You’re Dead to Me (‘Jack Sheppard’ Episode) Back

For those unfamiliar with the BBC Radio 4 podcast You’re Dead to Me, in each episode Greg Jenner – a public historian and ‘chief nerd’ on the brilliant programme that is Horrible Histories – is joined by a comedian and an historian to discuss an historic theme or person. The show is succinct with a tone that is successfully, as Jenner puts it, both ‘lol-tastic and scholastic’. In this episode Jenner takes us on a whirlwind tour of Jack Sheppard’s life, accompanied by historian Dr Lena Liapi and comedian Stu Goldsmith.

The original ‘Jack the lad’, Jack Sheppard was a lovable rogue who managed to escape jail four times within a year, before reaching his untimely yet characteristically theatrical end at the gallows when he was only twenty-two years old.

Sheppard was born in 1702, the year Queen Anne ascended to the throne. While Anne was presumably playing with her rabbits*[1]and Rachel Weisz, young Jack Sheppard was in a workhouse in Spitalfields, London. Luckily, he got the opportunity to apprentice as a carpenter with the aptly named ‘Mr Wood’, thanks to the benevolence of his mother’s employer – a Mr William Kneebone (‘connected to the thigh bone’). An apprenticeship lasted seven years, but with only around a year left, Sheppard decided it wasn’t for him and turned to a life of crime instead.

1724 marked a year of much criminal industry for Sheppard, resulting in five arrests and four escapes. With an impressive 80% getaway success rate, Sheppard was almost as elusive as Donald Trump’s tax returns. I was struck by how much each of Sheppard’s escapes are reminiscent of a Carry On film; for one escape he disguised himself as a woman, and for another he tied bedclothes together to make a rope and shimmied down it with his lover-cum-accomplice Edgeware Bess (ooh matron!).

With each arrest and consequential escape, Sheppard became more of a hero, particularly for the lower classes. Sadly, Sheppard’s fifth arrest didn’t follow his usual pattern, and this proto-Houdini found himself at the gallows. 200,000 people went to his execution (a third of London), testifying to the fame he had garnered. Goldsmith aptly points out that Steven Soderbergh could have directed Sheppard’s life à la Ocean’s Eleven (I’m thinkingSheppard’s Flockis a good working title). Jenner half-jokingly asks when the BBC will make a new period drama based on Sheppard’s short but accomplished life. It’s astounding that such a programme hasn’t already been made!

The end of the general discussion brings the podcast to the ‘nuance window’ which, with fanfare, initiates a two minute ‘mini-lecture’ from Dr. Liapi that focuses on crime and the media, and how reputations of criminals were consequently constructed. In Jenner’s recent book Dead Famous (which I strongly recommend!), he notes that Sheppard ‘exuded a class consciousness that bathed [him] in the warm light of underdog romance. The public wanted [him] to get away with it, perhaps because it was exciting to read [his] exploits, but also because each one of [his] victories felt like a win for the average Joe’. [2] This attests to Liapi’s brief analysis of how criminals like Sheppard were often romanticised as gallant bad boys that appealed to men and women in equal measure. Indeed, Sheppard appears to have understood the potential of criminal celebrity well before ‘true crime’ documentaries were a thing. He is said to have been promoting his biography on his way to the gallows, and it’s suspected that he even disguised himself as a beggar and roamed around telling people stories of the amazing Jack Sheppard; shameless self-promotion that would give Kylie Jenner a run for her money today! It’s clear, as Jenner notes, that ‘Sheppard would have been amazing on Twitter’, and I can’t help but think about the other ways in which he might have promoted himself today. A sponsorship with a chain of Escape Rooms, perhaps, or endorsing weight-loss teas on Instagram that make you slender enough to climb up chimneys and shimmy through prison windows?

The final segment of the podcast is the ‘What do you know now?’ section, which entails Jenner asking Goldsmith ten quickfire questions over a minute to test his (and our) newfound knowledge. This nicely wraps things up, and I finished the podcast entertained and informed. Having listened to the other episodes in the series, I can confirm that Jenner and his guests never fail to bring the subject matter to life. These podcasts are great introductions to new topics and would be excellent learning resources for students. Having said that, You’re Dead to Me is akin to Horrible Histories (Jenner’s magnum opus) in its appeal to all ages.

[1]* I should preemptively clarify that this is a cheap joke in reference to Yorgos Lanthimos’ fantastic (and Oscar-winning) period drama/comedy, The Favourite (2019). There is no historical evidence to suggest that Queen Anne ever actually played with either rabbits or Rachel Weisz.

[2] Greg Jenner, Dead Famous (W&N: London, 2020), p.82.