Can you picture a guillotine? I’m talking here about the device used for executions, especially during the French Revolution: a tall wooden frame, a heavy block with a sharp, angled blade, dropped from a great height to behead the prisoner below, their neck secured in wooden stocks.
On Saturday morning I caught about 20 minutes of the “Carry On” movie set during the French Revolution, “Carry on … don’t lose your head”. My 10-year-old daughter came in just as an aristocrat was about to be executed. I paused live TV and showed her the guillotine. Had she seen one before? She hadn’t. As it was a “Carry On” film we didn’t see any blood, fortunately, but the way the guillotine worked was clear enough. It was all played for laughs. Within a few minutes Sid James was on the scene, interfering with the device and rescuing aristocrats. This was my daughter’s first experience of a “Carry On” movie and I explained who some of the regular cast members were. It was worth about 20 minutes of our Saturday morning before we carried on with our day.
I was about the same age as my daughter when I first saw a guillotine, possibly while watching the same movie, or maybe it was in a clip of Alice Cooper on “Top of the Pops”. He used one in his stage act, to behead a dummy. As I noted last year, in this piece about Queen, Sparks and 10cc, at her age I knew very little about the French Revolution. Would I have known the word guillotine? Maybe. She told me that they had a guillotine at school, but not the same as the one we’d seen on TV. We have one at home too, tucked away in a cupboard, for slicing paper in neat, straight lines. We haven’t used it for while.
Unsurprisingly a song lyric came to mind. Can you think of a song that includes the word? If you’re not a Bob Dylan fan it’s unlikely, but he uses it in the last line of the last verse of “It’s alright ma (I’m only bleeding)”. You’ll find it at 7’10” in this clip: “And if my thought dreams could be seen / they’d probably put my head in a guillotine / But it’s alright ma, it’s life and life only”.