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Yarn: History and Fiction in David Wickes’ Jack The Ripper
Expanded version of paper delivered at Alien Nation conference at Northumbria University, 20 July 2011
(An even further expanded version can be found at: ‘David Wickes’ Jack the Ripper and Telefantasy EXPANDED VERSION)
While countless Ripperologists have sought the true identity of ‘Jack the Ripper’, the killer of prostitutes in the East End of London in 1888, the Whitechapel Murderer’s very facelessness is crucial to the way in which he has been seized upon and represented in film and television productions. In their introduction to the edited volume Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History (2007), Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis argue that this facelessness left a blank space which could only be filled by the imagination. The case of the Whitechapel Murderer therefore blurs the boundaries between the known and the unknown, and between reality and fiction. Fiction is a product of the imagination, the filling in of a blank space. So, while the Whitechapel Murderer is a historical figure (we know that he really existed and perpetrated the murders of some prostitutes), he is also a nebulous figure, who continually evaded detection and who, especially today, cannot be pinned down. There thus exists epistemological uncertainty.
Adding to the wealth of ‘Jack the Ripper’ novels, comics, films, and television productions, which provide numerous explanations as to the killer’s identity (see Coville and Lucanio 1999), David Wickes’ centennial 1988 mini-series of Jack The Ripper fits into Derek Paget’s (1998) classification of docudrama. It begins and ends with a narrative voice reading out each of the snippets of text reproduced at the top of this paper as they scroll up the television screen. The narrative voice makes clear that the production has been based on extensive research, that it is a dramatisation of events, and that the conclusions reached are believed by the producers to be true. This voice over is a feature of docudramas, outlined by Paget, along with documentary footage, which in the case of this production is obviously not possible (1998: 63-75). Yet Jack The Ripper can also be classified as a ‘Victorian Gothic’ which unsettles the East End. There has been debate over which prostitutes are ‘Ripper victims’ but this paper will concern the issue that in the process of presenting a hypothesis as to the killer’s identity, the production takes dramatic license with scenes and takes the viewer into the realm of telefantasy, specifically gothic fantasy. This paper will show how this space of fantasy is related to David Wickes’ authorial signature and to the drama’s production context, including its visual nature.
Wickes’ career is interesting since he started off as a documentarist and then went on to become a dramatist. In the commentary on the Jack The Ripper Special Edition DVD, Wickes reveals that he had, for a long time, been in the care of Lloyd Shirley, Head of Documentaries at ABC (later to become Thames Television), and that Shirley allowed him to make the transition to drama where he made series like Public Eye (1965-75), Special Branch (1969-74), and The Sweeney (1974-78). Wickes worked for Euston Films, a subsidiary company of Thames Television, established in 1971, devoted to producing drama, while there were other companies for other genres like children’s animation. Furthermore, in 1973, Wickes made a series of 6 50 minute episodes called Jack The Ripper for the BBC which featured Superintendants Barlow and Watt from Z Cars (1962-78) and Softly, Softly (1966-69). In this production, Sir William Gull was the murderer, as part of a conspiracy by the Freemasons to cover up Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor’s marriage to the lower-class woman Annie Crook. Concerning the 1988 mini-series Jack The Ripper, while it is quite clear from the commentary that Sue Davies spent 4 years (from 1983) researching the Whitechapel Murders, Wickes talks about having taken ‘dramatic license’ with certain events, stating ‘We need to have a drama here, not only a history book’, and ‘We are in the business, not doing a sombre virtuous documentary that no-one wants to watch. We must have accuracy historically, otherwise we’re not credible. But on the other hand, things like a few red-herrings I think are quite permissible’. This dramatic license extends to the gothic being used to hypothesise about the killer’s identity. It is Wickes’ background as both a documentarist and dramatist that we shall see in the 1988 Jack The Ripper which blurs history and fiction and features gothic fantasy.
