Whitechapel: the murder mystery you may have missed

Feature Becky Lea 4 Sep 2013 - 07:00

Becky talks us through the evolution of ITV's acclaimed murder mystery drama, Whitechapel, which begins its fourth series today...

In an age of television flooded with crime dramas about fiendish killers and fierce, battle-worn detectives, it can be difficult for a show, both new and existing, to feel fresh and stand out from the crowd. Returning this week, the fourth series of Whitechapel continues its unique approach of combining the modern with the historical, and weaving its cases around murders which took place in reality with a healthy dose of character-led drama at its heart. I and a small loyal fanbase eagerly await the new series, but with the long gap since the last episode, it might just be one murder mystery that has passed you by.

The series is written by screenwriting duo Ben Court and Caroline Ip, whose first feature was the much underrated The Hole, who manage to weave together the various elements into a compelling crime drama mash-up. The way the plots are formed, developments can sometimes feel a little contrived, but fortunately, Whitechapel continues at such a pace that you can easily forget any jarring moments.

“Could you imagine? A picture of Jack in the eyes of the dead.”

Long before Ripper Street tackled the East End’s most infamous resident, Whitechapel made its way on to the scene with a copycat of Jack the Ripper and throws itself into the plot with great gusto, layering in the historical detail with fictional intrigue and an undercurrent of black humour. Some of the characters’ names are taken from the original Ripper case (the real Joseph Chandler was an inspector who gave evidence at the Annie Chapman inquest) whilst Steve Pemberton’s Ripperologist, Edward Buchan, lays bare the various theories, suspects and canonical murders that could hold the clue to solving the copycat of one of the most famous unsolved cases in history. 

What unfolds is a fascinating take on the Ripper legend, one that both intrigues and infuriates at the same. The combination of Victoriana, with its dark alleyways, cobbled streets and dense fog, and the modern day aesthetic builds an unsettling atmosphere that works well with the chosen killer. This combination is also present and correct in the score, all haunting violins and softly playing pianos. It’s a killer opening (pardon the pun) and Whitechapel has only continued to build on its legacy.

The character-led drama aspect of the show is one of its greater strengths and is backed up with some fine performances from the central trio. The first series doesn’t offer much beyond stereotypical crime genre figures - the ambitious fast-tracker, the put-upon sergeant and the amateur detective who lives with his mum - but as the series has progressed, Chandler, Miles and Buchan have become just as compelling as the unfolding mysteries to the point where it has become one of the aspects I am most looking forward to in their fourth outing.

“I’m not crazy. There’s nothing wrong with me. I can do the job.”

Rupert Penry-Jones took the role of DI Joe Chandler after playing all-round action man Adam Carter in Spooks for several years. It’s a marked change; aside from a strong ambitious streak, the characters share little in common. Chandler is often referred to as a ‘paper policeman’, though he becomes keen to take on as much practical police work as possible. He turns up eager to solve his first murder, a small step before the promotion that he has been promised. However, the lure of the Ripper copycat keeps him with the team before realising that his place really is as the Detective Inspector rather than pushing for further career advancement, remaining in this position after the Ripper case is closed.

Chandler also suffers with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, something which has become more pronounced as the series has progressed and the job becomes more stressful. There is a particularly harrowing scene during the second series in which he cannot leave a room without turning the light on and off multiple times, despite his increasing frustration. On occasions like this, it hinders his work, but at others, his attention to detail and need for order become crucial in solving the crimes. I’m no expert on the disorder so I couldn’t comment on how accurate a portrayal it is, but Penry-Jones’ combination of charm and insecurity has ensured he remains a fascinating central character.

His chemistry with his co-stars has also been a highlight, particularly the evolving relationship with Phil Davis’ Miles which provides the ‘buddy cop’ element to the show. Davis is about as veteran a character actor as they come, capable of portraying anything from sad-sack husbands to homicidal cabbies with relish. Miles is a detective of the old school who isn’t really so impressed by Chandler coming in and tidying everything up. His grumpiness plays well off Penry-Jones’ enthusiasm and the genuine affection, bemusement and snark with which Miles regards Chandler is often central to the show’s dark humour.

