In the autumn of 1995 Frank McKue returned to his old haunt, the execution chamber of Barlinnie Prison, before its demolition. This award winning documentary takes us on a dark journey into the world of capital punishment without making judgments.
Shot entirely on 16mm black & white film stock using an Arri16BL and Bolex cameras. Edited entirely on a Steenbeck flatbed film editing suite at Glasgow Film and Video Workshop 1996-7. Sound dubbing at BBC Scotland studio in Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow.
Best Doc Award Reel to Real Festival 1998. Selected for Edinburgh Film Festival 1998.
Tx. Channel 5 2001/ BBC Schools 2005.
Most Watched film on Shooting People filmmakers network. Selected for 4Docs website.
Some extra notes that were intended for publication:
I'd love to sit and transcribe the words of Frank McKue which are now sitting on some 1/4 inch magnetic reels at the Scottish Archive. He was an extremely likeable chap with a very dark sense of humour. Definitely my type of guy. Used to have a drink with him at his local pub in Edinburgh called The Diggers Arms (called as such because local gravediggers would drink there) . The sound of the trapdoor swinging open that you hear in the film is actually the door to the beer cellar crashing open in the pub which I recorded as a foley. Frank said it was almost the exact sound! Since the trapdoor in the execution chamber at Barlinnie Prison was shored up and unable to open when we visited it seemed a logical idea to use this nice little soundbite!
Incidentally the prison that we were filming was still (and still is) very much in operation. There are some shots where you can see prisoners moving about in the upper galleries. It's Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, Scotland and dates from the Victorian era. Frank worked there in the 50s as a prison officer who occasionally did deathwatch details. That involved sitting with the condemned man on his last nights and drinking tea, engaging him in conversation and playing draughts (I think this may be called checkers in the US).
Frank showed how the prison officer's escorting the condemned man would walk a few paces across the gallery and through the doors into the execution chamber. They'd stand on planks placed over the trapdoors (clearly seen in the photos posted) and hold onto safety ropes dangling from the ceiling to stop them from falling down with the prisoner. There had been various instances in the past of prison guards and assistant executioners falling through the trapdoors with the condemned man.
The deathwatch officers would sit with the condemned prisoner at all times after sentence was pronounced. Cups of tea, mingled with small-talk and endless games of draughts (checkers in US) and they just chatted away about everything 'except the obvious'!! Their job on the morning of the execution was to escort the condemned man out of his cell (which was actually two normal sized cells knocked into one) and into the execution chamber just a few paces across the gallery in D-Hall of the prison. They steadied the man as the executioner led the way onto the scaffold and the assistant helped buckle his wrists and feet with leather straps when they reached the correct position on the trapdoors. A signal from the assistant to the executioner sent the man on his downward journey to the basement below where the mortuary slab awaited. The positioning of the noose was crucial for a clean break between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae The rope always did a quarter turn to throw back the head and cleanly sever the spinal column at those points and the hangman treated the affair with diligence and extreme reverence. Frank would then often sit with the executioner and assistants as they had their breakfast and left the executed man dangling for a full hour. The prisoner was then pulled back up, the noose removed and then he was lowered back down with other ropes to the basement room again where he was stripped and laid on the mortuary slab. The body 'belonged to the state so it was buried within the prison grounds' and no relative was allowed to visit the grave site or send flowers.
I storyboarded much of the film due to the restrictions of time, the nature of the equipment we were using and, of course, the mood I was trying to evoke. I also used black and white, grainy, light-sensitive film stock to try and get the feel of the execution facility in its heyday of the 1950s. If I had more money and time I would have made this film about 10 mins longer but alas it was not to be. There was always the odd event that we shot spur-of-the-moment. Like when I noticed a butterfly trying to escape from the window of the execution chamber. In this space it took on quite a metaphorical aspect as it struggled desperately and futilely against the glass. Strangely, there was a large group of them roosting on the ceiling. I've never seen such a thing in my life and have no idea why they were acting like this.