Derren Nesbitt, Harry Andrews, Glynn Edwards, Yootha Joyce, Françoise Pascal, Yutte Stensgaard, Robin Hawdon, Alan Tucker, Dee Shenderey, Joan Carol, Paul Greaves, David Pugh, James Hayter, Thomas Heathcoate, Duncan Lamont, Katya Wyeth, Bob Todd, Reg Lye
Edinburgh in the 1820s and two ne'erdowells, Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and Hare (Glynn Edwards), are living in squalor with their wives when they hear of a way of making easy money. When an elderly man in the boarding house they stay in expires, they are given the job of taking the body to the undertaker, but Burke has an idea, to take the corpse to the city's medical college. This is because the doctors there pay a handsome fee for fresh bodies for dissection and study, and their students can use them as well, so after making an enquiry the two men have successfully completed a transaction - not for the last time.
The story of Burke and Hare is, for some reason, a remarkably popular one in film and television, with a version of the true, 19th century events popping up on screens large and small almost every decade. The best of these is undoubtedly the Val Lewton B-movie The Body Snatcher, but is it significant that this one sticks least closely to the facts? Compare it with this 1972 account, which adheres to the basic storyline as it happened, but to lesser effect, neither as witty or as atmospheric as the previous 1940s classic, perhaps because here the goal is to make a comedy horror.
With the result that this Burke and Hare is more like a British sex comedy strain of the tale, as half the running time seems to be taken up with the comings and goings in a local brothel, a great opportunity, so the filmmakers apparently thought, to spice up their production with plentiful female nudity. Most of that nakedness is courtesy of imported French star Françoise Pascal as a whore who finds love with a naive medical student and leads, we eventually find out, to the bad guys' downfall, although imported Danish star Yutte Stensgaard takes off her clothes as well.
Every Burke and Hare needs their Doctor Knox, or they would be out of business, so step forward Harry Andrews sporting a pair of spectacles with one black lens and a Scottish accent to cover that role. There are quite a few dodgy accents here, actually, from Nesbitt's sing-song Irish to Stensgaard's broad burr, although to be fair she might have been dubbed, just not dubbed by anybody from Edinburgh, or indeed Britain by the sounds of it. Pascal gets to keep her French accent, however, even if her real life equivalent was presumably from Scotland.
Anyway, Knox is only too happy to hand over cash to the evildoers without asking any questions, and this is to their benefit as this is one of the only renderings of their story that sees them as significantly financially better off after their misdeeds allow the pounds, shillings and pence to flow into their pockets. The idea that this is all a bit of a giggle is somewhat at odds with a film that portrays wifebeating and murder, and they don't sit too comfortably with the tarnished charm of the bodysnatchers. If you know anything of the actual events, you can spot the references to them, but it needn't harm your enjoyment if you don't as this does have a certain energy about its dodgy dealings that help it through its lame humour and bloodless nastiness. Also, the theme song is by The Scaffold of "Lily the Pink" fame, which sounds more like Chas and Dave: why sing a song about this famous Scottish crime spree in a Cockney accent? Particularly when they're from Liverpool?
IMAGES: MARCUS BROOKS