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Do you want the killer, or will anybody do?

Television

Jack the Ripper
(1988)

 

Euston Films’ production marking the hundredth anniversary of the Jack the Ripper murders was a prestige piece. It brought Michael Caine to the small screen (and a Golden Globe, two years after his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters and a year after narrowly missing a Best Supporting Actor Razzie win for Jaws: The Revenge) and garnered huge ratings. Its liberal helping of suspects and royal intrigue ensured it was a must see, and I well recall being gripped over the course of its three-hour span, desperate to find out who the Ripper really was. With hindsight, it doesn’t quite bear out that glowing endorsement, alas. The essentials of the tale still muster interest, of course, and Michael Caine is very watchable, giving vent to some full-on Caine shouting But, perhaps as a consequence of its co-production status, Jack the Ripper too often resembles an over-spruce and over-played American vision of Victoriana.

Indeed, at certain points I was put in mind Caine’s own Disney Muppets Christmas Carol of a few years later, and the leading by the nose narration reminded me of Bill Murray staging a dreadful version of Dickens’ story in Scrooged. It would be easy to put this lack of rigour at the door of a glossy, ratings-conscious ITV network, but this is a far cry from the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes that had been running to great success around the same time (although the latter came from Granada, while Thames co-financed Jack the Ripper).

Production company Euston Films was best known for Dennis Waterman (or rather, John Thaw and George Cole) hit series The Sweeney and Minder, but had also produced the original choice for Abberline, Barry Foster, in Van Der Valk and the very good Reilly Ace of Spies with Sam Neill, so they weren’t just making knockabout contemporary London fare. Writer Derek Marlowe had previously penned two episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, although co-writer and director David Wickes (the “nicest, fastest director I’ve worked for” noted Sir Michael, obligingly) had directed all sorts including Public EyeThe Sweeney, and The Professionals; notably lacking on the period drama front, though, which might explain why Jack the Ripper never looks less than incredibly set-dressed.

And over-lit, when it’s not bulging with London fog (street scenes, and street walker scenes, here could easily be intercut with Joe Dante’s “Was Jack the Ripper in fact the Loch Ness Monster?” from Bullshit or Not? in Amazon Women on the Moon). Cinematographer Alan Hume was by no means inexperienced, though, having worked on a host of films and TV including The AvengersLegend of Hell HouseThe Land That Time ForgotOctopussy and Return of the Jedi; presumably he was just giving his director what he wanted.

The production started out as a significantly less sumptuous affair, with the aforementioned Barry “Frenzy” Foster (curiously, his replacement Caine had turned down the chance to star in that picture, which he found distasteful, leading to Hitchcock never speaking to him again; this was before he made The Hand, or Dressed to Kill) in the lead; CBS and Thames Television came into co-finance, wanted a big name to lead, and suddenly the cast became bigger, more colourful and more like an American mini-series; US TV darling Jane Seymour (as Abberline’s love interest!), Lewis Collins, Armand Assante, all took roles, while others merely filtered over from the original version (halted mid-shoot). John Cameron’s intrusive and distracting score similarly smacks of the overblown grandiosity of US TV doing British period piece.

Intrusive and distracting can often be levelled at the cast too. Big fan as I am of Michael Caine, he’s not exactly doing anything intricate here that would justify his $1m fee. In fact, his decision to adopt the familiar Caine snarling fury at regular intervals seems to galvanise his co-stars to similarly over-emote (Captain Zep II in particular falls prey to this in a final confrontation scene). His Abberline is introduced as an alcoholic nursing a hangover in the cells, passed over for promotion thanks to class barriers (very Caine, that) but once the game’s afoot nothing’s stopping him and his dogged Watson (Collins’ Sergeant George Godley).

The possible suspects aren’t so much teased out as thrown into the proceedings with wild abandon, inspected up and down, deliberated on, then re-deliberated on. While three hours might seem slim to address the case with any diligence (From Hell floundered trying to condense Moore’s comic book), Jack the Ripper is victim to constant repetition and over indulgence of its potential offenders.

Who include Prince Albert Victor (Marc Culwick), Marxist vigilante George Lusk (Michael Gothard), American stage star Richard Mansfield (Assante) and, stepping up the royal connection again, psychic to the queen Robert James Lees (Ken Bones).

Also, a brace of doctors, Dr Henry Llewellyn (Michael Hughes) and Dr Theodore Dyke Acland (Richard Morant, the second Captain Zep – Space Detective). But not, in a sign of the script’s lack of finesse, his father-in-law and eventually revealed culprit, Sir William Gull. The introductory voiceover (courtesy of Michael Jayston, and later also Patrick Allen) announces that “our own story is based on extensive research” but in conclusion “Other researchers, criminologists and writers may take a different view. We believe our conclusions to be true”. Well, believe them to be good TV, at any rate.

Which they might be, if Wickes had ensured the proceedings rattled along at a fair enough clip. While the fascination with Mansfield and Lees is initially intriguing, it quickly becomes laborious. Bones has the kind of face that would be right at home in ’30s Universal horrors, and his Lees is more theatrical than actual actor Mansfield, but raking and re-raking over his and Mansfield’s potential involvement is tiresome.

Armand sports a nice bald wig at one point, but his stage transformations into Mr Hyde transformation (if it seems clear what inspired the Wickes and Caine’s follow up Jekyll and Hyde collaboration, apparently Wickes was offered Hyde during the planning stages of Jack) entirely lack verisimilitude, with cuts to obvious prosthetics as the audience gasps in horror (it’s the kind of thing, like Now You See Me, that undermines the entire conceit, since it should be about engineering feasible deception rather than obviously cheating). Generally, the tenuous suspicion here feels more about making room for a big American name than any remotely credible involvement in the crime (likewise, his soapy connection with Jane Seymour’s artist Emma Prentice).

