This lighthearted and bawdy British film recreates a true story about William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and William Hare (Glynn Edwards), two infamous Irish body-snatchers in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh – which at the time was home to probably the most highly respected medical school in the UK.
The supply of corpses for anatomical teaching or research was limited to those of executed criminals, which led to a great shortage. Thus developed the criminal practice of snatching bodies from new graves in cemeteries and selling them to anatomy teachers and research fellows.
In 1827, Hare ran a disreputable boarding house in which Burke was one of the residents. When another resident died, Burke joined Hare in replacing the corpse with a sackful of bark that was buried and later sold the corpse to the highly respected surgeon and anatomy professor Dr Robert Knox (played here by Harry Andrews).
Realising this could provide an ongoing income, they began murdering other residents in the boarding house in order to sell their bodies instead of burying them. Eventually, they murdered 17 victims.
When the pair were eventually found out, Hare was offered an amnesty in return for providing evidence against Burke (who was hanged). The supply of cadavers to medical schools was then regulated via the UK Anatomy Act in 1832.
Burke and Hare is clearly a low-budget film with a very limited amount of set pieces and make-up effects.
Burke and Hare run an old men’s boarding house with their lazy wives (statuesque Dee Shenderey and Yootha Joyce, the original Mrs Roper).
As the duo perfects a way of suffocating victims to line their pockets, just about any poor soul who comes into contact with them, or that they suspect no one will miss, becomes fair game.
Their wives are at first suspicious about where all the money is coming from, but their greed makes them turn a blind eye to their husbands’ homicidal ways of earning a decent living.
Numerous sequences inside a fancy brothel are wholly redundant – albeit most entertaining with much gorgeous female nudity on display (especially the divinely beautiful Yutte Stensgaard).
A number of character actors associated with Hammer can be seen in small parts, including Duncan Lamont, James Hayter, Robin Hawdon, Katya Wyeth and Caron Gardner. Longtime Benny Hill sidekick Bob Todd plays a policeman.
The memorable theme song is by The Scaffold – “Burke and Hare, beware of ’em/Burke and Hare, the pair of ’em”.
Dr Robert Knox
Lord Angus McPhee
John J. Carney