In January 2011, the UK television station, Five, aired a two-part Jack the Ripper documentary that is believed by many experts on the case to be on the list of the greatest ever produced. Titled ‘Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History’, it was made by Bullseye Lantern Productions and is agreed to be one of the most historically accurate, in-depth and unbiased documentaries so far on the case. This is probably because a team of Ripperologists produced it.
Director and producer of the documentary, Jeff Leahy, worked alongside author and historian, Paul Begg, who also narrated the documentary, and author, historian and tour guide, John Bennett. It also featured contributions and interviews from a large number of experts including John Bennett, Richard Jones (author, historian and tour guide), Robert Anderson (researcher and moderator – JTRForums.com) and Neil Bell (author and police historian).
This is in addition to Lindsay Siviter (researcher and tour guide), Bill Beadle (author, researcher and former Chairman of the Whitechapel Society 1888), Neal Sheldon (author and genealogical researcher) and Donald Rumbleow (former police officer, author, researcher and tour guide).
Of course, the list is only made longer with the likes of Gareth Williams (researcher), Dr Lars Davidson (Forensic Psychologist) and Nevil Swanson (great grandson of Superintendent, Donald Swanson, one of the police officers assigned to the case).
When the documentary was broadcasted, it attained an impressive 1.6 million viewers and, thanks to a cinema tour of the USA and DVD sales, it has been watched by over six million people.
It features original police documents, witness statements and inquest testimony, as well as using maps and plans to resurrect the streets and buildings that would have been present in Whitechapel at the time of the murders through CGI, by Jakko Luakanen.
These images would also be used in the book ‘Jack the Ripper: CSI Whitechapel’ by Paul Begg and John Bennett, which is a thoroughly recommended read, as well as the mobile phone app/game ‘Track the Ripper’. The latter was produced in conjunction with Bullseye Lantern for the 2012 London Olympics, and even consisted of an accurate representation of the width of the streets, angles of visibility and level of street lighting present.
The result is a well-polished and atmospheric documentary with an excellent level of historical accuracy and minimal sensationalism, thoroughly recommended to beginners on the case, those with a casual interest and seasoned researchers alike.
As an “Easter egg”, many roles of extras (including police officers, soldiers, witnesses and suspects) are portrayed by experts and Ripperologists, all of which are well-known, thus easily recognised by those who regularly attend the annual Jack the Ripper Conference or watch said documentaries. A notable scene is where Severin Klosowski/George Chapman, portrayed by Jeff Leahy, shaves a bearded customer who is played by Paul Begg.
Even though it is an excellent documentary, there are one or two little criticisms we have. Firstly, episode one sets the scene well, and though it slowly builds the tension and mystery of the crimes, it seems to drop this a bit in episode two. Episode two, therefore, struggles to mirror the tension built and the pacing just doesn’t seem as steady as episode one – it languishes over some areas and then bounds through others at breakneck speed. Though, in defence of the production team, keeping the pace consistent between episodes is very difficult (especially when a quick recap is needed at the start of the second), so they still did a good job overall.
Despite this, at this stage, I feel we should mention something the documentary did superbly in terms of pacing (and a far better job than that of most other documentaries made in the last 20 years). And that is avoiding wasting time.
Typically, a documentary, normally promoting the latest book or theory, will do the following:
- Spend five minutes at the beginning teasing a big revelation/piece of evidence/suspect that will supposedly solve the case
- Do the above but before each advert break
- Recap everything from the first half after the advert break, as well as following the trend of the ‘big tease.’
- Then finally, in the last several minutes of the documentary, they reveal the big revelation, which just feels like a squib at this point
So, over half of the time of the documentary is wasted by recaps or teases of some big reveal that doesn’t live up to the hype. Thankfully, The Definitive History avoids this with great success.
The other criticism though is the suspects. Whilst the mention of suspects is, quite rightly, inevitable, the makers focused on contemporary (or near contemporary) police suspects, and not some of the more sensational ones suggested by modern authors. However, there is a lot of focus on Kosminski. He gets more than twice as much focus as the other suspects though it could be argued that his story is slightly more complicated than that of others, such as Druitt, Tumblety and Chapman/Klosowski.