JACK THE RIPPER (1988)
A review by Damian Michael Barcroft
TUESDAY, 18TH OCTOBER 1988 was one hell of a long day for me. I must have been only thirteen at the time but I can vividly recall sitting at school, maths in particular, and staring out of the window dreaming of the televisual treat ahead of me that evening. Having vigorously studied copies of both the Radio Times and the TV Times the previous week, (remember the days when you actually had to buy both publications for the BBC1 & 2, ITV and Channel 4 listings?), always on the lookout for horror movies, particularly those from Universal Studios and Hammer, I noticed something called Jack the Ripper. Although I knew little about him, I had heard of him before and that name was as familiar to me as Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and all of those other classic monsters. What I didn’t know was that he had actually existed and after reading more about him, I was thrilled at the prospect of discovering his identity. Fractions, percentages, not even the pretty girl with whom I shared a desk – who, despite various fantasies to the contrary, I never did end up marrying – could distract me from the foggy and gas-lit streets of Whitechapel. Who was Jack the Ripper, why did he viciously murder all those women and why was he never brought to justice?
So well crafted and exciting, the mini-series had such a profound effect on me that twenty three years later, and like many other Ripperologists, I am still asking myself those same questions. However, for many years and because of this production, I believed that the Ripper mystery had been solved and that the murderer was Sir William Gull. Only after reading several books, and watching other films and documentaries on the subject, did I realise that there were other arguably more credible suspects and that I had been somewhat naive or worse, even cheated into thinking that the case had been solved once and for all. Watching the film again for the purposes of this review, it still retains its power over me and the child within still wants to believe. For me, the production remains a classic of the genre and I consider it to be perhaps the best of all the Ripper dramatic productions made for either television or the cinema. There is just one problem, as an adult, I’m afraid I don’t believe a word of it and as great a television producer and writer that David Wickes obviously is, I suspect he has been pulling my leg all along.
Film and television is, first and foremost, made for the purposes of entertainment. There, I’ve said it and although there will be plenty of pretentious artists and critics who might argue otherwise, most audiences watch in order to be entertained. If, as the BBC frequently likes to boast, we can be educated at the same time, then so much the better but the focus of the producers and the television executives, particularly within the area of drama is to entertain. I don’t even have a problem with this but what I do take issue with is entertaining the audience in the guise of “docudrama” with its inherit implications and going to great lengths to claim that it is both a true and authentic account of historical events. Let’s be very clear about this, this particular production was sold to audiences in this country and over in America as being a true account of who the writers and researchers believed Jack the Ripper to be based on their exclusive research. Am I wrong to doubt their sincerity? – let us look at the evidence…
David Wickes employed the services of Sue Davies to research the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and she claims to have spent four years reading over forty books and studying Home Office files in order to achieve this. Intriguingly, and adding to the mystique of conspiracy, she also claims that the contents of these files were different every time she visited which aroused her suspicion greatly as certain documents would be missing that she had already inspected previously. Like many great conspiracy theories from those surrounding JFK to 9/11, Wickes believes that it was the government of the period (Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives in this particular case) that ordered the removal of the files to prevent further anti-monarchy sentiments that were prevalent at the time. His reasoning for this was that you don’t embargo on the files for 100 years if it was just some immigrant from Poland for example. Therefore, this confirmed Wickes’ suspicion that the Ripper was linked to the Royal Family or at least “politically very explosive” as he describes it in his conversation with Jonathan Sothcott for the DVD commentary. However, Denis Meikle writes in his book, Jack the Ripper: The Murders and the Movies that ‘despite a slew of advance publicity to the effect that new information from hitherto unreleased Home Office files had come to light in the meanwhile, the only information which had come to light had [already] been incorporated into Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution‘. Furthermore, he continues somewhat scornfully:
‘What was surprising about Jack the Ripper was how little Wickes and his co-writer Derek Marlowe added to the ideas advanced in 1973 [Wickes was responsible for a BBC production made in that year], instead, they subtracted from them to smooth the path of melodrama, for melodramatic Jack the Ripper most certainly was. Gone were the shenanigans involving the Freemasons; gone was the royal connection (except for Eddy’s nomination as one of the many red-herring suspects); gone was so much as a whisper of a government cover-up. The prime suspect remained the same, and the mechanics of murder were plundered, uncredited, from the work of the now-dead Knight’.
