Cinema/TV, Film Notes

BluRay review – Jack the Ripper (1988)

My notes on Network’s release of the 1988 miniseries.  This two-part miniseries was mounted by producer-writer-director David Wickes for the centenary of the Ripper murders, and touted as the most elaborately-researched dramatisation of the case to date (though the BBC’s six-part semi-documentary Jack the Ripper from 1973 ranged wider).  The much-publicised ‘final solution’ to the mystery turned out to be the familiar (and horribly unjust) fingering of Royal surgeon Sir William Gull (McAnally) as the killer, without the trappings of the Masonic conspiracy depicted previously in Murder By Decree and later central to From Hell (which, otherwise, lifts a lot from this source).  In an attempt to boost the thin whodunit aspect, the series builds up other historical figures – the actor Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), medium Robert Lees (Ken Bones) and rabble-rouser George Lusk (Michael Gothard) – as likely suspects.  It has the decency to sneer at the ludicrous notion that one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons might have been behind the crimes (later proposed by another TV movie, The Ripper), but never even considers the humble, mentally deficient, socially obscure suspects most favoured by serious researchers.

This was the first Ripper drama to use Inspector Fred Abberline (Michael Caine) as protagonist, a tactic followed by From Hell and The Ripper; all three versions give him a more grounded, plodding partner in Sergeant Godley (Lewis Collins), a fictional romance with an actual character (here, a newspaper artist played by Seymour) and a conventional set of personal problems (Caine/Abberline’s alcoholism was trumped by Johnny Depp/ Abberline’s drug addiction).  Otherwise, it’s an assembly of familiar anecdotes and bits of business: gin-swilling lawks-a-mighty tarts (Susan George, Lysette Anthony) roistering in rowdy Whitecapel pubs, black-hatted characters and a trundling evil coach passing over cobbled streets, coppers arguing over clues and red herrings, bewiskered dignitaries (Harry Andrews, Edward Judd, Hugh Fraser, T.P. McKenna, Gerald Sim, David Swift) demanding results or plotting a cover-up, unruly mobs shouting ‘hang him’ whenever anyone is even remotely suspected.

Nicely shot by Alan Hume and with value-for-money performances from reliables who still aren’t quite outstanding here, it’s a little prosaic in the way that ITV drama still is thirty years later.  The more flamboyantly melodramatic and far-fetched From Hell plays better, and Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree – with Christiopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes and Watson – is most impressive of all, finding a genuine emotional resonance and sense of outrage that’s missing here.  An interesting aside is the depiction of Mansfield’s stage transformation scene in his signature role of Jekyll and Hyde, but disappointingly it’s done with 1980s-look bladder effects rather than a recreation of Mansfield’s famous live trickery.

This two-disc set includes the original two-part production in the standard TV aspect ratio of the time and a ‘feature’ version in 1.85:1 which crops the tops off a few hats but mostly looks good.  A fascinating extra is twenty minutes of video-tape rushes from an abortive production of the script, mounted before American co-production money came in, with Barry Foster in the lead – the major difference is that whereas Caine’s Abberline is found sleeping off a drunk and goes on the wagon while investigating the case, Foster’s copper resorts to the bottle throughout and subtly plays a drink-fuelled rage and compulsion as he worries at the case.  Also, you get to hear Edward Judd mutter ‘what is this bullshit’ before a take.


Here’s a trailer.


One thought on “BluRay review – Jack the Ripper (1988)

  1. I was nine when this was first broadcast, and found the Jekyll/Hyde transformation absolutely terrifying, as well as the characters insane, hysterical laughter. I was too afraid to watch the second part, which my older brother later related to me in mangled fashion. As a Hat enthusiast, the 1:85-1 transfer is sacrilige! The Judd and Foster material sounds like a gas. Maybe a something is rotten in Denmark approach would work for a ripper film. As inconclusive and shady as the actual mystery, acting as an unseen monster that brings to light the festering ills of an age. Hideous depravation and poverty, endemic crime, a seedy social milieu, the sadly usual abuse, neglect and exploitation. Our thirst for the sensatioanl and prurient. The sociologist approach is out of style, but it is likely the ripper himself was a monster borne out of social and familial ills. The antisemitism of the From Hell letters, which I think this film rightly dismisses as fakes. I read recently that the Russian secret service agent Rachkovsky was in operation in London at this time and its not beyond credibility in fiction to suggest he might have tried to exploit the situation to his own agenda. So it could be a kind of ghastly La Ronde of interrelated social milieus. The Christine Keeler show doesn’t really give enough of a sense of divided social classes colliding like weather fronts. Like the Kennedy assassination, there is enough residual mystery, potential for fantasy and hideous allure to keep the subject bobbing in the currents of pop folklore. The tilt into completely fantasised versions isn’t hard to acheive (Holmes vs Ripper seems a natural and entirely apt). I would say the latest suspects fingered as likely ripper candidates seem convincing and a compelling case is made, but I am not 100% sold, as there seems an element of propagandising about the absolute reach of modern policing and that such an unstable suspect escaped detection and was never even anecdotally linked with the crimes boggles the mind, while remaining the right side of plausible

    Posted by wmsagittarius | January 9, 2020, 2:19 pm

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