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A (G)ripping Yarn:
Telefantasy in David Wickes’ Jack The Ripper
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 dramatization 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.
In the strange case of Jack The Ripper, there was no trial and no signed confession.
In 1888, neither fingerprinting nor bloodtyping was in use and no conclusive forensic, documentary or eye-witness testimony was available. Thus, positive proof of The Ripper’s identity is not available.
We have come to our conclusions after careful study and painstaking deduction. Other researchers, criminologists and writers may take a different view.
We believe our conclusions to be true.
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. A third person narrative voice also sets the scene for the drama. 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’ and this mini-series follows the view that there were five with the historical dates of events appearing on screen. However, 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, even though there is a historical precedent for this. 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, and tells a gripping narrative.
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 London in 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.
‘Jack the Ripper’ is specifically a British case. The case unsettled London’s East End, with the unsettling being 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. Furthermore, a distinction was drawn between the ‘civilised’ West and the East End. However, there was also the fear that ‘Jack the Ripper’ was indeed ‘one of us’, even someone from the civilised West, 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), as well as in theatre productions, so there is a historical precedent for the direction the mini-series takes. Yet, as in the day, the mini-series is taking a fantasy text in order to hypothesise about who the Whitechapel Murderer was in a gripping manner, with the idea of the possible dual nature of the murderer’s mind, who would turn out to be Sir William Gull, prepared for early on in Wickes’ production.
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 (other characters) 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).
The mini-series’ ‘othering’ of ‘Jack the Ripper’ also manifests itself through the way in which, as in real life, the murderer is depicted as a cannibal following receipt of the parcel purportedly containing victim Catherine Eddowes’ kidney and the letter where the writer notes that he fried and ate the other part which was very nice. While in the mini-series journalist Ben Bates relishes reading this out, and while The Star newspaper has words ‘Cannibal Ripper’ on its signs, the sight of the organ causes disgust in the police. It was felt that no ordinary human being would eat the parts of another and therefore the theme of ‘self’ and something strangely ‘other’ is also present here.
Although he must follow any possible lead and he consults Sir William Gull, the expert on madness, Inspector Abberline’s suspect list is, to a large degree, 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 is also treated as a suspect by Abberline.
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. 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, which David Wickes recently at the 2001 Whitechapel Society conference confirmed was deliberate. 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. Whatever Wickes’ motivation, this 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, interrupting her singing, and slaughters her. Lees’ vision is so accurate of what will happen that he is suspected more strongly by Abberline.
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, a seemingly respectable gentleman, is also here the truly mad ‘Jack the Ripper’. In gothic style, the concealed murderer is at last revealed.
The gripping use of the gothic ties in with the rest of the mini-series showing how a fiction of the murderer’s identity is told. I wrote earlier of the desire of people in the day to ‘other’ ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the way in which the gothic communicated the notion of ‘self’ and something strangely ‘other’ within one person through the character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is a further ‘othering’ of Sir William Gull in the mini-series which prepares for the denouement. ‘Othering’ is a theme which runs throughout. Much earlier, both Abberline (an alcoholic) and Lees (a clairvoyant) are ‘othered’ when Lees says to Abberline that people try and destroy what they cannot understand. But these are relatively harmless types of ‘othering’ compared with that which is to come. Later when Abberline sees Gull, Gull states that half the members of the medical profession would sneer at the mention of his name because of his psychiatric theories just as churchmen would sneer at the mention of Charles Darwin. A connection is made between Gull and Darwin as we are told that they were both Fellows of the Royal Society. The gothic could display an ambivalence to the feudal past yet also to the New Age of Science. However, in this fiction, Gull’s ‘othering’ as ‘Jack the Ripper’, where he is a dual being like the gothic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, makes him far more destructive and operating outside of normal society. He is the lone gothic villain trying to advance science except for the point that John Netley drives him by coach to the murder victims.
Following through the idea of ‘othering’ also highlights how Lees and Gull become structurally opposed and again how Lees’ visions are shown to be valid. Right from the start, in the case of Lees, there is a play on the idea of ‘madness’, of the ‘other’. Lees’ visions mark him to some people as mad, but when Sergeant Godley asks Abberline whether he thinks Lees is ‘mad’, Abberline responds that he hopes not since Lees has just given him a description of the killer, of this symbolically two-faced person. In this production, Lees indeed is not mad since he has had a vision of this mad murderer. So here Lees sees gothic madness quite clearly as opposed to being himself mad.
In the mini-series Gull is shown to be ‘othered’ in a number of other ways fitting in with the gripping gothic. In the period, there was an ‘othering’ of the East End by the more civilized West. Although there was more of a culture of prostitution (see DVD Special Edition Commentary), prostitutes were ‘othered’ as bestial, and contrasts are drawn in the mini-series between the East End prostitutes who men like Richard Mansfield would pick up and the necessity of a higher-class woman like Emma Prentiss preserving her ‘honour’ in front of others. At the start of the mini-series, it is remarked that it is surprising that there has not been a murder in the East End every night, and George Lusk’s calls for action suggest that the police do not care about these unfortunate women. In the case of this production, when he is trapped by Abberline, it becomes clear that Gull sees the prostitutes he has murdered as ‘just whores’, as the ‘other’. In this respect, Gull is taking to extremes a disdain for prostitutes that can also be seen in the character of journalist Ben Bates who, when at one point approached by Mary Jane Kelly, states ‘You’re a whore too, aren’t you’. Yet by savagely murdering these prostitutes Gull is himself ‘othered’ from the respectable norm and becomes the gothic outcast. Gull sees these prostitutes’ work as base and his own work in trying to understand madness by killing them as serving a higher purpose.
In the mini-series, there is a contrast between different types of surgeon. In his hunt for the killer, Abberline looks for a surgeon who dissects bodies, which strikes a nerve with the local police surgeon Dr. Llewellyn who remarks that surgeons save lives, rather than destroy them, and that there is no medical purpose in the mutilations. However, this is a very literal reading of the role of the surgeon, and, in fact, in this fiction there is a medical purpose in the murders, but on the part of Sir William Gull who endeavours to understand the insane Mr. Hyde quality of the mind, using himself as a guinea pig. Indeed, there are lab creatures in Sir William’s hospital room preparing us for this.
Dr. Llewellyn’s comment returns us to the idea that there was a desire to pin the crimes on the ‘other’ and assert that the murderer was not ‘one of us’. In the mini-series, Dr. Llewellyn not only seems to be defending himself but also surgeons as a group when he states that ‘No member of my profession would make incisions such as that’. This notion is also present when Sir William Gull tells Abberline that Dr. Acland’s sense of professional pride has been injured by all the talk in the press that the murderer may be a Doctor. Like Llewllyn, Acland observes that anyone, not necessarily a Doctor, could have obtained alcohol in which to store Catherine Eddowes’ kidney, but in an even angrier tone. Acland states that any butcher would have known where to find the organs and how to cut them out. So rather than acting as part of a main group, Sir William Gull’s murderous actions single him out and ‘other’ him where in a gripping gothic way there is a play on ‘self’ and something ‘other’, ‘alien’ and ‘threatening’ as in Stevenson’s novel.
This paper has thus far examined how gothic fantasy functions thematically in Wickes’ production to engage the viewer. 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 as well as having a respectable Victorian gentleman’s hat. 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 Ripperalso 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.
To 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 in a gripping way. As we have seen, a space for this telefantasy has also been carved out by authorship and institutions. 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 Ripperalso 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 6th April 2012