Jack the Ripper : The Definitive Story

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British television documentary (2 x 45 minutes), originally broadcast on Channel Five (UK) on 11th and 20th January 2011. Produced and Directed by Jeff Leahy. Written by Paul Begg and John Bennett.

Promo video : http://vimeo.com/21671941

The following review of the documentary, written by Andrew Firth appeared in issue 6 of Casebook Examiner:

Documentaries about Jack the Ripper are curious things. Usually promising the viewer some wonderful revelation as to the killers identity, or maybe promising to reveal some previously unseen evidence, they are the TV equivalent of the tabloid press. They use sensationalism to attract audiences, and in turn generate advertising revenue for the broadcasting companies. The story of Jack the Ripper, his crimes, and the subsequent police investigation, has often been skewed one way or another in order to fit a particular suspect theory, often leaving viewers who are new to the case under false impressions of the true established facts behind what actually happened back in 1888.

With this in mind, Jeff Leahy, Paul Begg and John Bennett have spent several years producing a documentary that sets out to tell the story of Jack the Ripper, as accurately as possible, and without descending into the wild speculation normally associated with suspect based programmes.

I had high expectations for this programme, with its use of computer generated reconstructions of the murder sites, and its linear storytelling approach. I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Covering the whole story of the Whitechapel murders from 1888 to 1891, but concentrating in particular on the crimes attributed to Jack, the programme used a good combination of live action and computer graphics. Worthy of mention was Paul Begg, widely known as a leading Ripper author, who I felt really excelled himself as the documentary’s narrator.

Some of the live action scenes were filmed in Chatham Dockyard, using actors that as closely as possible resembled the original people in the story. This showed real dedication on the part of the programme makers to bring the characters we’ve all read about so many times to life on the screen. One scene worthy of mention in particular showed Mary Ann Nichols writing the letter to her Father, so familiar from its inclusion in numerous books on the case. However, I felt this gained additional poignancy simply through it being read out by an actress. Little touches like this, which highlighted the lives of the unfortunate victims, helped to give a much more balanced and “human” story than would otherwise have been the case.

One of the main draws of the programme were Jake Luukanen’s amazing CGI recreations of the murder sites. The scenes of Mitre Square and Millers Court took my breath away when I saw them. Today Mitre Square is quite open and spacious, but through Jake’s reconstruction we were shown just how small and claustrophobic it all looked when surrounded by warehouses and lit only by three dim gas lamps. The 360 degree camera pan, showing PC Watkins shining his lamp over the rain slicked setts of the square was particularly memorable. Similarly, the Millers Court reconstruction really came into its own when the “camera” suddenly rose up from outside the door to Mary Kelly’s room to show a kind of aerial view over the roof of numbers 25 and 26 Dorset Street. An impressive view that really brought home how close Mary’s room, scene of her horrible and depraved murder was to the hustle and bustle of the street outside. Other recreations, such as Buck’s Row and Berner Street were shown with overlaid maps, computer markings and crosshairs included, in order to illustrate the work involved in getting the dimensions just right, in order to accurately bring 1888 east end London to our screens.

A few suspects were covered in the very last part of the documentary, although these were restricted to those investigated by the police at the time of the murders, rather than any of the more modern theories but aside from that, the programme concentrated on the story itself.

I did feel that the programme suffered a little at the hands of Channel Five, as apparently there were certain parts of the story that had to be edited out at the behest of the broadcaster in order to fit the two 45 minute broadcast slots. An extended version is to be shown on the History channel in the near future, with a full length two and a half hour version to be released on DVD later this year. This will include the scenes that were edited out of the televised version and will also include DVD extras and a “making of” feature on a second disc.

Since the programme was broadcast, it has been the subject of a great deal of debate on the Casebook Jack the Ripper and jtrforums message boards. Some have been critical of the less suspect based approach, whilst others have questioned factual errors in the narrative, or perceived visual inaccuracies in the reconstructions, such as the level of visible light in Mitre Square. With such a multi-faceted subject as that of the Whitechapel murders, it’s inevitable that the occasional error will have crept in whilst making such an intricate production as this. These are, I feel, minor points which are to be addressed in time for the History channel and DVD versions.

Whilst the documentary will not satisfy any seasoned Ripperologist wanting to see their own personal “likely suspect” featured prominently, it will please those looking for a good quality, well made reconstruction of the Jack the Ripper story. This is the kind of programme that is likely to attract new people to study the subject of the Whitechapel murders, which as Jeff Leahy has stated recently, was one of the main reasons for making it. After years of watching half-hearted documentaries filled with inaccurate portrayals of the victims and the streets of the east end, at last we have a documentary for those who appreciate a well made and well presented accurate telling of the story of Jack the Ripper.

Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5 / 5