If you’re looking for the perfect antidote to yet another Christmas cooped up for days on end with family members you don’t get on with, we would direct you to seek out a copy of The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, a dark little gem from the mid-90s, although you’re currently limited to a heftily priced US import DVD or a similarly costly and probably rather old and tired VHS. Not a totally lost classic then but certainly somewhat overlooked, perhaps with good reason…
During the throes of its identity crisis of the 1980s, British Cinema explored a number of different options in pursuit of a commercial foothold. The low water mark of the decade is regarded by many as Julien Temple’s anachronistic misfire Absolute Beginners (1986). Despite that film’s dramatic critical and commercial failure it was followed by a number of other home-grown releases that delved into the same post-war era, several of which proved moderately profitable and constituted a sub-genre of sorts that might best be described as the Heritage Crime Biopic.
Typically the films in this cycle were based (often fairly loosely) on actual events that took place at some point between the end of the Second World War and the end of the 1960s, so providing a clear and heavy end-of-empire subtext, but one couched in the attraction of period detail, usually shot through a relatively nostalgic lens and accompanied by an upbeat archival pop soundtrack despite the frequently criminal and sometimes murderous subject matter. Among the films making up the cycle one might count Dance With a Stranger (Mike Newell 1985, admittedly just predating Absolute Beginners, but certainly relevant), Personal Services (Terry Jones, 1987), Buster (David Green, 1988), Scandal (Michael Caton-Jones 1989), The Krays (Peter Medak, 1990) and Let Him Have It (Peter Medak, 1991), with honourable mentions for the rather less crime-ridden Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987) and Wish You Were Here (David Leland, 1987) for their period setting.
By the early 90s this nostalgic crimewave began to run out of steam on the big screen and headed for the TV schedules; Heartbeat (1992 – ) and the production line of other period-set crime dramas that now prop up several digital TV channels with hours of soporific, rose-tinted ‘cosy murder’ repeats are evidence of this. There was, however, one late feature-length entry which many missed at the time of its release.
The Young Poisoner’s Handbook which debuted in 1995 was based on the true story of Graham Young, dubbed the Teacup Murderer, who at the tender age of 14 in 1961 was responsible for the fatal poisoning of his stepmother, several more non-fatal poisonings of other family members and friends, and subsequently the murder by poisoning of a fellow inmate at Broadmoor Hospital where he was detained for most of the 1960s. After his release in 1971 he went on to murder two co-workers and cause severe illness through poisoning to over 70 other staff at John Hadland Laboratories where he secured employment as a glorified tea boy (hence the nickname) after his lengthy detention.
Director Benjamin Ross took a good many liberties with the facts of the case in order to give his telling sufficient narrative cohesion, but in doing so he wove a deliciously dark tale that challenges the viewer to empathise with a cold-blooded killer. Hugh O’Connor plays Young with enough kinetic, pop-eyed malice to convey the journey from ‘seriously misunderstood adolescent’ to ‘psychotic misfit murderer’ and by and large we’re left feeling that his victims deserved their fate. There’s more than a little nod to A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick 1971) going on; there’s the theme of corrective therapy applied to a wayward youth in a high security prison setting and Ross also uses Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, famously synthesised by Walter/Wendy Carlos for Kubrick, as his film’s main musical theme.
Whilst Young is certainly seen to pay for his crimes the presentation of his homicidal actions verge on playful at times, which makes for quite an edgy, uncomfortable watch. This is no Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986), but Young, with his bedroom chemistry set, so resembles one of the enquiring youths from the cover of a vintage ‘Junior Science’ Ladybird Book that it is a little like watching Andy Pandy take a flick knife to Looby Loo and Teddy: quite chilling if you’ve grown up with such images of childhood security.
Perhaps one reason why the film has been rather consigned to history is that it was implicated in the actions of a Japanese schoolgirl arrested in 2005 for poisoning her mother with thallium, one of Young’s substances of choice. She claimed to have developed a fascination with Young’s activities after seeing the film, even keeping a blog that mimicked Young’s diary in which he kept a record of dosages and reactions.
Despite this the average viewer should be able to stomach what’s on offer easily enough and resist the temptation to emulate the poisoner. Outside of a little vomiting and a rather effective hallucinatory appearance from Young’s dead stepmother played by Mike Leigh regular Ruth Sheen late on, the film deals more in the creepy visual palette of the Public Information Films and Trade Test Transmissions of the 1960s and 1970s that haunt the baby boomer psyche than out and out visceral shocks.
Anyway, I’m off to put the kettle on – anyone for tea?