Simon Pegg, Burke and Hare

Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg, as William Burke in Burke and Hare

Taking a break from his comic partnership with friend Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright that gave the world Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg has returned to being an actor in another director’s film, reading another writer’s script – rather than all three at once.

“It’s kind of like going on holiday,” says the 40-year-old from a Soho hotel. “I love doing my own stuff because I’m a control freak and it’s nice to be in control of everything. But it’s a weight taken off you.”

He admits to finding it hard to let go of the reins when it’s other actors working with his scripts. “Oh, I’m really precious,” he laughs. “I’ll always collaborate, but a lot of actors feel like they can change the script, and that’s not always good. I’d hate to be a writer for hire – I appreciate why things have to be edited, but sometimes it’s hard to see your work butchered,” he says mournfully. “It’s like they don’t get it.”

Burke and Hare is being hailed as a comeback for director John Landis, whose previous films include gems like National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places. His first major feature film in more than a decade, it brings together a generation-spanning cast of British acting and comedy royalty including Bill Bailey, Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Merchant, Ronnie Corbett, Jenny Agutter and Christopher Lee.

Spiritually and technically – it was produced by Ealing Studios – Burke and Hare is an Ealing comedy, rich in black humour and farce. The film recounts the true story of two hard-up Northern Irishmen, William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) living in Edinburgh who in 1827 and 1828 murdered at least 17 people and sold their bodies for medical research to Dr Robert Knox, a private lecturer in anatomy.

“They weren’t serial killers, they were very sane – it was just supply and demand,” Pegg laughs. “There was other grave robbing going on at the time, but these guys certainly cornered the market for freshness.”

As is often the case, the film coming together at all was something of a happy coincidence. Landis and his wife, Deborah, a costume designer, were in England to prepare for an exhibition she is curating at the Victoria and Alberta Museum.

“She suggested John meet some people while they were here, because he can’t get a film made in Hollywood anymore. Hollywood is run by marketing people these days, not even by the studios themselves,” Pegg explains. “Video games outsell the film industry three to one, so it makes perfect sense to marketing people to make films out of video games. It’s basic maths, but terrible films.”

Out of one meeting at Ealing, Landis selected this to be his ‘comeback’ feature film.

And Pegg has thoroughly enjoyed playing a villain, albeit a comic one. ”Everything is against you in terms of getting sympathy from the audience, but you do end up rooting for them – you forget they’re murderers and worry they’ll get caught.”

And to compound the moral vagueness of the film, it’s more than likely that ‘anatomy murders’ such as these – which were common enough to prompt the Anatomy Act 1832 – had a real impact on medical science. “There is certainly an argument to say that if they hadn’t then medical science wouldn’t have progressed as fast as it did, and ultimately a lot more people would have died,” he says.

Pegg’s career began as a stand-up and regular in radio and television comedy programmes before co-creating Spaced with Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) in 1999 – two series following the misadventures of a struggling artist and writer posing as a couple in order to rent a couple-only flat. Crammed with film and pop-culture references and wonderfully surreal moments, 10 years later it remains a stone-cold classic.

This will be the first time Pegg and Hynes have worked together since Spaced. “I love working with Jess because she makes me laugh so much. I could just sit and watch her and laugh, we crack each other up all the time.” Pegg says. But despite such talent, Pegg says the film industry still fails good comic actresses, here and in Hollywood.

“For example, Isla Fisher [who plays Hare’s mistress] is brilliant. She stole all those scenes in The Wedding Crashers and everyone said, whoah, let’s employ her. And so she ends up in Confessions of a Shopaholic,” Pegg muses.

“It’s really hard for women in comedy because it’s so male dominated,” he says.

“The female comic voice is quite fledgling in a way, because they’ve only recently been almost allowed to be funny. And in the initial stages it’s democratising and unifying, so there’s a lot of women’s issues which means it’s dismissed instantly by guys who say, oh it’s all about periods. It’s not, it’s about finding a voice. People like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live, Jessica – these are some of the funniest people on earth.”

Affable, good humoured, Pegg is the character you expect from his work, though without the sane-man-in-a-mad-world aspect that many of his film’s characters bear. But talking about film, it’s immediately apparent that the subject has been the sustenance for his whole life. His knowledge of films, actors, directors, scenes and even movie trivia and behind-the-scenes knowledge is huge. He even wrote his university dissertation on “Consent and Hegemonic Discourse in Fantasy Cinema”, which critiqued Star Wars in relation to its place in late 1970s America.

