Stephen Beard, director of Follow Me and Ruth Ellis’ grandson on his accidental discovery of the play and what the show means to him and his family.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman in Britain to be hanged by the most ‘decorated’ executioner of our time, Albert Pierrepoint. Ruth Ellis was my grandmother.
She shot her lover in Hampstead in a fit of rage. She purposely offered no defence and left the court with no other choice but to hang her. The case received a huge public backlash because she was portrayed as the working class innocent blonde, having been terribly mistreated by the cheating spoilt public schoolboy.
The job was given to Albert Pierrepoint. A landlord by day and an executioner by night. A man who lives by the rules and believes in order. A man who believes in justice and upholding the law. Having been commissioned with the job of hanging Nazi’s in Germany following WW2, he returned to the UK where his loyalty to the state is tested. My grandmother was the last person he hanged….
“Follow Me takes us into the worlds of the hanged and the hangman in the moments leading to Ellis’ execution. Explaining her motives yet showing no remorse, she draws us into the mindset of one driven to commit the ultimate crime. Pierrepoint, the ultimate professional, but one who increasingly feels the moral pressure and growing public distaste for capital punishment and now plagued by doubts about the value of his life’s work and the craft he has mastered, explains the mechanisms, both physical and psychological, of being a pub landlord by night and a public executioner by day”.
I saw the play at Edinburgh Festival by pure chance in 2007. I was walking back after a matinee performance and saw a sign which read ‘Follow Me’. I thought that this was fantastic marketing and so I followed. To my surprise, I ended up at a pub next to the apartment block I was staying in. I walked in, took my place and watched the last hours of my grandmother’s life. Although this was rather emotional, I left feeling somewhat confused. I had been brought up to understand right from wrong. I couldn’t form a solid opinion. Yes, she was a relation but she had committed a terrible murder. In its simplest terms, Pierrpoint was the goody and Ruth the baddy. But I haven’t been able to decide whether hanging her was right or wrong? Even Pierrepoint himself towards the end isn’t sure!
I was first aware of the connection when I was a young boy. My mother was fighting for a reprieve but she died before the decision was made. However, I have since come across Carol Ann Lee’s book, ‘A Fine Day for a Hanging’ which brings forward new evidence and new ideas.
I have to consider whether it is worth reopening the case and clearing her name if not just for her sake, but my mother’s also.
- Stephen Beard