No stranger to dark humour is third cast member Steve Pemberton as Buchan, the Ripperologist who proves himself extremely useful on the first case. As a Whitechapel resident with a deep love of the history of the area, Buchan positions himself as an amateur detective and advisor to the team. Miles doesn’t think much of him as he doesn’t consider him to be a proper policeman in, similar to his initial disregard for Chandler. Chandler sees his usefulness and eventually employs Buchan as a consultant and researcher.

“It’s funny how history repeats itself isn’t it?”

The foundations laid for these characters in the first series ensure that the second series has an excellent platform from which to launch a new menace. Adopting a similar format of a historical precedent and a modern copycat, the second series finds the team investigating killings which look curiously like those attributed to possibly the second most notorious Whitechapel residents, Ronnie and Reggie Kray. 

The trouble with the second series is that it has to follow Jack the Ripper and old Jack is a tough act to follow, but where the series really excels is in the character development for the returning main trio. After the climax of the first series (which I won’t spoil here), Miles and Chandler’s relationship finds itself much strengthened and the pair have settled into a begrudging respect for one another before taking on the Krays case, something which tests this new-found bond. It also brings back Buchan as a Krays expert thanks to a rather amusing documentary he filmed when he was younger.

With the threats to themselves and their families, the team galvanises in a way that was simply not possible in the first series because the Ripper never threatened them directly. Miles begins to understand just how crippled by his condition Chandler can become, dealing with anxiety and paranoia in equal measure. Chandler also understands more about his sergeant’s commitment to his family and his personal connection with the elder Krays. They also learn to work with an over-eager Buchan who finds himself useful once again to the unfolding investigation.

Despite an excellent performance from Craig Parkinson as both of the The Krays reborn, the pair never seem quite as menacing as the Ripper, despite the threats against the police team. Chiefly, the difference is that the Krays are in the spotlight throughout the series whereas the copycat in the previous series operated largely in the shadows and was all the better for it.

The third series corrects this by once again returning the killers to the fringes of the episode’s proceedings, though none are copycats of anyone quite as famous as Jack the Ripper or the Kray Twins. There is also a structural change with the episodes increasing from three to six per series with two episodes devoted to a new investigation as the team find themselves tasked to solve more unusual crimes. Buchan is also now officially employed in aiding Chandler and Miles in a research capacity with access to all the crimes that have gone before.

“Most blokes see a girl they like, they ask for her number. You ask for her input in a murder”

The shift in format, something which the fourth series will follow, was exactly the change that Whitechapel needed following two successful series. Continuing with copycats would have quickly become stale and instead, the crimes and the subsequent investigations are merely informed by those that have gone before. In this series, we get the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and the Thames Torso murderer, both grisly enough to follow the exploits of the Ripper and the Krays. 

Each murderer has a specific modus operandi that is decidedly creepy, taking in home invasions, personality disorders and masked men with vengeance on the mind. This allows Whitechapel to recapture the unsettling atmosphere that characterised the first series, returning the show to darkness and grime whilst losing none of the progress that has made it a compelling watch.

Once again, the character aspect proves to be one of the strongest elements as the central relationships continue to develop. A real highlight is Miles’ new-found mission to get Chandler a girlfriend, resulting in some amusing moments as the Sergeant manoeuvres the Inspector into dates and awkward situations. It also allows for a big sucker punch in one episode, an emotional payoff for the investment that Court and Ip have sought to instill in the audience right from the first episode.

Thanks to the ever-changing format of the show, Whitechapel has remained fresh and exciting in amongst other shows of its genre. It also means that those of you who haven’t seen it before could quite happily tune in for the fourth series or simply start at the beginning. I hope you do, because there’s something unsettling yet quietly triumphant about Whitechapel. Let’s hope the new series recaptures that.

Whitechapel series four starts on Wednesday the 4th of September at 9pm on ITV.

Come back to read Becky's spoiler-filled episode reviews after broadcast, and find more of her writing at Assorted Buffery.

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