“A lot of those movies in the 70s and 80s all have to do with how bad America felt about itself,” he explains. After seeing American GIs killing civilians in Vietnam, Star Wars’ popularity has a lot to do with the fact that all the lines between good and bad were clearly drawn – people wanted to know who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.”

Unfortunately, a knock-on effect of its popularity was that, as Pegg puts it, “spectacle became the key selling point.”

“Before Star Wars, there was Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather – these are heavy films, but they were top 10 films. You wouldn’t get them made now, let alone top the box office charts. Suddenly it became bangs and flashes, and the small movie disappeared,” he says. So blame doesn’t lie at the feet of Spielberg or Lucas, as some claim? “I don’t think anyone set out to destroy the small film, but sadly it happened. Ultimately, it’s the audience that destroyed it, not filmmakers. The people took the road of least resistance.”

Pegg’s prodigious appetite for sci-fi, comic and fantasy culture informs a lot of what he does, but to look at his previous roles – Scotty in last year’s Star Trek remake, a cameo in George Romero’s zombie film, Johnny Alpha in the audio drama of legendary 2000AD comic strip Strontium Dog – you’d think he was on a tick-box mission to play every character and work with every director or on every series he’s ever loved.

He laughs: “It does seem like that sometimes. I recently watched a stand-up routine I’d done in 1989 and not seen since then in which I talk about being in love with Sigourney Weaver – who I worked with last year – and Spielberg – who I worked with last year – and all these other people I went on to work with. I’m the most tenacious slacker ever.

“Getting to be in Doctor Who, or working with Spielberg, or John Landis in this film – there has been a lot of wish fulfilment in my career so far. It’s not been my motivating force, but I count myself lucky to have been the nerd who made good.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, October 2010]


How art reaches the parts the prison service cannot

Ray and Violet Donovan, photo ©Mark Johnson -
Ray and Violet Donovan, photo ©Mark Johnson -

‘Art’ in prison constitutes more than just drawing five bar gates on walls, and in fact represents a major force for the rehabilitation of offenders.

The Koestler Trust, a charity, has spent nearly 50 years encouraging inmates’ artistic expression and emphasising to the public the beneficial role of art by holding an annual exhibition of prisoners’ artwork.

Each year thousands of works are submitted to the trust’s offices next to imposing Victorian edifice of HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London by inmates from Britain’s prisons, young offenders’ institutes, asylum removal centres and secure psychiatric units. This year for the first time the offenders’ work has been curated by a seven strong team of members of the public who have been victims of crime, and The Big Issue found that the experience has had a profound impact on both.

Tim Robertson, the Koestler Trust’s chief executive, said that the exhibition sometimes caused raised eyebrows, with reports in the press claiming that celebrating prisoners’ art is “offensive” to victims of crime.

“It’s impossible to summarise what all victims of crime feel,” he replies. “They are all different, but no doubt some will feel very aggrieved and angry about what has happened to them.

“But I was mugged on the tube, and while I want to know they were eventually caught, the last thing I want to know is that prison brutalised them further. I want to hear they are now more sensitive to others, more aware of their actions, not less,” he says.

“Art, which is all about connecting with and communicating with an audience, is the best way of doing that.”

One artist, for example, now works for the trust. Married father-of-three Daniel Hogg spent two years in prison until this year after causing death by dangerous driving. His painting, Emptiness Does Not Exist, came to him after spending hours reading philosophy in his cell. He is now studying art at college.

Hogg believes art also provides a gateway to help inmates move toward improving their education, and so increasing their chances of reoffending. “Many people’s recollections of school might not be happy, so associating adult education with school is not helpful. Art can be a gateway, a great way to break down people’s resistance.”

Clockwise from top left: Diversity of Hope (Sizwe Dladla), Shout to the Top (anon), Winner (Rafal Boguszewski), Emotional Release (anon).
Clockwise from top left: Diversity of Hope (Sizwe Dladla), Shout to the Top (anon), Winner (Rafal Boguszewski), Emotional Release (anon).

Firsttine Pierre, from Croydon, began volunteering for a witness support service after her brother was attacked outside a club at Christmas 1999. He and his cousins had just tossed out a group of men making trouble, but as he turned to go inside one hit him with an iron bar. He was lucky to escape with his life – the blow would probably have killed him were it not for his thick dreadlocks piled up on his head to cushion the blow. He suffers damaged hearing, vision and memory loss.

