What is the attraction of ‘Ripper Street’?

Remember that no one ever stood trial for those brutal serial killings

Official trailer of series 4 of Ripper Street, the BBC 2 series set in Whitechapel in the East End of London in 1889, six months after the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. Courtesy: BBC


Ripper Street is back. And it seems that viewers can’t get enough of its murk. After all there is nothing like the brutal, bloody murder of a woman to get bums on seats.

Ask Helen Mirren.

Two years ago Mirren got a Bafta for her impressive body of work. The grand dame used the opportunity to say that she was fatigued by the number of female corpses showing up on a small screen near you.

“Most of those bodies are young women,” she said.

Mirren is right. It appears that there is nothing like a pair of young, murdered breasts on a corpse about to be further mutilated by a kindly lady pathologist, such as Silent Witness’s Nikki Alexander, to get the juices flowing.

Murdered women are a televisual hit.

How we loved The Fall, with its hot Irish serial killer, Paul Spector, played taughtly by Jamie Dornan.

We couldn’t get enough of the BBC2 drama, which also starred Gillian Anderson in tight blouses. As rapist and serial killer Spector preyed on a string of young women, viewers kept tuning in to see how it would all end. Badly – as we suspected. And it seems we still want more. The Fall is returning.

Now they give us series four of Ripper Street.

The show has history with Dublin, which has been used in filming. Now that should ensure civic pride. There is nothing like providing the back streets of choice for carnage.

Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Edmund Reid, a real detective at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, has said that in Dublin “the barracks were like a big playground, big enough to recreate a huge area of Whitechapel, and we filmed in Dublin Castle and Kilmainham Gaol, all as if it was the East End of London”. A big murderous playground. Super.

Don’t get us wrong, we have watched all three series too, as the H-division boys (professional men) are ably assisted and resisted by a brothel madam and a prostitute (professional woman). And don’t get us wrong, lots of gents also come to sticky, violent ends in the East End, but that is not why you peeped from behind the sofa, is it?

Jack the Ripper killed at least five women during his reign of terror in Whitechapel in 1888. Mary Ann Nichols was murdered on August 31st. Annie Chapman was killed on September 8th. Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were murdered on September 30th and Mary Jane Kelly was killed on November 9th. There may have been more victims.

The murderer, who acquired the chillingly notorious moniker of Jack the Ripper, has never been identified.

The murderers of women, particularly of women working in the sex industry, have accrued the epithet “Ripper”. It is a macabre name for a person who has committed terrible crimes, but in the 1980s the great British media saw fit to anoint the Yorkshire Ripper thus as he continued his reign of terror, killing 13 women and attempting to murder seven others in the north of England.

And yet the “Ripper” brand continues to be traded upon.

Last year, a museum opened in Cable Street in London which promised to pay respectful historical homage to the murdered women.

“All lived in the East End and walked the same streets that visitors to the Jack the Ripper Museum stroll through today. The Jack the Ripper Museum is as much about the victims, as it is about the crimes and the suspects.”

Not everyone agreed.

Historian Fern Riddell, who visited the museum said: “I’d have hoped that, more than a century after the events, we might now be in a place to take a more nuanced look at such crimes and not fall back on shock tactics. Frankly, it left me feeling sick to my stomach.”

But those of us drawn by tempting tourist attractions and tantalising television dramas have form. Unimpressive form.

Having been hooked in by Appropriate Adult, a drama focusing on the crimes of Fred and Rosemary West, and a number of crime shows that specialise in showing lifeless female flesh on mortuary slabs, it is probably not surprising that we are champing at the bit for a show with such a parasitic title.

We will watch Ripper Street – again (for this is series four) – and it will no doubt deliver good, old-fashioned entertainment, but before you make the detectives of Ripper Street your new heroes, remember that the investigators at the time drew a complete blank on the Ripper murders.

No one ever stood trial for those brutal serial killings. No one. It was almost as if the lives of women who sold what they had in order to survive in the murky back streets of London didn’t count.

Ripper Street is back on BBC2, Monday at 9pm

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