ON the day before Halloween, suitably enough, the Sweeney Todd Musical Experience comes to Malvern Theatres.

Everyone knows how Sweeney was a murdering barber with a cut-throat razor: a vengeful psychopath who turned his hapless victims into wholesome pies. But who was Sweeney Todd really? Did he exist as a true-life serial killer, inspiring a gruesome hit musical, thanks to the genius of Stephen Sondheim?

The standard answer is that Sweeney was no more than a fictional character, a bugaboo villain who appeared initially in an early Victorian ‘penny dreadful’ series called The String of Pearls. But some researchers say that Sweeney’s origins go back further, and may be based on a real character and actual events.

For instance, the late Peter Haining, a journalist and author, claimed he had found evidence that Sweeney Todd was tried in December 1801 and was hanged in January 1802. But for those who attempted to put meat on the bones of these particular claims, the trail was found to be as cold as an old pork pie; and Haining cannot help, because he died in 2007.

However, with the chance that Haining may indeed have uncovered evidence completely missed by others, it is perhaps excusable to repeat if not to examine some of his claims, which Haining published in a book called Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Haining claimed that Sweeney was a child of the East London slums and that he was taught the profession of barber while serving time in Newgate prison, for theft.

Afterwards, Todd set up a barber shop close to St Dunstan’s Church on Fleet Street. His first victim, as allegedly reported in the Daily Courant of the day, was killed in an alley back in 1785: because the fellow had picked a fight with the menacing barber.

According to Haining, Sweeney Todd developed a taste for murder: killing 160 people in his customised chair, which allowed him to tip his victims headlong into the cellar below his shop, where all those lovely pies were made.

With such an incredible tally, Sweeney’s existence should not really be in doubt; but Haining’s answer was that Sweeney was only tried, found guilty and executed on a specimen charge, involving one person only. However, this explanation does raise serious questions as to how Haining could ever be so certain about the number of Todd’s victims and the killer’s modus operandi.

Perhaps a clue is in the very surname of Sweeney Todd, because ‘Tod’ in German means ‘death’; and staying on the Germanic theme, the old Norse name “Sveinn”, which may be the origin of the British name, Sweeney, means “servant”. Does the name, Sweeney Todd, then, mean something like “Servant of Death”? If so, this points to literary origins and Haining was merely pulling our leg to claim otherwise. The legend of Sweeney Todd remains, however, and so does the musical.

Details about the Malvern Theatres workshop event: https://www.malvern-theatres.co.uk/whats-on/sweeney-todd-musical-experience/