Reviews

For Every Problem There Is a Solution: 'Prince of Poisoners: The Life & Crimes of William Palmer'

William Palmer's taste for better living through chemistry began while he was in medical school as a simple way to erase gambling debts.


Prince of Poisoners: The Life & Crimes of William Palmer

Director: Alan Dossor
Cast: David Keith Allen, Jayne Ashbourne, Judy Cornwell
Distributor: BFS Entertainment & Multimedia Ltd
Studio: ITV
Release Date: 2011-04

William Palmer, a surgeon practicing in Rugeley, Staffordshire in the mid-19th century, seems to have been quite a piece of work. Gifted with overwhelming ambition as well as a taste for the good life, he took advantage of his professional knowledge and social standing to bump off people who got in his way or who simply, to paraphrase Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, had been around a little too long and could be turned into hard cash. Palmer's chosen method was poison, and thanks in part to the primitive nature of criminology at the time (autopsies were rarely performed and even if they were, might be conducted in a far from scientific manner), he got away with it for years.

Of course there'd be no story if he didn't get caught eventually, and because Palmer was tried in London (due to fears that a fair trial in the small town of Rugeley would be impossible), his case received widespread publicity. So widespread, in fact, that the citizens of Rugeley petitioned the Prime Minister to change the name of their town, feeling it had been unfairly besmirched by Palmer's dark deeds. The name change never took place, as it was granted only on the condition that the new name be that of the current prime minister, Lord Palmerston, which was not exactly the fresh start the townspeople were hoping for.

Palmer's shady dealings are the subject of the television program Prince of Poisoners: The Life & Crimes of William Palmer, an ITV Yorkshire production which originally aired in 1998 in both the UK and the US (in the US it appeared as part of the WGBH Mystery! series). It was also released on DVD in 2005 under the title The Life & Crimes of William Palmer.

Don't let the original release date scare you, however: this production is firmly in the Heritage Television style and could have as easily been made in 2010 or 1990 or any of the years in between. That's not a criticism, just an indication of what to expect: a somewhat antiseptic version of Victorian England populated with an able cast of actors wearing lovely costumes and an efficient script which makes the story perfectly clear even if you're only half paying attention.

As presented in Prince of Poisoners (the actual historical record is somewhat less clear) Palmer's taste for better living through chemistry began while he was in medical school as a simple way to erase gambling debts. Returning home to Rugeley, he indulges in a lifestyle his surgical practice can't support but another source of funds presents itself in terms of an annoying mother-in-law whose demise bears the promise of a substantial inheritance. Murder by poison proves to be such an easy and consequence-free way of dealing with financial troubles that the bodies soon begin to pile up.

You might wonder why someone doesn't notice that it seems to be extremely unhealthy to be a relative or associate of Mr. Palmer, but this is more understandable given the high rates of mortality at the time, as well as the societal reluctance to question a gentleman of Palmer's social standing. When his luck runs out, there's a delicious irony in the way that the science of chemistry, for so long Palmer's friend and accomplice, switches sides to become the agent of his downfall.

Prince of Poisoners is no blockbuster in the Bridehead Revisited sense. Instead, it's a modest effort more along the lines of Grenada's Sherlock Holmes series, but without the intrinsic interest of the Conan Doyle stories. The sets are a little too obviously sets, the script a little too efficient, and the storytelling devices a little too dated (both Palmer and his wife get "realization montages" which attempt to take us inside their minds) to make this show a classic but it's certainly enjoyable enough to watch if you're a fan of historical dramas and/or British television.

Keith Allen does a fine job as the sociopathic Palmer, selling the character as someone who was so free of ordinary human emotion (although certainly not lacking in charm) that he fooled nearly everyone for years. Jayne Ashbourne is radiant as his beautiful young wife, while Judy Cornwell makes the most of her role as Palmer's mother, playing her as a sort of Lady Bracknell type.

Unfortunately, the weak link in this series is the script which has little interest in exploring either Palmer's character or of the historical context of the times. A few brief scenes (a tooth-pulling, a childbirth) are included to give you an idea of the state of medical practice in England in Palmer's day, but they're so perfunctory that you feel screenwriter Glenn Chandler must have been impatient to get on to the next murder while some promising set pieces (a Christmas party, a day at the racetrack) feel like they're over almost as soon as they've begun.

The total run time for Prince of Poisoners is 157 minutes, split into three parts spread over two discs. It's a bare-bones package with the only extra being text biographies of three cast members (Keith Allen, Jayne Ashbourne, and Judy Cornwell). These are not an entire loss, however as along with the usual acting credits there are a few choice tidbits included, such as the fact that Keith Allen plays in a band with Damien Hirst of sharks-in-formaldehyde fame.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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