Wickes talks about how he pitched the idea for the 1988 mini-series on Jack the Ripper to Shirley, who had become Head of Drama, and was given the go-ahead to make a 3 hour special by David Elstein, Controller at Thames Television. Originally starring Barry Foster as Inspector Frederick Abberline, this production was far more scaled-down than the one which eventually made the screen. It had a Ľ of the budget and was mostly shot on cheaper video-tape, with what location material there was to be filmed on 16mm film. Elsewhere, Wickes comments:
In the DVD documentary, Wickes reveals that CBS were enthusiastic about the idea but when they were asked who was in it and Barry Foster’s name was mentioned as the lead, they responded ‘WHO?’. CBS agreed that if Thames Television put up some money, they would put up the rest. Filming on the original version was immediately halted in October 1987 by David Elstein, Lloyd Shirley, and Wickes, and many of the actors were replaced. It was a real coup to get A-list star Michael Caine to replace Barry Foster as Abberline, since it was widely felt that Caine, living in the States at the time, ‘did not do television’. Performers who were ‘accredited ratings pullers’ were added to the list, including Armand Assante as Richard Mansfield and Jane Seymour (who was tempted by the fact that as large a star as Caine was involved). The eventual budget for the mini-series was about 11 million with slightly more than half the money coming from the United States and the rest from Thames, with the mini-series fitting within Euston Films remit to produce filmed high-quality drama to be shown nationally on the ITV network (see Alvarado and Stewart 1985 for further reading on Euston Films). Euston Films attracted Verity Lambert and also made a name of people like Lynda La Plante (see Williams). It is also key since, as John Williams notes, Euston had from the early 1980s been ‘eager to break into the lucrative US market’ with ‘a more specific focus on the production of export-friendly’ glossy-looking ‘serials and mini-series’. In Britain 23 ˝ million viewers tuned in and it was the highest-rated mini-series in the States. All this indicates how this was big-scale drama, rather than a simple documentary. It is also interesting that Lorimar approached Wickes with the idea of doing Jekyll and Hyde since this gothic fantasy element would still be contained in Jack The Ripper.
While Wickes takes ‘dramatic license’ to flesh out characterization (by, for example, making Inspector Abberline an alcoholic, and giving him a past relationship with Emma Prentiss), and to provide a sense of the strife in the East End of 1888 (by, for instance, depicting a confrontation between Abberline and George Lusk, Head of the Vigilance Committee), it is this gothic fantasy element that I am concerned with here. Wickes’ Jack The Ripper fits into the ‘whodunnit’ detective genre with everyone including the Queen’s grandson Prince Albert Victor placed under suspicion. As such it must fill in the ‘blank space’ of the killer’s identity, and it dramatises throughout the murderer’s elusiveness, with unseen terror being one characteristic of the gothic.
The case of ‘Jack the Ripper’ unsettled London’s East End, which was so key to gothic fictions. Most of the murdered victims were found on the streets, yet what is believed to be the final murder took place in lodgings, showing that nowhere was secure. Such was the savagery of the murders, that in the day there was a desire by people to pin the crimes on the ‘other’, for example on foreigners who were literally not of this home, and Jews. It was unthinkable that one of ‘us’ could have perpetrated such crimes. However, there was also the fear that ‘Jack the Ripper’ was indeed ‘one of us’, who appeared completely normal one minute, yet turned into a savage the next, as suggested by his careful arrangement of one of the victim’s things. It is this avenue that Wickes’ production takes in unmasking the murderer, and the gothic, falling under the rubric of ‘telefantasy’, was key to expressing the notion of ‘self’ and something strangely ‘other’.
