Did we like it?
Jack the Ripper will always be a beacon of morbid fascination, a fertile reservoir of conspiracy and febrile theorizing – much like the attacks on the World Trade Center or the assassination of JFK – as it has the twin magnetism of unsolved mystery and brutal murder. This modernisation – a copy cat killer stalks the streets of Old London Town – employs the legend as the bedrock for a more fascinating adversarial battle between young posh inspector and grizzled old anachronism, and while we’ve our reservations about the pure execution of this conceit, the fact that the roles are filled by the brilliant Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis means it is bound to be a gripping thriller.
What was good about it?
• Although Rupert Penry Jones and Phil Davis play a little close to type in their parts as snooty, fast-tracked Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler ruffling the feathers of surly set-in-his-ways DS Ray Miles both actors are accomplished enough to mould three dimensions from the hewn granite rock of their respective archetypes.
• Chandler has an arrogant façade that makes him ignorant or scornful of the equally derisive Miles. And throughout the episode they were bickering as much with each other as solving the mounting murders. Chandler came a cropper when he insisted on observing the pathologist and Miles matter-of-factly discuss the mutilated corpse of a young woman, as he was overcome by nausea – to Miles’ delight.
• Chandler, however, hasn’t been hammered into a cycle of sterile cynicism like Miles, and is capable of making leaps of imagination beyond that of Miles and his slothful team of artful indolents. Miles dismisses the assistance of Mr Buchan (Steve Pemberton), who claims the killer is mimicking Jack the Ripper, but Chandler is more receptive and gains his grim reward when the third murder occurs just like Buchan predicted it would.
• This, of course, lessens the friction between Chandler and Miles, at least in a professional sense as Miles seems more embittered than ever that he was proved wrong in front of his men. And the second episode should witness a closer bond to help solve the crimes.
• But the rift between them was beautifully conveyed as the pair stood outside the autopsy room as the pathologist examined the first corpse. Davis stood head back against the wall, exhaling with controlled exasperation at what he saw as Chandler’s inept meddling, while Penry-Jones stood stock-still as though aware of the simmering resentment emanating from Miles.
• Steve Pemberton as Mt Buchan added an otherworldliness to the rigid conventions of yet another murder thriller. While he’s far too obvious a culprit, his quivering tones bring to mind almost a ghostly aid to the investigation, while his efforts to earn money from his grisly Ripper tours mark out his most human traits. The odd thing with Pemberton is that because he played such a span of characters in League of Gentlemen, many of his subsequent roles carry distinctive echoes of his bleakest creations, with Mr Buchan a more genial incarnation of Harvey Denton.
• As with every whodunit, part of the attraction is trying to guess the killer. And if we go by the rule that killers must be introduced in the first half, after the first of the three episodes we only have two suspects.
• The first is Chandler’s superior who got him the job as DI, and, if he is the murderer, is hoping his inexperience will cause him to mess the investigation up.
• But our chief suspect is the nurse in the hospital where Chandler goes to question a woman who could have been the first victim. We, perhaps misguidedly, think this because she got her name in the credits when it wasn’t mentioned (Frances Coles), and that the police constantly talk about the killer as a man, despite the fact that Chandler has guessed that they disguise themselves before committing murder. Or alternatively, she could just be the next victim.
What was bad about it?
• While the adversarial attrition between Chandler and Miles buoyed the slow-burn of the investigation, it did become a little ludicrous when Chandler berated his inferiors as if they were a bunch of unruly schoolboys. He even stood at the front of the office chalk in hand scribbling on a blackboard, snapping at them for not wearing a tie or slouching. This came across as too much of a theatrical conceit wrought to pit Chandler against Davis, when this conflict between the two antagonists had long been established by the immaculate acting of the pair, and this loud appendix felt utterly extraneous.
• It’s yet another drama that feeds off the Jack the Ripper legend. So many thrillers take their lead from this gruesome tale that the appeal palls somewhat, and as Whitechapel has, as yet, to offer the kind of originality or cerebral insight that Alan Moore’s From Hell comic did then it might have perhaps thought a little harder about a less tarnished premise.