03 February, 2009

What the Papers Say: "Whitechapel"


Gareth McLean, The Guardian

"More frenzied scratching of London's underbelly as a Jack the Ripper copycat killer wreaks havoc in the contemporary East End, much to the horror of yet another pair of mismatched coppers and a Ripperologist played with relish by Steve Pemberton. DI Chandler is well groomed, eats sushi and is played by Rupert Penry-Jones, while Phil Davis is DS Miles (grouchy, old school, teeth like tombstones). Thoroughly unimaginative but strangely compelling, this is one of those whodunnits where who done it is really all that's interesting."

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Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

"One night, two brutal murders in London. This poor lady on ITV has been strangled, then had her throat cut and her abdomen slashed open. A lot of her insides are now outside. She gurgles horribly as she lies dying in a school playground. Which could easily have you retching (the officer in charge does), or reaching for the remote control, in search of something less upsetting, on BBC2 perhaps. But, eurgggh: on BBC2 there's this poor chap in a suitcase. He's been packed, and very efficiently, too - with his head and limbs removed and stuffed in afterwards, to make better use of space. And here's another vomiting policeman. It's like a competition between the channels: who can out-grim the other?

The dead lady is the first victim of a Jack the Ripper copycat in Whitechapel (ITV1). This may be modern-day east London, but it's as gloomy as hell, moody and murky. I wouldn't be surprised if a right ol' pea-souper rolled in off the Thames. Trying to find light in the gloom is Rupert Penry-Jones, as the unlikely DI. A Range Rover-driving, fast-track toff with OCD who's always rubbing balm into his temples, Rupe does things by the book, literally. He has a copy of the Murder Investigation Manual on his desk, which he follows to the letter. It's not just Jack II he's up against; he's not getting much support from his team, a bunch of lazy layabouts who lack every- thing - self-discipline, self-respect, deodorant (which obviously is most upsetting to Rupert, a cleanliness fanatic). Institutional rubbishness.

You'd think that once they'd figured out that the killer was doing what Jack I did, on the same dates, in the same places, they'd be able to get him, or at least stop the killing. But no, another poor woman gets horribly ripped. And there are two more parts to come. I predict more bloodshed. And a bit more respect for RP-J, I hope.

At no point are we allowed to forget that this is a dark, urban thriller. The atmospheric strings, the metallic knife noises, the crime font in the titles - there's something of one of those Jack the Ripper tourist walks to it (these actually feature too: it's a Ripperologist, entertainingly played by Steve Pemberton of the League of Gentlemen, who makes the connection between the new killings and the old).

It's not subtle, or fantastically original, or very convincing. But it is well performed, London looks good, and it's quite jolly - thrilling even, if you can stomach it. At least I had some idea of what the hell was going on."

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Brian Viner, The Independent

"Hold the front, or in this case the inside-back page! Unforgiven, the ITV1 drama that finished last week, offered writing and acting out of the very top drawer, and Whitechapel, which started last night, looks to be out of the next drawer down. I hate to cram too many metaphors into one paragraph, but gripping ITV1 dramas are like London buses: you wait for ages, then two come along in rapid succession.

Whitechapel stars Rupert Penry-Jones, last seen legging it through the heather in a slightly clunky version of The 39 Steps, as Joseph Chandler, a high-flying detective inspector with the Metropolitan Police. Chandler's ascent through the ranks, however, owes more to his lofty social connections, and in particular the patronage of the commissioner (Alex Jennings), than any notable record of dirtying his hands with proper police work. On the contrary, DI Chandler hates getting his hands dirty. He is a cleanliness freak, whose neuroses are challenged when he is dispatched to take charge of an investigation into a grisly murder in the East End, partly because grisly murders are by definition messy, but mainly because the detectives he must lead, working out of Whitechapel cop shop, are a slovenly bunch. Naturally, they resent the arrival of Chandler, who as well as being suspiciously clean and tidy is also disconcertingly tall and posh. Small, messy and decidedly unposh Detective Sergeant Miles (the ever-excellent Phil Davis) orchestrates the resentment.

Now, there are problems with all this, for us as well as for them. For us the problem is a wearyingly familiar TV formula, the one that presents the detective as a maverick or misfit, being pitched in with mistrustful and usually unreconstructed new colleagues. In Prime Suspect it was a woman, in Life on Mars it was a time-traveller, and I could fill the rest of this column with further examples going back to the 1970s and beyond. Remember Dennis Weaver's McCloud, the cowboy in New York City? Chandler is McCloud with antiseptic wipes instead of a 10-gallon hat.

The problem for them, meanwhile, is that the clash of personalities impedes the investigation, with the seen-it-all cop Miles refusing to believe that the murder is a precise copy of the first strike by Jack the Ripper, 120 years earlier. Every time there is a murder in Whitechapel, he complained, some "Ripperologist" surfaces to invoke Victorian London. The Ripperologist here is Steve Pemberton from The League of Gentlemen, having a high old time leading tourists along streets almost as creepy as those in Royston Vasey. When he pointed out to Chambers the uncanny similarities with Jack the Ripper's crimes, Chambers believes him. When another woman is murdered in the same way, even Miles grudgingly accepts that their quarry is a copycat serial killer.

None of this brought anything original to what is essentially a standard police procedural (albeit with more gore than we normally get), so why did I enjoy it? Partly it was the acting, by Davis and Pemberton in particular, but mostly it was S J Clarkson's direction, a little over-flashy at times but very good in the crucial business of generating mood and suspense. I even just about forgave the inevitable way in which the background music kept infiltrating the foreground, making it sound as though it wasn't just a murderer loose on the streets of Whitechapel, but also the entire strings section of the London Symphony Orchestra."

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Andrew Billen, The Times

"There's more fun and names in Whitechapel, a rival three-parter that finds it appropriate to invent a Jack the Ripper copycat killer to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the original's killing spree. The writers Ben Court and Caroline Ip have amused themselves by giving their characters names from the original hunt. The lead detective, a well-heeled high-flyer played by Rupert “Toff” Penry-Jones, is named Joseph Chandler after the detective in the original investigation. His foil, a working- class grunt of the old school, played by the always excellent Phil Davis, is Miles, after the local artist sometimes accused of being the Ripper (I know, I know, you think Walter Sickert done it). A barmy ripperologist who does guided tours of the crime scenes (Steve Pemberton, one of The League of Gentlemen grotesques) is called Buchan, another suspect's name.

These name games are excusable because they are unobtrusive - which is not true of the cinematography (Balazs Bolygo) or the direction (S. J. Clarkson), both of which are gimmicky, and topped by the colourist Jet Omoshebi (the names!) who has painted everything sepia because wasn't everything sepia in the Ripper's day? The conflict between wet-behind- the-ears Chandler and dogged Miles must be as old as police procedurals themselves and is hammed up at every opportunity. Toff Chandler not only has to wear a dinner jacket most of the time, but also suffers from OCD. It's second-rate nonsense but superior second-rate nonsense."

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