Whitechapel, Bringing the 1880s to the 21st century (before Sherlock)
A serial killer seems to be replicating Jack the Ripper’s murders, in the same locations where the original crimes were committed: this is the premise of the first, thee-episode series of Whitechapel, aired by ITV in 2009. Young DI Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) is posted to Whitechapel, the area of London where the Ripper’s murders took place, to solve the first of the crimes thus earning the promotion he is hoping for. But the dead bodies keep piling up, and the men and women in the Whitechapel police, led by veteran DS Ray Miles (Phil Davis), have little trust in him as they recognise him for what he is: a career-focussed, self-absorbed individual.
After being forced to admit the link to the Ripper, Chandler enlists the help of experienced ripperologist Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton), who ends up being vital for the solution of the case. When he finally finds himself face-to-face with the killer, Chandler is forced to make an important choice that will reflect on his whole future life.
The fascinating, gothic atmospheres and the great cinematography made the first series of Whitechapel a success in the United Kingdom, despite some evident flaws in the scripts and the fact that the main characters are quite unpleasant.
One year later, the reign of terror that the Kray twins held in Whitechapel the 1960s seems to be returning. Chandler’s team is once again involved in the investigation. This second series (2010), also in three episodes, shows the limitations of the original concept: while the interest around Jack the Ripper is still very much alive, other criminal cases don’t have the same resonance with the audiences. The effort to make the main characters more likeable is evident and not completely unsuccessful, but it isn’t enough to arrest the decline in viewers: over 8,5 million people in the United Kingdom watched the last episode of the first season when it was aired, while only 6 tuned in for the conclusion of the second.
In the third series, the format changes: broadcast in 2012, it’s not a three-episode season dedicated to a single case, but the six episodes cover three short story arches, still, albeit loosely, linked to historic crimes. With this change, the viewing figures increased again (well over 7 million viewers for the season finale). The characters become even more human (and thus, likeable), and the atmospheres remained gloomy and fascinating.
The fourth series saw a fatal dip in interest, that pushed ITV to stop financing Whitechapel. The three stories, each split in two episodes, are not less interesting than those in the previous season, but clearly the audiences lost interest: only little more than 4 million people watched the season finale in October 2013, unaware that it would also be the last ever episode of Whitechapel.
Anticipating by one year the immensely successful Sherlock, the idea of transposing to the present day a series of event that happened or are anyway set in a relatively recent past (the late nineteenth century, in both cases) proved quite successful, but the creators of Whitechapel soon found themselves short on material and were forced to abandon the concept.
Despite its quick demise, Whitechapel is a high-quality series, well acted especially by the three protagonists, and the cinematography is top-notch. The writers and the directors have managed to make a clearly modern-day London look and feel like the 1880s London we imagine through subtle tricks and smart narrative devices.