Eventually it serves to undermine Abberline’s nous that he keeps coming back to this fellow, the same with the petrified Lees (portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the decade-earlier Sherlock Holmes solves the Ripper case, Murder By Decree), whose red herring status appears to be entirely Wickes’ doing; while Lees did offer Scotland Yard his assistance, his visionary involvement is based on a discredited 1895 piece in The Chicago Herald, one that appears to have lain the seeds for many of the later conspiracy theories, as it identified a doctor who treated the royal family as the perpetrator, revealed after Lees led the police to his door. His visions are superimposed flourishes of a highly lurid nature, all garbled faces and spinning wheels, hearkening back to ’30s Hollywood gothic horror. Notably, Lees is at once marked as a faker and also allowed to be accurate in his second sight.

But these are more melodramatic characters, so their beefed-up involvement is understandable, to an extent. Unfortunately, it means the script slacks off on really attacking the main subject in any depth. George Lusk, over-played by Gothard, becomes a continual annoyance, parading his band of justice seekers around like something out of a school play (his character is very different to the peaceable actual person). Still, even he’s less grating than Jonathan Moore’s clichéd over cocky newshound Bates, who seems to have been been watching old B-movies for notes.

Less time is spent on police surgeon Llewellyn, despite his botching of the initial autopsy, and we are told wasn’t the royals after all; Prince Albert wasn’t in the country at the time (so that’s a relief!) Elsewhere, Lysette Anthony (Mary Kelly) and Susan George (Catherine Eddowes) deliver the traditional period routine of happy cockney hookers. There are some strong performances here, though. Jon Laurimore (Count Frederico in Doctor Who’s The Masque of Mandragora) is a marvellous bane to Abberline’s efforts as naysaying Inspector Spratling.

Hugh Fraser delivers a fine nervy performance as the beleaguered Commissioner of Police Sir Charles Warren and the likes of Harry Andrews, T. P. McKenna and David Swift are also solid. And while George Sweeney (Speed in Citizen Smith) is very broad as accomplice Nettley (almost everyone here is playing very broad), it does at least fit the character’s sense of self-inflation.

The standout is easily Ray McAnnally’s Gull, though. Even though his character is, as mentioned, overly couched as the innocent and respectable theoretician, McAnnally essays him so scrupolously that the flaws in the writing coalesce into a believable character; Gull’s likeable, sympathetic, and since we only see him maddened once, it’s easier not to be filled with the rage over his actions that consumes Caine’s Abberline.

Establishing the perp as Sir William Gull runs with the Royal Family link of prior conspiracy theories, but doesn’t address the masonic side. Perhaps because it had been dealt with so completely, in the 1976 film Murder by Decree, which substituted Gull for fictional royal doctor Sir Thomas Spivey? This gained modern cachet in the 1960s, propagated by Thomas EA Stowell claiming Prince Albert was implicated.

It was then addressed in the 1973 Jack the Ripper BBC serial (two episodes of which were directed by Wickes, so he had Jolly Jack brewing for a decade and a half) in which Softly, Softly’s detectives considered the possibility that Gull had acted as the Ripper, assisted by John Nettley, in order to murder prostitutes with knowledge of the illegitimate offspring of Prince Albert Victor. Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, published in 1976 follows a similar trajectory. Later, Alan Moore’s From Hell would also finger Gull as the culprit. With regard to the masonic links, the Freemason’s United Grand Lodge of England has claimed Gull was not a mason. But then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

As set out here then, the conclusion of the case is less engaging than Murder by Decree’s grand masonic plot. Gull, a victim of dementia following a stroke, has been establishing himself as a self-study for multiple personality. It’s a rather facile explanation that seems to come from the Robert Bloch school of pop-psychology. So the establishment cover-up is really rather innocent, for the good of the people, and the royal connection is quelled; it turns out that it isn’t nearly such a wicked web from the crimson ground up. Quite who knew what about Gull when to order the “fastest inquest I’ve ever known”, the blood washed away from crime scenes and Abberline being told (straight off the bat) “I can’t win” is unclear, though.

The real Frederic Abberline believed the ripper was George Chapman (he’s not in the list of suspects here), a Polish serial killer, although Chapman was a poisoner rather than a mutilator, so not nearly so unsavoury. Walter Sickert doesn’t feature in this telling either, although The Final Solution suggests he was an accomplice in the murders; Patricia Cornwell later broke into a gallop with this theory. Wickes filmed four additional alternate reveals to keep the secret intact (Lusk, Spratling, Arnold, and Sir Charles Warren), probably to no avail for anyone remotely familiar with the popular theories of the last two decades since it would have been clear exactly where this was heading (or anyone familiar with the principal that wherever the finger is conspicuously not pointing is a probable doer).

I’m sure Ripperologists roundly scoff the theory Wickes embraces, but it’s easy to see why it has become the most popular fictional one, the trappings of royalty and conspiracy providing a fertile ground for intrigue, deception and cover-up. Even if it was intended to avoid repetition of other fare, though, missing out the masonic connection rather deflates the potential twists and turns of the tale. Consequently, this often feels more like a standard issue Agatha Christie mystery than one of integral rigour or depth. While it bears repeating that it went down incredibly well with viewers (to the tune of 23.5 million), Jack the Ripper has not aged well. You’d be better off letting Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes solve the case.

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