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The humiliation of the Elephant Man A dissection of Joseph Merrick over dinner is supposed to be educational

Gazing directly into the past: 'The Elephant Man'.

Gazing directly into the past: 'The Elephant Man'.

October 19, 2021   5 mins

Fancy an educational experience? Something to please a palate too jaded to get a kick from a National Trust cream tea? A company based on an industrial estate in Staffordshire wants to offer you stronger meat. Pork, to be precise. ITAE Productions is going to use some porcine bits and pieces to give you a lesson in 19th-century history.

They’ll mix them with synthetic biological matter and cram them into a simulacrum of a corpse blossoming with cauliflower-like tumours. Not just any old fake dead body, but that of an eminent Victorian: Joseph Merrick, whose painful life as “the Elephant Man” is now one of the narratives through which we judge the culture of his age. You’ll put on PPE to protect you from any stray fragments of pig brain and — armed with a real scalpel — you and other paying punters will perform a simulation of Merrick’s autopsy. A two-course meal is provided during this “dinner and dissection” event.

Let’s get something straight about the motives here. It’s not supposed to be a horror show. It’s not intended to demean the memory of Merrick by making his disability the subject of grand guignol dinner theatre. It is “to support and improve knowledge and awareness in the medical space.” Which must be why ITAE was going to stage it in a big top erected in a rugby club car park at Halloween, that traditional time for supporting awareness in the medical space. This was the plan, anyway, until the venue found out about the Elephant angle and cancelled the booking, forcing the organisers to reschedule for January.

ITAE is the brainchild of Samuel Piri, a former STEM schoolteacher whose business is part-owned by two of the stars of BBC2’s Dragon’s Den. You might have seen the August 2018 edition of the programme in which a young man with a nervous laugh and a product-slicked pudding bowl haircut made an unusual pitch in front of a smorgasbord of pig offal. Bathed in that blue light beloved by directors of Silent Witness, he proselytised the value of artificial cadavers in education and training and explained that his ticketed events, open to the public but popular with NHS staff, could generate an income of £15,000 per day.

The Dragons were a little weirded out by the idea that Piri served dinner at his dissections, but liked his numbers and his originality. Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones, the programme’s most enduring reptiles, offered him £90,000 for a 10% stake in his company. It looked like a perfectly respectable enterprise. A way, perhaps, of demystifying the subject of physiology. The evisceration of real historical figures was not discussed. Nobody, certainly, mentioned the Elephant Man.

It’s hard to get a clear view of Joseph Carey Merrick. That’s partly the fault of the work through which most of us know his story — David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a film that mimics the aesthetics of Victorian photography so perfectly that you might believe you were gazing directly into the past. No film so fully generates the illusion that the 19th century actually took place in black and white. But the movie is misleading. Its quorum of real historical figures — John Hurt as Merrick, Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves, his surgeon patron, John Gielgud as Carr Gomm, chair of the Royal London Hospital — is joined by another figure whom most viewers probably assume is drawn straight from the historical record. But Mr Bytes, the gin-sodden showman who beats Merrick in his drunken rages, never existed.

Lynch’s main source is Frederick Treves’s memoir, The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences (1923), a book that contains a surprising mistake. Treves misremembers Merrick’s Christian name as John — an error that Lynch repeats. But there are other reasons to doubt Treves’s account. When the book came out, the real showman in Merrick’s life complained bitterly about his portrayal.

Tom Norman insisted that he never spoke to Merrick “harshly” “as if to a dog”. Instead, he claimed a friendly personal and professional relationship in an enterprise that he regarded as less exploitative than Treves’s use of Merrick as a lecture-room specimen. And the money, he argued, was good. Merrick negotiated a 50-50 box office split with his manager and received free board and lodging on tour. In the first five months of their association, he saved £50 from his fees. (A working-class man of that period could expect to earn about a pound a week.) When he and Norman parted company, Merrick did what performers still do today — put an advert in a theatrical newspaper, signalling that he was looking for new engagements.

What’s missing in all this, of course, is Merrick’s unmediated voice. We know that he spent five years in the Leicester workhouse, which he ended, of his own volition, by becoming a human exhibit. We’ll never know the details of this decision, but it seems important, in telling the story of his life, to preserve a place for his own agency. The alternative — Treves’s picture of the contented recipient of charity, “as amiable as a happy woman” — is too simple. And too flattering to us. When the historian Raphael Samuel went to see the David Lynch film, he knew why it was so powerful: The Elephant Man was “moving us sentimentally to tears at the thought of our own benevolence”.

What judgement should we make about the latest attempt to depict him? The Facebook page of Dinner and Dissection may help us decide. “Roll up … roll up …” it declares. “Learn how The Victorian Greats unlocked the secrets to the human body.” Who were the greats? According to ITAE, Burke & Hare, whose career at the more murderous end of medical research was over about a decade before Victoria came to the throne, and “the Infamous Jack the Ripper”. The company declined to reveal whether it had employed a professional historian on the project. Nor would it confirm whether the Merrick dissection will remain part of the shows it plans for January. I would gently suggest that Samuel Piri gets together with his investors, Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones, to rethink the whole enterprise, perhaps with the benefit of someone who knows more than them about history and ethics. Maybe it’ll be an educational experience for all of them.

In the meantime, a campaign against the mock autopsy of Joseph Merrick event goes on. Adam Pearson, the broadcaster and actor familiar from Channel Four’s Tricks of the Restaurant Trade and his role opposite Scarlett Johansson in the science fiction film Under the Skin (2013) told the BBC that Joseph Merrick “would be heartbroken” by the idea of ITAE’s show. A petition of protest has now gathered over 12,000 signatures.

Looking back at Samuel Piri’s appearance on Dragon’s Den, there is a moment when you can see how all this might have been avoided. One of the dragons, the vitamin entrepreneur Tej Lalvani, offers £120,000 and access to his contacts in the American healthcare system in exchange for a 25% stake in the business. Piri, though, is drawn to the offer by Meaden and Jones, partly because Jones has experience in events management. Lavalni offers a friendly warning. “I think that if you want to run a circus, an entertainment, maybe that’s the route, but having that network where you have access to the top doctors is key for you.” Piri was unpersuaded.

What would Joseph Merrick have made of this, if he had been in the room? I wouldn’t presume to know. Except to say that in a deal like this, he would have stuck out for 50%.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.


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ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

Sounds pretty macabre, but fascinating story. Tej ever the wise one.