By now, there have been so many films, books and TV dramas about Jack the Ripper copycats – cf: Jill Rips, Jack’s Back, Letters From Hell – that there could be a third wave of crimes in which someone copycats the copycats. Essentially, that’s what this three-part ITV drama is – seizing on an ancient idea and serving it up with quivering excitement as if it were fresh. It throws in several other cliché threads, with a hero-copper-ostracised-by-traditional-colleagues-but-wins-them-over gambit from Life on Mars (here, the lead is a politically-connected posh officer fast-tracked for high office), several choice TV-knockoff-of-Se7en blurry montages of rooms papered with Ripperabilia and bloody knives wielded out of focus, and a flat whodunit whereby the culprit is a) the only person not directly connected with the investigation to feature in every episode and b) an unknowable, nameless loon who never gets to speak for himself in his real personality and undramatically escapes to drown himself quietly during the tidying-up after the last commercial break.
DI Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), serving his time in Whitechapel while a smarmily sinister higher-up (Alex Jennings) is greasing his path, takes charge of the investigation when a woman is killed in exactly the manner of ‘the Ripper’s first canonical victim’ on the 120th anniversary of the crime (or the 20th anniversary of the killings in Jill Rips and Jack’s Back). Tweedy tour guide and Ripper expert Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) advances the theory that someone is acting out the 1888 crimes all over again. This excites the hostility of old school copper DS Miles (Phil Davis – who invests the line ‘are you a Ripperologist?’ with unspeakable hatred) but piques Chandler’s interest, especially when it turns out that a previous deadly assault matches a murder some ascribe to the Ripper. From then on, it’s the usual Messiah-Prime Suspect Umpteen business of the squabbling cops running about trying to prevent a predestined pattern of atrocities from happening – but only (spoiler) managing to thwart the final murder.
Writers Ben Court and Caroline Ip (The Hole) have done some current research, which at least makes a change – and Buchan is used to debunk the Masonic-Royal conspiracy theory still trotted out in From Hell or make plot-serving suggestions that one of the killings usually included in Jack’s tally was not his work; the script very tactfully refrains from making an obvious connection that the Duke of Clarence, who figures in the conspiracy theory, was the son of the Prince of Wales, and there are thus two current candidates for his position suitable for tying into the present-day mystery. In fact, the serial makes little attempt to map the present onto the past – this Whitechapel is an odd, unconvincing locale of white middle-aged coppers and two lone equally white prostitutes who comically reappear throughout; there’s not an Asian with a speaking role (the cops do eat take-out curry), no mention of the Jews (or ‘Juwes’), little sense of Whitechapel as the busy, vibrant neighbourhood it is today (on the BBC, the cast would be studded with mixed ethnicities – which is becoming as rote a formula as pretending it’s 1955 is on ITV) and many glimpses of the Pickle (which has replaced the routemaster bus as the most frequent yes-this-is-London film and TV shorthand) bizarrely suggest the district is in the City.
Pemberton makes something of the role of convenient expert, genuinely upset when the parlour game of Ripper theory becomes a bloody mess for which he is partly responsible, but Penry-Jones and Davis are lazily cast and stuck with contrived, hard-to-follow clash scenes – how many times does the hero have to be proved right for his junior to go along with him? A few side-issues are raised – a violent squaddie john traumatised overseas is an early suspect and a crowd of snapping paparazzi scum turn up unhelpfully on the night of one of the murders – but then go away again, so the show can get on with its silly business. Among the infelicities of the original broadcast was cutting from a gruesome autopsy to a commercial bumper for chicken leftovers. Directed by SJ Clarkson.