Back in 2009 I caught wind of a TV series called Whitechapel, which was billed as a horror series, where a serial killer would be recreating Jack the Ripper’s crimes in modern London. I’m not actually huge on the horror genre, but am open to it once in awhile. The Ripper storyline pulled me in though; I’ve been intrigued by it since the Michael Caine mini series back in 1988 which really stuck with me.
I recognised one of the three leads – Steve Pemberton – right away, having done stints in numerous shows from the UK, including The League of Gentlemen and even Doctor Who. The other two leads, Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis, I also clocked right away as actors I like. Penry-Jones had made dozens of episodes of Spooks, for example. Davis had been in everything, including Doctor Who, too.
This first season of Whitechapel was sublime. Still is. I re-watched it only recently. It’s just three episodes long, but what those three episodes pack in is extraordinary. You get to know the three leads really well. You get to know the wider detective team well, too. The crimes are well done – including one that ‘the Ripper’ pulls off with hundreds of people in the vicinity where you are lulled into the same sense of comfort that the characters in the story have; that they have covered the area well… that there’s a ton of media present… how could a murder happen? And yet it does. Fantastic writing.
The second season is almost as entertaining as the first, but unlike the first is full of holes which really don’t stand up to scrutiny. This time around, another three episodes tell the story of a modern day pair of twins, causing a ripple in Whitechapel’s ganglands as they are – allegedly – born from the frozen sperm of one of the dreaded Kray twins, Ronnie. These twins are equally as violent and trying really hard to live up to the name. Like I say, these episodes are entertaining, but it really does feel like a colour by numbers re-tread of the first season in places, except with a plot that’s way, way, way more far-fetched than a serial killer who idolises Jack the Ripper which was at least somewhat believable.
I have no evidence of this, but it’s almost like the writers realised they’d tried to make lightning strike twice and it hadn’t quite worked. As a result, the third and fourth seasons have twice as many episodes – six in each – but actually tell three separate stories a season and, vitally, these aren’t stories intrinsically linked to the area like the Ripper or the Krays were. I think both of these seasons work really well. The murders are macabre, and often a bit far-fetched, but never in quite the same way as the Krays season was far-fetched. That remains the low point of the series for me.
Looking back on the series from 2021, it still feels quite fresh. This could run on TV for the first time next week and I wouldn’t blink an eyelid. It hasn’t really dated, to my eyes. It’s still absolutely worth picking up on used DVDs (it’s long out of print, at least here in Australia), if you aren’t squeamish and enjoy some scares and thrills. Never in a slasher-film-of-the-week kind of way, but as part of a serious drama with really well-defined characters who you can’t help but really like basically from the outset, from the volunteer Police researcher, to the grizzed Detective Sergeant who grew up locally and has a few skeletons in his closet to boot, through to the Detective Inspector who has to gain and maintain the respect of his team, while the whole time struggling with OCD and issues around cleanliness. Not always the easiest when investigating grizzly murders or running around sewers under London.