Today, Jack the Ripper isn’t simply known as a murderer who haunted the Whitechapel district of London in the late 1880s. An aura of mystery and invincibility has developed around the unknown serial killer because he was never caught. It was also perhaps one of the first times that the press became so deeply involved in a series of killings.
It would take nearly 90 years before the term ‘serial killer’ would be coined and the ‘Ripper’ murders fit all the patterns of such killings. Adding to the legend of the ‘killer’ were several letters that purportedly belonged to the author of these crimes. Given mankind’s everlasting interest in the grim, the legacy of Jack the Ripper has lasted beyond his time. So, there have been novels (Alan Moore’s From Hell, named after one of the letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper), TV series (ITV’s Jack the Ripper miniseries starring Michael Caine in the role of inspector Frederick Abberline) and video games (Frogwares studio’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, in which the Ripper crimes are solved by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective).
These crimes have never quite left the popular imagination and the press plays its role in invoking the original whenever another disturbed individual carries out a similar spree of crimes. So, in England alone, there have been Jack the Stripper, the Ipswich Ripper, and the Blackout Ripper.
But even in this league of undesirables, the killer dubbed as ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ stands out in particular. The Ripper, available on Netflix, delves into the crimes committed by the killer from the mid-70s to his arrest in the early ’80s. The documentary series follows a chronological pattern.
It begins with the crimes themselves, introducing the audience to the era of the 1970s, the mindsets that prevailed in the day, what the family members of the victims went through, how the members of the community and the police reacted to these horrific incidents. Each incident is detailed through interviews and television footage from the time and the accounts given by officers and journalists who were involved in the case. While the narration is a simple coverage of the events, it lets the viewer absorb the era and understand how the cases were approached by the authorities and the public.
The documentary explores different aspects related to the case. It depicts the reaction of the community itself, who expressed little interest in the plight of the women who went missing. This was because the initial identification of the ‘victim type’ was that of a prostitute. This negative community perception seeped into the working of the police force. The documentary shows how the people weren’t as forthcoming with the police as they could’ve been. This was because the relations between the police and the residents weren’t great. One of the officers with the West Yorkshire police, Andrew Laptew, stated, “They were stamped down on quite heavily by the police … But I mean, the community, at that time, were being victimised. You know, sort of racial names or what-have-you.” Then there was mistrust of the police force among the socially and economically underprivileged. So there is a discussion of Chapeltown, a place where one of the first-known victims was found, an area that was primarily populated by immigrants.
These factors acted as a hindrance in solving the cases. As one goes deeper into the documentary, it is realised that the killer wasn’t a near-perfect phantom who could appear or disappear at will. He made several mistakes, including leaving a freshly printed currency note at the site of the murder, visiting the sites of crime on several occasions after the crime had been committed, and leaving marks of his presence, such as boot-marks, etc.
The question that confronts us, then, is: why were the police not able to catch him for so many years? The viewers can find the answer to this even before the documentary slams the working of the police department in the final episode of the series. From the television interviews and footage of the era, it seems like the police were dealing with something that was beyond their capacity. While serial killers weren’t unknown to England, the police seemed quite overwhelmed by the ways of the killer. When they receive a series of letters and recordings from a person who presents himself to be the killer, they quickly take it that these are coming from the actual murderer. This makes them assume that the killer had a Geordie accent and they start following that line of thinking. This goes on despite a few officers pointing out the discrepancies in the letters and the fact that they added nothing new other than what was already present in the public domain.
Then there is the reaction to the arrest of the serial killer. The police chiefs are seen in a celebratory mood and present it as a big achievement of the department. However, in reality, Peter Sutcliffe (the killer) was caught by pure luck, in an unrelated matter of fake number plates. By then the Yorkshire Ripper had become a massive irritant for the law authorities and a lot of money and resources had already been spent on him. That the officers on the spot were vigilant enough to link the evidence found around the car with the Yorkshire Ripper had little connection to a successful hunt for the serial killer.
While these instances highlight the incompetence of the police department, we understand the reasons behind the same in the final episode of the documentary. Barring a few exceptions, the police department, mainly filled with male officers, took little interest in the plight of many victims. This is highlighted through interviews of the survivors who were lucky enough to live after the vicious attack but weren’t taken seriously, i.e., the attacks weren’t linked to the Ripper crimes. This was because the department had developed a preconceived notion regarding the ‘victim type’ the killer was targeting: prostitutes.
And throughout the documentary, one can find that the prevailing attitudes differentiate between the prostitutes and the rest. The first real sense of uproar in the case was felt in the fraternity when a girl, Jayne Macdonald, who didn’t fit their categorisation was murdered by the killer. It’s almost as if the prostitutes are a dispensable lot, while when it starts happening to the ‘normal’ girls it becomes a matter of concern.
Joan Smith, a journalist who has written prominently about the case, stated in the documentary that there was this need to ‘other’ Peter Sutcliffe from the rest of society: “After he was arrested, there was a kind of desire for him to be the monster. He has to be completely outside the culture that he comes from … When I did research on his background, the key thing really that emerges is that he had grown up in an atmosphere where contempt for women and a dislike of women was normalised…” She added that there seemed to be an obsession in the police to link these killings with the myth of Jack the Ripper: “What they were doing was chasing Jack the Ripper. If you are looking for a figure from Victorian myth, you are unlikely to come up with a lorry driver from Bradford.”
In the end, we understand that this spree of murders continued because of the ineptitude of the police department, which was in turn informed by the regressive and misogynistic conceptions that prevailed in the society.
While the documentary does a good job of highlighting the murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe, it comes across as a bland affair at times. The narrative structure is unfulfilling because it takes too long to link up the mistakes committed by the police in the murders. The viewers are led primarily through the eyes of the events, but the mistakes of the police department are apparent from the start and it would have been a good call to introduce some of his initial victims, who survived the attacks, to punch holes into the police theories from the very beginning.
Also, a greater emphasis could’ve been given to the investigations that got the police close to the killer and how they ended up squandering this advantage. This could’ve included looking deeper into the several interviews that Peter Sutcliffe had with the police and why those was ignored time and again.
Though it lacks the pacing of a thriller, The Ripper is a good study into how conservative societal perceptions can on occasion lead to damaging of the basic standards that are supposed to be upheld in the society, such as the maintenance of law and order.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.