to cause so many problems within the justice system.
    Frankly I wanted more background into why the penalty was reintroduced as I thought this was kind of hinted at but never explained in full.
    This was exploitative at best!

    Carl Ford Apparently Gadd was a little annoyed since it brought him to the attention of the public once more along with a pretty realistic TV makeover of what he looks like now.

    Lee Burgess I thought the actor playing did a fine job, but he should have played somebody else!

    Lee Burgess Hang Widdicombe, the ruddy annoying witch!

    Trista Perez Good point Tim…what next, The Castration of Roman Polanski? Better to stick with fictional characters I think.

    Stephen Volk Though – Lord forbid – C4 would never commission something as “common” as science fiction – I thought there were interesting absurdist-SF ideas – the music journo sent to cover the trial, his pain at hearing the (terrible) hip-hop rehash of his song. But it sat uncomfortably with the knowledge GG (PG) is out there somewhere – suing for defamation is out of the question in his case, but what about claiming incitement to violence? The police are usually keen on that. My question was… Would the programme really change anybody’s minds?…. Well, if you read the comments on the Channel 4 site – it has. (Widdicombe and Bushell are simply monstrous, both morally and visually.)

    Carl Ford Kim – yes – I the Guildford Four case is the miscarriage of justice that’s perhaps the freshest in memory (what with the cinematic representation “In the Name of the Father”) but I guess the programme was more concerned with capital punishment for child murder, rape with murder, and serial killers – in which case Timothy Evans is the classic case of Rillington Place and then there was James Hanratty hanged but recently cleared in the late 90s for the murder of a married man, the raping of the man’s lover and leaving her maimed for life.
    There will no doubt be further miscarriages of justice such as Colin Stagg, Barry George et al .

    Stephen Volk The Gerry Conlon idea is a non starter, I fear. Remember this is made for the C4 audience who DON’T want capital punishment. As you have to make them head scratch, you must chose a character even THEY might think is despicable. “Oo er. Not sure now.”
    Similarly, a film about freedom of speech choosing the subject of Nelson Mandela or even Salman Rushdie would be clear cut and therefore undramatic. For his film about freedom of speech, Milos Forman choose Larry Flynt – the well known pornographer-king. By making such a choice of central character, those who believe in freedom of speech are forced to consider whether they want freedom of speech for people they despise. Much more interesting. (And made for a great movie, too.)

    Stephen Volk I am haunted by Timothy Evans (John Hurt) going to the gallows saying “Christie done it!” …much more than the fabrication last night, I have to say. I would rate Timothy Spall in Pierrepoint very highly indeed, too, on the subject. ITV made it – did they ever show it? Or was it “too dark”?

    Tim Footman If they were to reintroduce capital punishment, I suspect the first high-profile case would be related to some terrorist atrocity, rather than Gadd’s squalid escapades (I mean, murder *is* worse than non-lethal child abuse – isn’t it?). But maybe they couldn’t find a way of interleaving old TOTP clips into that. You’re right, Kim, the best bit was the Glitter mash-up getting to Number One; all very KLF.

    Dean Geoghegan Wonder if Mr Gadd got royalty payments for all the music clips they used ?

    Stephen Thrower I was disappointed that they didn’t show the little tray they have to put underneath the hangee to collect the shit that flies out of his trouser legs when he dies. Krzysztof Kieslowski provided that detail in A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING. Wonder what’s the job spec’ for clearing that up?

    Phelim O’Neill At least Ludovic Kennedy wasn’t around to see this tv show. Actor playing the lead was good though, can’t be much work for a GG lookalike these days.

    Stephen Volk I don’t know if C4 has a blanket deal re music rights through PRS like the BBC in which case it would be paid automatically. If they don’t pay, that’s a cheek! Though, the BBC have just refused to pay me for using a clip of my programme Ghostwatch on the radio. So everybody tries to use everything for nothing these days, if they can.

    Stephen Volk I suspect if this was on stage at the Royal Court it would be roundly applauded, albeit seen as disturbing. But actually the fact it was on TV made it more vivid and more contentious. Maybe the question of our feelings about what we are watching was part of the programme makers’ intention?

    Stephen Volk I meant “Queasiness” not “Question” – sorry.

    Kim Newman It has the not-uncommon s-f problem of thinking up a world, and then having to work backwards to explain how it came to be – but not really being able to cope with all the details. I bet they’d decided the general plot before someone pointed out the problems with Europe that would arise if the UK parliament tried to bring back the death penalty. The point is raised, but glided over.
    It’s implied that a New Labour government made the change – the fictional Home Secretary is a Jackie Smith figure – but we don’t get a credible scenario whereby this could have happened: even though it could have been made believable as one of those NL ‘we’re tougher than the Tories’ law and order meaures brought in to claw back popularity, passed despite a back-bench rebellion thanks to opposition votes from the likes of Ann Widdicombe.
    Even then, it’s insane to think a celebrity perv would be the first to hang. Of course, terrorism or serial murder are more likely to qualify – though the very extremity of some crimes makes Broadmoor rather than Tyburn a likely destination for the perpetrators and suicide bombers are highly unlikely to be deterred by the death penalty.

    Stephen Volk Wouldn’t the death penalty for terrorism = martyrdom. An interesting contradiction! But possibly a short programme! I agree, kim, about the plot convolutions, but I thought the government spokespeople were the most convincing part and the most chilling… I think we dismiss that this could be a possibility done “in our name” at our peril. Maybe not Glitter, but look at he way the govt rejects “science” and reason when it has its own dubious and vote-grabbing “moral stance” in mind.

    Paul Treadaway I thought the evidence was that the death penalty has minimal deterrent effect (over and above existing penalties) anyway.

    Stephen Volk Paul: I believe you are right. This is the idiocy – the figures simply tell us it doesn’t work as a deterrent – all you can say (as my dad used to argue) “the buggers won’t do it again if they’re dead”. Advocates of the death penalty seem to want a Biblical-style punishment – “eye for an eye” – ignoring the irony that murder is a crime: to me that means the state cannot murder someone.

    Kim Newman Actually, that Bible quote is always used improperly – the meaning of the passage is ‘an eye for an eye and no more’, ie: it’s a warning against excessive punishments.

    Stephen Volk Ha, Kim. Surely not a statement from the Bible used with scant knowledge of context? 🙂 My favourite mistake is the translation of the old “Camel passing through the eye of a needle”… in fact “camelus” wasn’t Latin for camel, it was the Roman word for “rope” – which makes much more sense!

    Paul Treadaway Except that the texts were written in Greek. It has certainly been suggested that kamelos (camel) is a transcription error and it should actually be kamilos (rope), but there’s no firm evidence to support that theory. and there are rabbinical writings that use similar hyperbole (e.g. an elephant passing through the eye of a needle). So I think the jury is still out on that one.

    Stephen Volk Believe what you will.

    Stephen Volk It seems a pretty huge coincidence to my mind, if “kamilos” and “kamelos” are so similar.

    Stephen Volk Hm, obviously it’s more complex than I thought!: http://www.biblicalhebrew.com/nt/camelneedle.htm
    Delete or hide this

    Paul Treadaway Yes, unless someone discovers some early versions of the texts, we will probably never know for sure.

    Justin Richards I thought it was an interesting programme (something the BBC is rapidly forgetting how to make), but there was little balance to the argument – most it it seemed Pro Capital punishment – not much against. I suggest those who think capital punishment is a good thing should watch the mondo documentary Executions – it changed my mind, for the most part at least!

    Posted by kimnewman | April 7, 2020, 9:52 am

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