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The BBC's controversial RIPPER STREET makes its US debut this Saturday, an eight-episode exploration of survival, obsession and trauma in the wake of the Ripper murders - and offering up a grim supposition about the uses of the very first movie cameras.
It is perhaps the world’s most notorious unsolved murder case: five prostitutes, slashed and disembowled in London’s rough East End all within the short time span of August to November 1888. The last of the Ripper’s victims, Mary Jane Kelly, was mutilated beyond recognition, leaving an abject mess of viscera that was captured by contemporary police photographs rivaling anything seen since. The gruesome nature of these crimes beguiled the public and the tabloids alike, and theories abound concerning the perpetrator’s still-undetermined identity, with over 100 possible suspects to date. That he shared a name with another much-feared Victorian-era bogeyman - Spring-heeled Jack – only compounded the terror. While not the first known serial killer, he was the first to receive such international notoriety.
But as quickly as he engulfed the neighborhood in terror, he seemed to disappear, some theorists speculating that he had gone abroad or was serving prison time for unrelated crimes. Still, as the Ripper faded from view and the headlines subsided, the ghost of his nocturnal proclivities lived on in Whitechapel, where citizens of the docks and rookeries struggled to get back to their daily grind - which was unpleasant enough to begin with due to overcrowding, poverty and rampant crime.
This Saturday, January 19th, BBC America begins its eight-episode run of an all-new foray into Ripper territory with RIPPER STREET, which debuted in the UK on December 30th as part of its longstanding seasonal tradition of terror tales for Christmastime. As with the real-life case, the Ripper murders here are a beacon of sorts, providing RIPPER STREET with a means of examining the multi-faceted nature of the violence endemic to the poverty-stricken communities of London’s East End. Set in Whitechapel six months after Jack the Ripper’s murder spree, the fight-clubs are back in action, the area’s 1000-odd prostitutes tentatively resume business as usual, and tour guides are already exploiting the local horrors. The series smartly avoids delving too deeply into the canonical five, whose fates have already been probed dozens of times in the visions of artists as varied as Jess Franco (JACK THE RIPPER, 1976), Bob Clark (MURDER BY DECREE, 1979) and the duo of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (FROM HELL). Instead, RIPPER STREET focuses on those left to live in the wake of those scarring events. In doing so, the series points out that the Ripper murders, for all their fame, were one aspect of an actively violent criminal underworld that plagued the area all through the 19th century – including the discovery of multiple dissected, headless and/or limbless bodies, some of which were initially suspected to have been Ripper victims but were dismissed from the canon for one reason or another.
A handful of the characters are loosely based on real-life counterparts; Matthew MacFadyen (as seen briefly in Edgar Wright’s “Don’t” trailer in GRINDHOUSE) stars as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid of Whitechapel’s H Division (whose partner in the Ripper case, Scotland Yard’s Frederick Abberline is a peripheral character here) while David Dawson (THE THICK OF IT) portrays shifty ink-slinger Fred Best of The Star, who in real life later confessed to penning the Ripper letters as a means of exploiting the potential for newspaper sales (a claim that has been disputed). Backing Reid are the hard-worn, knuckle-busting Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn of GAME OF THRONES), and sleazy ex-Pinkerton agent Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), who lives in a brothel with his ex, the Madam Long Susan (MyAnna Buring of KILL LIST, THE DESCENT and Wright’s aforementioned “Don’t” trailer). Together these characters provide the police procedural with a bit of the obligatory bickering and rollicking adventure, but the plotline of episode one is horror, through and through. When a body is discovered in a back alley with a slit throat, stars gouged into her eyelids and deliberate, teasing nicks on her face, the H division worries that Saucy Jack has returned. Reid and gang have to prove to Scotland Yard’s Abberline that this corpse is indeed parked in the right division, because hastily naming her a Ripper victim will create immediate public panic - as well as abuse to the police, who are held in contempt by the community for not catching the Ripper the first time around.
There are any number of directions the cadaver’s opaque clues could have taken our sleuths, but a rather inspired bit of writing sees them stumble upon a macabre underground in which the very first movie-cameras - those created by pioneering cinematographer Louis Le Prince that same 1888 autumn that saw the Ripper cutting a swath through Whitechapel (and predating Edison and the Lumieres) - provide the local working girls with grotesque and dangerous opportunities.The series’ premiere in Blighty was met with mixed reviews, derided most notably by those Sunday night costume-drama aficionados who found its particular brand of spectacle to be uncomfortably grim and misogynistic (DOWNTON ABBEY, this ain’t). “There is terrible violence meted out to men and children, too, but the focus of the viciousness is always on the knicker-dropping molls and the ‘tarts’,” complained Jan Moir in The Daily Mail. “Tarts get ripped, tarts get mutilated, tarts get their just desserts - and that don’t mean no custard topping, guv.” Without overstating RIPPER STREET’s incisive qualities, it’s fair to say that the decision to include photography and nascent motion picture sciences as pivotal plot points does itself address the ‘terrible spectacle’ that Moir takes issue with. While the show is host to numerous male-on-male beatings of equal if not greater detail, it is the image of the desecrated female body that always lingers, not least of all because these images are documented. In pictures, on film, and in perpetuity. The shadowy men of RIPPER STREET’s seedy bricolage hope to become rich off these images, or - as in the Ripper’s case - famous. Because they know what we all hate to admit: that a dead woman always carries more weight.
I’m also reminded that this week marks the anniversary of America’s most famous unsolved murder case - that of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, whose previously ignored beauty and impossible-to-ignore gruesome fate bewitched a nation beginning that morning of January 15, 1947. Like the Ripper victims, Short was mutilated and disfigured, her bisected body left in a residential neighbourhood where it would be easily spotted, that indelible image soon to be splashed across front pages, every bruise and incision memorized, fetishized, memorialized and immortalized. 19th century Whitechapel may seem worlds away from studio-era Hollywood, but all these women operated in a market of flesh bought and sold, where at the end of a good day none of them could afford to see a dentist; 70 years on, people are still obsessed with Elizabeth Short’s bad teeth. But this is the nature of spectacle – that paradoxical magnetism, that almost tender, ceremonial obsession with the unspeakable. RIPPER STREET doesn’t focus on who Jack the Ripper was, but uses him as a jumping-off point to examine what he meant. And just as the Ripper later came to be depicted as an aristocrat preying on the disadvantaged (think of that well-known image of the Ripper in top hat, cape and cane), RIPPER STREET’s first episode delves headfirst into the many facets of exploitation that we endure and/or enable in the service of short-term survival. In a landscape already inhospitable to self-supporting women, and in the wake of the Ripper murders, hundreds of prostitutes can only pray that “it’s safe now”.
Now, this isn’t all to say that RIPPER STREET is flawless in execution (its presentation is decidedly less seamy than its ideas), and it remains to be seen what the series has in store in upcoming episodes - but I think they’re off to a ripping start.
RIPPER STREET begins its eight-episode run at 8 p.m. January 19th on BBC America.
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