'Do you want the killer, or will anybody do?'
Jack The Ripper
1988’s Jack the Ripper was the very definition of event television and recently returned to public attention via re-broadcast on Talking Pictures TV. Dean Newman takes a scalpel to ITV’s two-part masterpiece for Horrified…
“For over 100 years the murders in Whitechapel committed by Jack the Ripper have baffled the world. What you are about to see is a dramatisation of those events. Our story is based on extensive research, including a review of the official files by special permission of the Home Office and interviews with leading criminologists and Scotland Yard officials.”
So begins the opening of Jack the Ripper (1988), written and directed by David Wickes. The director was no stranger to Ripper lore having directed another version of the story back in 1973. 1988, of course, was the centenary of the killer’s violent reign over the East End of London. One hundred years since a figure wandered the darkened streets with murder in mind, his identity unknown, but his name and deeds infamous worldwide.
When ITV’s thoughts turned to what could be done to ‘celebrate’ the centenary a two-part mini-series that would delve into the case files to finally reveal the killer was devised. The term ‘event television’ wasn’t coined for another 20 years, but had it existed at the time, the series would have undoubtedly fit the appellation. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first – or last – time that a film or TV programme would be made about Jack The Ripper, but surely the most sumptuous and beloved.
We all know the story and the victims, but that familiarity hardly matters and certainly shouldn’t put you off discovering – or rediscovering – this gem that is a (ahem) cut above the Ripper competition that includes the likes of Murder By Decree (Bob Clark, 1979) and From Hell (The Hughes Brothers, 2001). If you want the definitive Jack the Ripper adaptation, this is it. I was 12 at the time of the original screening and was interested in Jack The Ripper – earlier that year I’d bought the Murder Casebook magazine, complete with replica newspaper – and was hooked from the off.
Ripper fan or not, this was proper television, heralding the return of Michael Caine to the small screen in the first time for almost 20 years, with support from the much-missed and brilliant Lewis Collins (filmed today, we’d probably have a spin-off series with Caine and Collins), Jane Seymour and Armand Assante. This was one to be watched live (and recorded) and was guaranteed to be the talk of the school playground the next day.
Shot on 35mm film, it looks impressively expensive even today, and as a period Victorian piece is practically ageless. Watching the titles, streets full of horse-drawn carriages, it’s easy to marvel and how beautifully lit the programme is; every penny of the £7 million budget (that’s £19 million in today’s money) is up there on the screen. Well almost every penny, as Caine himself was reportedly paid £1 million for his role as Inspector Abberline. Not a bad gig considering he allegedly only performed a single take any time he stepped in front of the camera (technical issues notwithstanding).
However, this could have been a very different Jack The Ripper story, as originally it was set to be filmed on a more conservative budget with Barry Foster as Aberline, in fact around 20 minutes of footage still exists of this original smaller-scale version. Once American television network, CBS, became interested, however, extra funds were released to bring in a bigger name. Enter, Michael Caine. The gamble paid off and Jack the Ripper became the first non-US programme to be simultaneously screened coast-to-coast bag Caine a Golden Globe.
Jack The Ripper plays as a clever whodunnit, setting up a series of potential suspects and well-handled red herrings across the two-part, three-hour miniseries. It’s old school lavish and they certainly don’t make them like this anymore, which only adds to the charm of the whole murderous affair. However, the murders weren’t the most chilling moments for me (as it stands, they take place off-screen anyway). The really disturbing stuff is reserved for the pulsating face transformation scene of Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante) as he transmogrifies from Dr. Jeckyll to Mr Hyde during a stage version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. It’s a contorted, hugely unsettling image that lingers long in the mind and is still, 32 years later, the stuff of nightmares.
The music, by John Cameron, is sumptuous and grandiose one minute, creepy and full of eerie synth when it comes to anything Ripper-related. All in all, it is a rollicking yarn that is both fondly remembered and still stands as the best of a plethora of Jack the Ripper adaptations. Four fake endings were shot to keep the press, cast and crew guessing and, although the story plays fast-and-loose with numerous depictions of real people, it is still a slice of fantastic drama and the perfect viewing for any budding Ripperologist – even if the conclusion may ultimately disappoint.
Whether you believe the version of the Jack the Ripper story we’re presented with, there is no denying this is a fantastic event television that – much like the cast – still holds our attention and fascination over 30 years later.