Also in the DVD commentary, Wickes does mention that he had been in contact with Stephen Knight way back on the BBC version but this is as far as the acknowledgement goes. During the same period, Wickes states that he got to know Joseph Gorman Sickert who believed that the Ripper murders were carried out by Sir William Gull in order to protect the scandalous secret of Prince Albert Victor’s illegal marriage. One detail that emerged from this particular experience was that there must have been a second person involved in the Ripper killings because of the distance between the double murders sites and the idea of a coach driver became prominent in Wickes’ mind although Sue Davies claims John Charles Netley as her own discovery. Regardless, the Sickert hypothesis was not only highly controversial, but has since been examined and rejected by most serious students of the Ripper killings.
Nevertheless, like the Dr Thomas E. A. Stowell theory entitled Jack the Ripper – A Solution? (appearing in the November 1970 issue of The Criminologist), the idea that the Duke of Clarence was actually Jack the Ripper, Sickert’s argument has captured the public’s imagination and remained an enduring conspiracy theory particularly with those sections of society who like to think their government is constantly plotting against them. Incidentally as Coville and Lucanio point out: ‘Sickert’s explanation, whether by accident or design, was providentially timed to take advantage of the spreading public cynicism on both sides of the Atlantic that began taking hold in the 1960’s as political scandals and dissent brought into question the legitimacy of governmental authority’. Furthermore, and I find it interesting that both books share similar yet slightly conflicting interpretations of the film, as Meikle notes:
‘At the time of Jack the Ripper‘s production, Thatcherism was at its height; the Conservative Party was nearing the end of a second successive term in government and looking forward with certainty to a third, Britain was enjoying the fruits of a boom economy, and the “yuppie” was alive and well and sipping champagne at the wheel of a Porsche in the City of London. The bubble had not yet burst… If Sherlock Holmes had envinced socialist tendencies in Murder by Decree, the protagonist of Jack the Ripper, on the other hand, were true blue literally and politically. The Metropolitan Police are Custer’s 7th, standing firm in the face of a Sioux nation determined to run them down. The Vigilance (Vigilante in the film) Committee’s George Lusk is depicted as a Marxist agitator, while the news reporter with whom he curries favour to ferment unrest gives voice to the megalomaniac philosophies which so often are attributed to the press as a whole by the instinctively censorious in public life: “The power of the press is the threat of the press – even for royalty”, he declares. In order to maintain this charade, Gull’s Ripper is stripped of any conspiratorial connections and assigned the unrealistic role of lunatic at large. But the film’s heroic portrayal of the police force went further than the fisticuffs engaged in by Godley and Abberline to quell dissent and save the country from social revolt (as the real police had saved the government of the day from the wrath of the miner’s only a few years before). It stretched to redressing the bad press which historians had bestowed on Charles Warren, as well. Alone in Ripper cinema, Jack the Ripper depicts Warren as a tragic hero, holding the fort in the face of tribal unrest, like Gordon at Khartoum: “Warren out? They’re shouting my name”, he cries uncomprehendingly, as George Lusk’s rentamob of anarchists try to batter down the doors of Scotland Yard.’