In Wickes’ production, the police attempt to gain solid evidence, using methods such as seeing who is present at an inquest; deducing whether the killer is right or left handed by studying the mutilations; and by looking at handwriting. The method of gaining evidence used by the police is counterpoised by the visions offered by clairvoyant Robert James Lees, which again raises the notions of sight (albeit inner sight) and knowledge. Lees is a real-life historical figure who offered the police assistance in their search for the Whitechapel Murderer but whose help was rejected. At the time, spiritualism was rife and Lees was recruited to help Queen Victoria talk to her husband Albert on the other side. Clairvoyants are also sometimes employed today to assist with police investigations. However, to say that the police in the mini-series are a little sceptical of Lees would be an understatement. Although Lees draws a comparison between himself and (the alcoholic) Abberline as being misunderstood and consequently mocked by others, Abberline himself at times resorts to such mockery. The highly fictionalised nature of Lees’ visions in the mini-series move the viewer into the increasing realm of gothic fantasy. Lees’ vision (and there is a repeated focus on his eyes in close-up) is of a man with two faces which leads to the theatre play of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, playing at the time. In Stevenson’s novel, Dr. Jekyll, seeking to separate the good and evil sides of his being, drinks a potion to periodically transform himself into Hyde but after a time turns into Hyde involuntarily. While the mini-series acknowledges that Stevenson’s text is fiction and that the notion that one can change from saint to beast by drinking a potion is pure nonsense, the text is allegorical of the battle between the good and evil in one person. The connection between the murderer and Stevenson’s text was picked up on by newspapers of the day (see O’Day 2008), and the idea of the possible dual nature of the murderer’s mind, who would turn out to be Sir William Gull, is prepared for early on in Wickes’ production by this gothic fantasy.
For a repeated characteristic of gothic storytelling is that characters have dual natures. In the gothic, characters can project either elements from which they wish to be free, or their repressed natures, onto their doubles in a symbolic way. Therefore, the gothic expresses the opposition of self and other within one person as opposed to between different figures. This use of the gothic has been raised by literary critics, like Ralph Tymms (1949), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979), Fred Botting (1996) and Helen Hanson (2000), and television critics, like Lenora Ledwon (1993) and Helen Wheatley (2006).
In this way, the mini-series can also be read in light of Sigmund Freud’s concept of ‘the uncanny’ where something can be familiar yet uncomfortably strange at the same time. Indeed, Freud brought Otto Rank’s discussion of the double into his piece on ‘the uncanny’ with the double exemplifying both the familiar and the strange. Indeed, the late nineteenth century was a time of advances in the understanding of psychiatry and of the idea of dementia praecox, a term popularized in the 1890s referring to psychotic disorders (although used in this mini-series).
Although he must follow any possible lead, and he consults Sir William Gull, an expert on madness, Inspector Abberline’s suspect list is to a degree more literal: as was the case in real life, butchers (who made a living with a knife) and medical Doctors (who would have known how to carefully dissect a female body), like the local police surgeon, Dr Llewellyn, and Dr. Acland, Sir William Gull’s son-in-law, are placed under suspicion. The theme of sight is again raised in relation to the actor Richard Mansfield starring as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mansfield is again a historical figure who did star in the title role of Stevenson’s novel at the time of the Ripper murders, so convincingly that one theatre-goer wrote to the police that he must be the killer (see Morley 2005), but here his role is embellished. Abberline orders Mansfield to take him to a Whitechapel brothel, both to establish upon whom he based his performance of Mr. Hyde, and also to ascertain whether Mansfield himself has an alibi for the night of the murder. It turns out that Mansfield based the grotesque face of Hyde on Rodman, a brothel keeper. Yet, as Rodman is revealed to be ‘stone blind’, he cannot verify Mansfield’s alibi. This is left to one of the prostitutes upstairs: Annette. Lees himself also becomes a suspect.
Inspector Abberline eventually arrives at the conclusion that two people are involved in committing the murders – a killer and a coach driver. In the production, he deduces that the murderer needed a place to cut up the bodies and also on the night of the supposed double-murder had to get from one location to the other with speed and therefore needed a coach. Whether intended or not, there is a very interesting connection between Lees, on his first appearance, describing the meaning of his vision through gesture, and coach man John Netley’s gestures upon his first appearance much later. Lees describes the two-faced person as being like two windmills, or significantly like two wheels of a coach, overlapping side by side yet apart. When Netley tells Sergeant Godley that had he been born to higher status he could have been a surgeon since he has the hands for it, he starts to move his hands, one over the other, in a similar way to that earlier seen with Lees, which is significant since this movement has been associated with a vision of the murderer and of a coach’s wheels. Abberline is here revealed to be right that there are two people involved, and the repeated gesture is important since one of them is a coach driver. The point that Netley is also referring to being a surgeon is important since the murderer, Sir William Gull, is a Doctor.
