Whitechapel – An Unexpected Horror Series
The Ripper returns to Whitechapel, the London district in which the almost mythological serial killer eviscerated five women, possibly many more. A new straight-laced detective inspector joins his new team in time to catch the start of the investigation, struggling through the mistrust of his down-to-earth sergeant even as he tries to sell them on the notion of a new Jack the Ripper, as a noted “Ripperologist” and street-tour guide shares everything he knows.
The series ran on ITV between 2009 and 2013, four short seasons of one of the best procedural crime dramas I’ve ever seen, but not merely because of the subject matter. The show began with Jack the Ripper, moved on to London’s gangster family the Kray twins, and goes darker and darker as they introduce more stories into the later seasons. Tension, fear, and paranoia run through the show, and the viewer is hurled through an experience more akin to a horror film marathon rather than Law and Order or The Mentalist.
It’s another incredible series that has fallen foul of its network’s axe, and here are a few of the reasons why.
D.I Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) serves as our protagonist of sorts, a man offered a secure job via nepotism and knowing the right people, but he’s not unlikable for it. His awkwardness and crippling OCD make for a flawed and sympathetic character, especially as his sympathy for the overly enthusiastic and painfully geeky Ripper expert Ed Buchan (Steve Pemberton) leads to a firm friendship and long-term working relationship. D.S Ray Miles starts out as the street-wise “sarge” butting heads with the pretentious new boss, but as is so often the way with opposites in these things they ultimately come together, watching each other’s back while chasing down murderers and dealing with the harshness of day-to-day life.
The supporting cast offer a respectable range of depth, flaws and attributes for ancillary characters. The emotionally crippled womaniser Mansell, awkward and angry Kent with a serious case of hero-worship for the boss, and bawdy, maternal and staggeringly knowledgeable Riley form what one might loosely call the main cast. Other members of the incident room come and go, and the occasional famous face appears but is only the villain once.
And as for villains, the criminals are vicious, clever, even a little theatrical. As we go through the witch-hunter, the ghost, the bogeyman, the flayer, Whitechapel gets more chilling, haunted streets and almost supernatural crimes. Of course there’s always that Scooby-Doo moment where the veil is torn away, but a mystery or two still remains unanswered after the show’s cancellation.
Gone are the establishing shots of cities, investigation montages and dynamic stunts. Camera work is off-angle, rarely stationary, and features the close-ups and low angles on characters that are classics of horror. Lighting leaves gaping shadows, events mostly take place at night or in darkness. Use of religious imagery sets the stage for a classic good vs evil plot, combined with the murky greys of the noir setting and style makes for a world of clever thematic contrasts. There are few jump scares, some grisly imagery and body shocks, but that’s not where the terror really lies.
Above all I love the sound direction. As someone with a moderately broad range of hearing I pick up on the high squeals and low pulses worked into the music, but they’re mixed in with subtly woven sounds like the buzzing of flies, soft skittering, tearing flesh, whispers. Sound builds tension, only for it to cut suddenly, or trail off with a scream.
During the fourth season, the station is beset by something more sinister by far, phone-calls filled with whispers, echoing footsteps, black water, twitching lights, a growing mold that lays waste to Buchan’s precious archives. Paranoia, delusions and fear divide the team and build to a more unifying plot that – in truth – never fully resolves. Oh, we get an answer but it’s woefully incomplete, and a fifth season may very well have brought the show to a more satisfying conclusion, one that it richly deserved but now may never get, despite the enthusiasm of Penry-Jones and other members of the team.
Truth And Fiction
The uncommon mixture of horror and crime would be good enough, but like any good ghost story the crimes detailed in the series are based on real historical events. The new Ripper parrots the original with impressive accuracy, the new Kray Twins emulate their idol to the point of denying their own sexuality, and Buchan’s role as the archivist of criminal history draws reality into the fictional stories. Basing the horror so firmly in actual events gives the fear an honesty, a genuine possibility that makes it all the more horrifying, leaving the viewer in the firm knowledge that such monsters really do exist.
Plus there’s a whole world of murder and real crime to draw from! There’s no need for the preposterous and outlandish crimes that could only be created by writers who haven’t had time to work on the logic and the science when the cruelty of real people is far more imaginative. Centuries of people killing each other has given source material for a great deal more than eighteen episodes and eight stories.
And so we lose another excellent series to a network’s bad decision making. Aired on the wrong days, advertising space lost to ITV’s bigger properties, and ultimately killed off to lack of viewership. Yes I’m drawing a Firefly comparison but in this we have the reverse issue, we got too close to a satisfying end for Whitechapel to have just stopped. At least Penny Dreadful was given the common courtesy of a finale.
Take the opportunity to grab a DVD or buy the episodes (Amazon has series available for digital download) because Whitechapel is absolutely worth the watch, whether you like procedural cop dramas, you’re a horror nerd or a history buff, just prepare yourself for a rather abrupt and disappointing end.