To help to illustrate the argument that Wickes was rather selective and misleading in his presentation of the facts, the TV Times ran with an article that boasted ‘Michael Caine is going to help reveal the identity of Jack the Ripper when he stars as Inspector Abberline’ and ‘Caine, who says he doesn’t know how the series ends but has been told the true-life identity of Jack the Ripper will be revealed’. Additionally, ‘So who was Jack the Ripper? All will be revealed next week’. It is quite clear that Wickes and various publicity materials from the time were claiming this as the definitive answer to the then 100-year-old mystery. In America, where they had received so much financial backing and the other essential half of the audience, the Chicago Tribune claimed that this ‘mini-series puts the Jack the Ripper mystery to rest’ and ‘Now in a four-hour mini-series, Jack the Ripper will be unmasked at last’. You could hardly blame anyone, least of all a thirteen-year-old boy for believing that the case was finally closed. Indeed, as Coville and Lucanio state:
‘The quarrel with Wickes’ approach to Jack the Ripper is not the degree or nature of dramatic license employed by the film-maker; every creative individual, from Sophocles through Shakespeare to Oliver Stone, has shunned historical accuracy when that accuracy fails to conform to dramatic effect. The quarrel is with the public presumption of a film’s historical credibility which is often manufactured by the artist through the means of the modern docudrama. Dramatic effect is no longer dramatic effect but historical accuracy, films that were once just films – presentations, not representations, of history – now masquerade as historical documents. Audiences are either willing to accept, or are unable or ill-prepared to challenge, the ideas that are conveyed as fact or truth through such films. As a result, history gives way to propaganda in a manner it never has before’.
Maybe I shouldn’t feel so naive after all and in retrospect, one can easily perceive the way in which Wickes is clearly manipulating his audience with such a quality cast and high production values that serve to enhance the impression of the film’s historical legitimacy. This is particularly the case when he concludes his film with the same device used to open it; purportedly drawing strength, like the prologue, in its pretence of being objective:
‘Again, Wickes gives the impression that the film has been a scholarly inquiry, but of particular and amusing note are the extensive credits which run at the film’s completion that summarily abrogate any impression of scholarship. Recognition is extended in virtually all directions… Nowhere in that long list is acknowledgement given by name to any of the “leading criminologists” or “Scotland Yard officials” who were assured in the prologue had been consulted. Such lack of attribution may be of little consequence in ordinary film making, but it is dubious omission for any work that presents itself as a serious piece of historical research.’ (Coville and Lucanio)
It is interesting to note acclaimed Ripper expert Donald Rumbelow’s reaction to the film commenting at a 1995 Arts and Entertainment Network biography of Jack the Ripper: ‘I’ve been astonished at the number of people, for instance, [who] look at the Michael Caine film and say “Oh, the mystery is solved”. It’s not. The whole thing, 99% of it, is fiction. But for a lot of people that’s the solution to the case; so, therefore, if they do come across evidence, if they do come across documentation they’re not going to put it forward because they think the mystery has been solved. It hasn’t and that’s one of the things we need to sort of get over. We are still looking for the identity of Jack the Ripper’. Another commentator, Christopher Hudson writing for the Daily Mail in May 1997 observed: ‘Some years ago I was invited to write the screenplay of a film about Jack the Ripper based on precisely such [aforementioned] “exclusive” Home Office files, which were said to confirm that Queen Victoria’s personal physician, Sir William Gull, was the Ripper. As I inspected the photostats of these files – and what a miserably small, uninformative collection they turned out to be – it became plain that Sir William was no more likely to be Jack the Ripper than was Queen Victoria herself’.
However, as much as I admire and largely agree with the arguments put forth by both Denis Meikle in his book Jack the Ripper: The Murders and the Movies and Gary Coville and Patrick Lucanio in theirs, Jack the Ripper: His Life and Crimes in Popular Entertainment, I do not wish for them to eclipse the monumental achievement of David Wickes, Euston Films/Thames Television and the entire cast and crew. Even at the very beginning of the film, from its audience grabbing and authoritative sounding voice-over to the majestic music score by John Cameron and the evocative cinematography by Alan Hume, the production exudes class and distinction.