However, Lees’ visions are also upheld by the narrative. These include his vision of a girl with long yellow hair who is going to die (a red herring) and of a knight in armour (with Mary Jane Kelly’s blood here being splattered over a reproduction of the knight Lancelot, located by her bed). There are cuts between the invented character of Millie waiting for a coach outside the pub on her first night out on the streets, interspersed with scenes of Mary Jane Kelly arriving at her lodgings. The sing-along from inside the pub is played over a shot of the murderer descending from the coach. However, as it transpires, Millie returns inside the pub and a shrouded figure arrives at Mary Jane Kelly’s lodgings and slaughters her. Most importantly in the search for the murderer’s identity, Lees’ vision that the police look for a man who is symbolically two-faced, akin in some ways to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is supported by the narrative climax. A completely invented situation is engineered where Abberline gets coach driver John Netley to bring ‘Jack the Ripper’ out in order to earn a Queen’s Pardon and uses the French prostitute Annette to trap the killer. As Wickes points out in the DVD commentary, leading up to this, in the classic ‘whodunnit’ mode, we see many of the suspects leaving their locations, as someone gets into the coach driven by Netley. Here, Jack the Ripper, Sir William Gull is not one of the suspects depicted leaving. As noted in the DVD commentary, in real life Gull pulled out a human heart at a dinner party and stewed and ate it, and was quite mad. Here his mutilation of the five prostitutes is explained as having been part of an experiment that he is conducting on himself to understand his multi-faceted, and half insane, mind. So while Mansfield is an actor who ‘played’ the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde, Gull is a respected member of the medical profession, yet is also here the truly mad ‘Jack the Ripper’. In gothic style, the concealed murderer is at last revealed.
This paper has thus far examined how gothic fantasy functions thematically in Wickes’ production. However, gothic fantasy can also be seen as fitting in with the final more slick visual nature of the mini-series. As I noted earlier, the production began by being filmed on video and therefore looked cheaper but was re-started as a joint-production venture with lots of money poured into it, and shot on film. Although I would argue that the mini-series does not follow gothic conventions such as depicting the foggy streets of the East End (as the murders took place on clear nights) and is nowhere near as visually disturbing as an 18 certificate film like Albert Hughes’ 2001 From Hell (where there are shots of a blade flashing over the dark screen and where the killer Sir William Gull holds up, and examines, Mary Jane Kelly’s heart before roasting it), there are startling visual moments associated with the gothic such as Richard Mansfield’s Dr. Jekyll transforming into the visually grotesque Mr. Hyde in front of a horrified theatre audience and us; and Robert James Lees’ visions of the killer as a grotesque monster. Catherine Johnson has argued against notions that television, as a small domestic object, is unsuitable to displays of visual spectacle, using instances of telefantasy series as examples, and Wickes’ Jack the Ripper also backs up her argument. Additionally, Wheatley (2006) has examined two trends of gothic television: the restrained atmosphere-led ghost story and the gothic horror which visualised the supernatural and grotesque ‘showing off’ the possibilities of television as a visual and dramatic medium. Jack The Ripper is positioned in both categories. Furthermore, sound is important in contributing to the atmosphere of horror in Wickes’ production such as when the prostitutes are dragged away by the Ripper.
conclude, if we are to think about a space being carved out for
telefantasy, the very unsolved nature of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case
leaves a blank space for different types of storytelling, for different
types of narrative to take place set in the East End of London in 1888.
While some productions of the Ripper case explain the murderer’s motives
as relating to a royal conspiracy, Wickes’ docudrama posits that the
killer was a madman and introduces gothic fantasy to symbolise this. As
we have seen, a space for this telefantasy has also been carved out by
authorship and institutions. For example, Wickes’ career saw a move from
pure documentary to drama, and both are blended in this docudrama. It is
very telling that following Jack The Ripper, Wickes produced
Jekyll and Hyde (1990) as another co-venture, again starring Michael
Caine in the leading role. This indicates a continued interest in gothic
fantasy, as does Wickes’ 1992 production of Frankenstein.
Telefantasy in Jack The Ripper also fits in with the final
polished look of the production.
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Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.
This page was first published to the internet Friday 5th August 2011. Amended version posted Sunday 14th August 2011.