Witness intimidation meant Firsttine, her brother and his family had to go into hiding. “It was the worst time in my life. I was so angry. I was like, hang ‘em all. It was a big step doing this, but I felt I needed to do it,” she says. “And you know, it has brought so much peace to me.”

“Once I’d seen this I was raring to go,” says Pierre, originally from Dominica, pointing to a tropical scene entitled Everglades, by an anonymous artist from Feltham Young Offenders Institute. “I remember when I was young my dad climbed up a tree like this to get me my first coconut. It reminds me of those days,” she says grinning in reverie, “It’s really makes my smile widen.”

Picking around 150 paintings from over 5,600 was an enormous task. “But it was uplifting,” the 49-year-old says. “I looked at the art for what it was, not the fact that it was made by an offender. And once I’d done that it opened up a lot of doors just looking at it.”

“We’re all victims in a way,” she adds. “I’m a victim of crime, but they’re victims of circumstance. We don’t know the circumstances behind their actions, only the facts.”

And perhaps in some way, she says, without having gone to prison the artists would not have found in themselves the skills that are now on display.

“I can’t believe where this had taken me emotionally, mentally, even physically,” she says. “I had so much hate in me. If this art is what rehabilitation does, then I’m happy to be part of it.”

Her involvement has helped her brother too. “It didn’t hit him what I’d done at first, but he asked me to explain it to him. I told him, the anger is keeping you in prison too,” she says.

Of the men that disabled and nearly killed her brother, she hopes prison has given them time to think about how their life could have been: “It’s not about proving they’re sorry to me, it’s about proving to themselves they are worthy of more to life than a cell and being told when to eat or wash, when to get up or go to sleep.”

Two curators, Ray and Violet Donovan, experienced every parent’s nightmare when in 2001 their sons, Christopher and Phillip, were randomly attacked by a group of teenagers. Christopher, just 18, was beaten and had his head kicked “as if taking a penalty” and after being knocked into the road was hit by a car whose driver said in court she thought he “was a bundle of old clothes”.

He died in hospital from brain injuries suffered during the attack, and one man and two teenagers were sentenced to life for his murder.

Ray and Violet, committed Christians who have forgiven their son’s murderers, now work with restorative justice project Sycamore Tree, which introduces serving criminals to victims of crime.

Ray says: “We come in and tell our story, but a lot of them say: we don’t have any victims, our crimes are victimless. And we tell them about the ripple effect.

“For example, one man says he only burgles warehouses – what about the manager? The company’s insurance premiums going up? What about employees laid off, their families, their children? The effects are much wider than they think.”

Clockwise from top left: The Long Walk Home (anon), The Big Blue Door (Claude Chain), Salvation (Thomas Shanks), Emptiness Does Not Exist (Daniel Hogg).
Clockwise from top left: The Long Walk Home (anon), The Big Blue Door (Claude Chain), Salvation (Thomas Shanks), Emptiness Does Not Exist (Daniel Hogg).

In one of the paintings Ray selected – Salvation, by Thomas Shanks of HMP Dovegate – he perceived something he recognises in prisoners. The pastel drawing shows a figure with his head in his hands at the bottom of a pit, seemingly oblivious or unwilling to grab the rope thrown down for him.

“I see this all the time. People like us come in and tell our stories, and they feel shame, guilt, they feel worthless, like they’re not worthy of forgiveness,” he said.

Some may find it surprising that inmates feel guilt toward their actions. “Oh definitely,” Ray says, gesturing at the painting. “They might put on an act on the landings, but when the cell door closes, they’re like that.”

Art, he said, could engender the most extraordinary changes in prisoners. “I’ve seen the most hardened, violent inmates become model prisoners after time spent with a paintbrush,” he says.

The couple have been in touch with one Christopher’s killers who expressed an interest in meeting, but later backed out. “He wrote to me, saying he’d never forgive himself for what he’d done,” says Ray. “The door’s always open for him to meet us. But I told him if he didn’t forgive himself, he’d never move on at all.”

Although hard statistical research is thin, prison-based art projects that have followed up their outcomes report dramatic results – often between 50 and 90 per cent reduction in reoffending rates – in Britain and the US. Robertson is confident the new government understands the importance of targeted and properly funded rehabilitation in stopping revolving-door offending, quoting prisons minister Crispin Blunt MP, who opened the exhibition by saying there were “two sides” to rehabilitating offenders: “Changing the behaviour of offenders so that they lead law-abiding lives, and helping society accept ex-offenders back into employment, family life, and communities – the opportunities that can help people turn their lives around for good.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2010]