The film has several memorable scenes and set-pieces but I find the Jekyll and Hyde transformation scenes in the theatre particularly effective and suitably horrific providing yet another, but completely (dramatically at least) justified, red-herring. Furthermore, Mansfield’s description of his style of acting in which he must participate rather than observe is rather apt considering the pioneering work of the Russian actor and theorist Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1939). Consider for example, the practitioner’s psychological realism which explores character and action both from the “inside out” and the “outside in”, affective or emotional memory and the actors ability to recall personal memories or situations similar to their characters and you have a perfectly credible explanation as to why an actor would go to such great and extreme lengths to research their role. Indeed, as someone who has studied acting and later taught drama, I can attest to the devotion or perhaps obsession with getting “under the skin” of their subjects. Furthermore, by incorporating Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), screenwriters Derek Marlowe and David Wickes have tapped into an inspired, albeit fictional source of motive which echoed the frenzied speculations of the popular press in 1888, but as Denis Meikle argues, it is a significant and deliberate departure from the facts for the purposes of entertainment:
‘Abberline’s presence [at the Lyceum Theatre] is dictated by the medium’s insistence that he look for a killer with “two faces”; in the circumstances, Mansfield seems the obvious candidate. This sequence is the most striking and original aspect of Jack the Ripper, but it also encapsulates all that was both right and wrong about the production as a whole. When Mansfield is subsequently questioned by Abberline on the methods that he employs to achieve such a startling effect on stage, he responds with the expected Stanislavskian explanation about borrowing from life, which in the case of Hyde involves a corpulent eunuch at a brothel which he frequents in his off-duty hours. Mansfield’s television audience had not been treated to a spectacle of pure stagecraft, however (as were his stage ones in 1888), but to the cunning deceptions of the make-up department, with bladder effects and facial prosthetics applied between shots. Embellishing the facts to achieve a more desirable effect was a philosophy that was applied with equal diligence to the rest of the film… Jack the Ripper has a surface veneer of truth and authenticity. It appears to have gone to tremendous lengths to recreate the scene of the crimes (and in the case of the crime-scenes themselves, it succeeds) but, underneath, all is trickery and sleight-of-hand: everything about the film is as historically overblown and distorted as the fake Richard Mansfield’s latex face-mask.’
Of course while the hypothesis that Mansfield the actor might have conceivably suffered from such a similar schizophrenic personality, leading to the Ripper’s murderous crime spree, is a dramatically (albeit melodramatically) entertaining notion, there is little evidence to suggest he was either a valid suspect or had even ever met any of the victims. However, the fact remains that Mansfield was indeed appearing at the Lyceum in the dual role of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during the time of the Ripper murders and this red herring is perfectly in keeping with Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story in terms of its themes and issues.
I was also greatly impressed with the evocative production design which obviously benefited from the multi-million-dollar signing of Michael Caine and the generous backing of the American network CBS, providing the audience with arguably the most credible and authentic sets of any Jack the Ripper production thus far. Over sixty sets were used, all of which are suitably atmospheric but carefully balanced so as to avoid the gothic cliché so often exploited in films of this genre. Actual location footage included a disused asylum in Virginia Water, Surrey, and Greenwich Naval College which interestingly was also used in the aforementioned Jack the Ripper vs. Sherlock Holmes film, Murder by Decree (1979).
The cast and quality of their performances are mostly excellent. Michael Caine as Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline holds the film together with his gravitas and sheer star power, while Lewis Collins as Sergeant George Godley delivers a solid performance as his sidekick. They both display an obvious affection for each other and their on-screen chemistry frequently evokes that shared by Holmes and Watson with plenty of welcome humour that acts as a brief respite from the horrific elements. A particular highlight is Godley attempting to take notes while Abberline asks for Gull’s analysis of madness and schizophrenia.
It was also refreshing to see the remaining canonical victims (the murder of Mary Nichols had already taken place before the start of the film) played with empathy and respect by Deirdre Costello (Annie Chapman), Angela Crow (Elizabeth Stride), Susan George (Catherine Eddowes) and Lysette Anthony (Mary Kelly) as oppose to the usual stereotypical Cockney tart characterizations that litter productions such as these.
