Horror in the dark heart of London
James Evans ventures into darkest London for the 'pulpy, luridly compelling' ITV television series, Whitechapel...
When we talk about the best British horror television, it seems there is rarely a mention of Whitechapel, which ran on ITV for four series between 2009 and 2013. Perhaps that is because Whitechapel is presented at first glance as another cop show, if ever so slightly more acquainted with the grimmer side of that genre. And so, dear reader, it’s time to set that right and celebrate this glorious, pulpy, luridly compelling and yet emotionally involving show. Be warned, said celebration is mildly spoilerific.
Created and almost exclusively written by the couple Ben Court and Caroline Ip, Whitechapel starts by taking us into the heart of darkness that is a copycat killer seeking to reenact the murders of Jack the Ripper, bringing a new reign of terror to the capital. Subsequent series explore the secret sons of the Kray twins following their fathers’ worst examples, and tales inspired by H.H. Holmes, the Marquis de Sade, London After Midnight, witch hunts, a killer who flays the faces from their victims and a deranged cult seeking to bring about the apocalypse. Then there’s the ongoing arc that bubbles away in the background about Whitechapel very possibly being a gate to hell. Add to that the mysterious Louise Iver, played beautifully by Angela Pleasence. Iver may be a sweet, if somewhat rude, old lady, but she also may be something even older and significantly more evil and dangerous.
One of the things that makes Whitechapel so enjoyable is the cast and characters. As the first series begins, Rupert Penry-Jones plays DI Joseph Chandler. Joseph is the son of a well-respected and long-dead police officer. The largely untested Chandler has been put on the fast track to promotion by his father’s friend Commander Anderson and is given his first big assignment when a woman is found murdered in Whitechapel. He arrives to lead the team charged with investigating it, a team in practice being led by the old school copper DS Ray Miles, played by Phil Davis. Soon, and much to Miles’ displeasure, Chandler has enlisted the involvement of noted Ripperologist Edward Buchan, played by Steve Pemberton. Buchan suggests to Chandler that the murders that are afflicting Whitechapel are the work of someone trying to recreate Jack’s crimes in precise detail.
So begins this unlikely and at times often uncomfortable trio’s journey into a hidden and deadly part of London. Whitechapel is a darkly violent series and doesn’t shy away from presenting the killings and the impact they have on those investigating and the community itself. So far, so lurid. And yet, through its minor characters and particularly Buchan’s character arc, it balances this out by paying attention to the victims and the human cost of events. From a writing perspective, Court and Ip are skilled at including the briefest of character moments that allow peeks into their lives beyond what is presented onscreen. Whitechapel takes place in a version of London that has barely restrained violence seeping through its cracks at every turn. The characters provide a counterbalance to this that allows the show to walk a tightrope between pulp, horror-soaked crime and retaining its humanity.
The three nominal leads do some of their best work yet in this series. Penry-Jones’ Chandler initially threatens to be the cliched ‘untested’ but arrogant cop-in-charge but Court and Ip subtly subvert that early on and expand on it throughout, all the way to the series’ conclusion. Chandler is the very image of well-presented modern policing: meticulous, smart and indefatigably moral. But he’s also riven by self-doubt and neurosis. There’s some shorthand here in the way that is done, particularly with Chandler’s fixation on physical order, but it is thought out, sympathetic and never played for laughs or at the expense of actual depth. Penry-Jones is excellent throughout, ensuring Joseph is a fully rounded character. Davis matches him as Miles, and although the two must initially play out the combative new vs old school methodology cliche, again Court and Ip subvert this. The relationship that develops between Chandler and Miles is the core of the series but it is never allowed to get stale or comfortable. These two men find something in each other, but it’s not as brothers or a father/son surrogate but instead something less tangible but yet deeper and more satisfying.
Pemberton has the flashier role, as the show begins. Buchan is a Ripperologist who runs walking tours of the area where Jack did his ‘work’. He has a deep knowledge of the criminal history of Whitechapel and considers himself an investigator. But Buchan is out of his depth and as the first series progresses is forced to confront his relationship with the crimes and how exploitation and the distance of time have allowed him to disconnect from the real-life weight of grief. His desire to be clever and invaluable to the investigation has personal consequences that follow him for the rest of the series. Pemberton does some excellent work exploring Buchan’s moral and professional collapse and subsequent rebuilding. The rest of the cast, which shifts slightly before settling into a unit for the final two series, provide Chandler, Miles and Buchan with a solid, likeable team.
Another admirable aspect of Whitechapel is Court and Ip avoiding the modern malaise of the workplace ‘family’, that cliche ignoring as it often does that families bicker, sometimes viscously so, and that peace is sometimes uneasy, just as it is here with the detectives who make up the squad. It’s a mark of a good cast that every time a regular appears (like Claire Rushbrook’s Dr Llewellyn) it’s not just to further the plot, we also want to learn the little extra bits shared about their characters. The various guest performers that fill the series are excellent too, from Craig Parkinson’s Kray twins via Peter Serafinowicz’s very bad apple cop, Lydia Leonard’s doomed Morgan Lamb and, in an incredible extended cameo, Barbara Marten’s Adelina Grace.
Other crime dramas have an affection for horror and pulp influences that are clear in their approach, most notably Luther (BBC, 2010-). But although such shows and films with flirt with these influences they are first and foremost thrillers, grounded in reality no matter how stylised. Whitechapel is a procedural drama, there’s no doubt of that. But it is equally pure horror and once it reaches the third series, goes full-tilt into first classic film and slasher influences and then a run of witches, urban legend (killer pigs in the sewers anyone) and apocalyptic terror. The series loves its milieu and for those who appreciate horror, there’s a lot to enjoy in picking out these influences and the tributes and homages that fill the episodes and load it with atmosphere. There is some bravura, tension-packed set pieces throughout, and the show is agreeably unafraid of the absurd and the overblown when it is needed, delighting in red herrings and left-turn plot twists.
Amidst all of this, Whitechapel never forgets its characters or its humanity. The episode featuring Adelina Grace is a remarkable balancing act of advancing plot, unnerving the audience and at the same time pausing to explore melancholy and grief in a way many other dramas couldn’t touch. This is a series that sets out to thrill, disturb and entertain and does it well. And so, with a full-blooded recommendation, we claim Whitechapel as one of British television’s finest, most enjoyable horror series.
All four series of Whitechapel are available to stream now on BritBox.
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