This is not to say that the production is without its problems, most notably the obligatory romance for the lead character which is both superfluous and conventional in the extreme. However, this is a small price to pay and at least Jane Seymour’s character (artist Emma Prentiss) is actually historically correct although there is no evidence to connect her to Abberline, particularly a romantic link. Other issues that grate slightly include Caine, and as powerful as his performance is, he is never far removed from the persona we are accustomed to: ‘Caine is at one with the others in the cast in bawling hysterically at every opportunity, epitomising all those comedic caricatures of himself as he does so and constantly recalling the moment in The Italian Job (1969) when he blurts out, “You were only meant to blow the bloody doors off!”‘ (Meikle). Indeed, only fourteen minutes into the film and at regular intervals afterwards – justifiably or otherwise – he is screaming and shouting in that seething and spitting manner of his. Additionally, in one of the few performances by the supporting actors that fails to entirely convince, Michael Gothard as the rioter George Lusk becomes a little too over the top and clichéd, shouting “Murderer! – Hang him! far too often whenever the opportunity presents itself. One could argue that these scenes, and indeed his performance in them, are meant to reflect the panic and hysteria of the time but equally, repetition of this nature does become a little tiresome after awhile.
Undoubtedly one of the most entertaining aspects of the production is the whodunit element which successfully keeps us guessing until the grand finale in which Jack the Ripper/Gull is thrown out of the cab by Abberline. Indeed, towards the end of the climax virtually every male cast member is put under suspicion but the most impressive list of suspects include: the celebrated American actor, Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), anarchist and President/chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, George Lusk (Michael Gothard), alleged royal psychic Robert James Lees (Ken Bones), two doctors; royal physician Sir William Gull (Ray McAnally) and his son-in-law Theodore Dyke Acland (Richard Morant), the delusional freelance cabbie, John Charles Netley (George Sweeney), and to the horror of the police and government officials, Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward – Duke of Clarence (Marc Culwick).
In conclusion, I suspect that this production was something of a political platform for Wickes’ own beliefs and opinions using the character of Abberline “I hate politicians” as a mouthpiece for his own interpretation of events and his almost blinkered assessment of the wealth of contrasting theories surrounding Jack the Ripper. Indeed, during the DVD commentary, there are numerous signs of a certain resentment or lack of respect towards enthusiasts of the subject or those with conflicting opinions as to the identity of the Ripper including calling us ‘Ripper freaks’, stating that ‘most Ripperologists don’t know a dam thing’ and labelling a significant amount of related literature as ‘sub-journalism [that] was not the sort of scholarship that we were into and Sue, who is educated and intelligent wouldn’t accept that kind of standard’and so most Ripper books were rejected as a load of rubbish! He goes on to eliminate the Duke of Clarence and James Maybrick as suspects, labels the Freemasons as ‘another romantic theory’ (although he accepts it could have been a Freemason but not the Freemasons), shows disdain for Patricia Cornwell calling her book and theory ‘laughable’.
However, these issues aside, and despite what Coville and Lucanio call a ‘hodgepodge of conspiratorial theories and an overindulgence of dubious historical characterizations’, the production remains more than just a beautifully crafted film to commemorate the Ripper’s centenary, but also an enduring one which even manages to resonate and parallel recent events including the disgraceful London riots and newspaper scandals – the sensationalist and exploitative reporter for The Star, Benjamin Bates (Jonathan Moore). Regardless, and as interesting as some of the arguments put forward here might be, none of this really matters in terms of the intrigue and enormous entertainment to be found in Wickes’ film that manages to please both the curious child and adult within us all.
Paul Begg, Martin Fido & Keith Skinner The Complete Jack the Ripper A to Z (John Blake, 2010)
Kenneth R. Clark, Mini-series puts Jack the Ripper mystery to rest (Chicago Tribune: TV Week, 16-22 October 1988)
Gary Coville & Patrick Lucanio, Jack the Ripper: His Life and Crimes in Popular Entertainment (McFarland, 1999)
Christopher Hudson, Daily Mail (May 1997)
Stewart Knowles, Another Ripping yarn from Caine (TV Times, 15-21 October 1988)
Denis Meikle, Jack the Ripper: The Murders and the Movies (Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2002)
and the DVD commentary by David Wickes and Sue Davies moderated by Jonathan Sothcott
This article was originally published in The Whitechapel Society Journal: London Conference Special Edition (August 2011). For subscription details and back issues, please see http://www.whitechapelsociety.com/