The first memory I have of knowing who or what Jack the Ripper was in history and why it was important was the 1973 BBC docudrama, Jack the Ripper. This was in terms of television in 1973 way ahead of it’s time as rather than having a straightforward documentary series, the BBC decided to have framed as a crime investigation using two popular fictional characters from Z-Cars, Softly, Softly and Barlow at Large. Barlow (Stratford Johns) and Watt (Frank Windsor) were the leads in this series where the pair discussed the Ripper case over six parts in extraordinary detail while theorising who may have been the killer and the various conspiracies surrounding the case.
At the time I was stupidly young, so I’m thinking I saw this on a repeat, not on its first broadcast in 1973 but it massively impacted upon me, a kid weaned on horror comics and films, as this real life crime which was more horrendous than anything I’d read in Creepy or Eerie. What I didn’t know at the time was it was based upon theories which saw the light of day for the first time here, which themselves led to the publication of Steven Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which itself helped influence Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell. Even the BBC series Ripper Street doffs its deerstalker cap to it.In terms of influence the 1973 Jack the Ripper is huge for the Ripper genre (oh yes, it’s a definite genre now) but television in the UK.
The blurring of fact and fiction was not something the Reithian BBC would have normally done in 1973 but this clever series manages to make the subject accessible to a mainstream audience of the time. Today it looks clunky, feels slow and is often a tad dull, but this was groundbreaking stuff as it pushes the Fourth Wall in terms of what we the viewer see as real. For the series to work we have to accept Barlow and Watt as real people living in the same reality as Jack the Ripper. Pacing problems aside, the series is a fantastic primer if you do decide to dive into From Hell, the comic of course, not the dreadful film. In terms of pure research hitting the screen this series can’t be beaten, even if some of the conspiracy theories have been roundly trashed in the decades since. One of the things that is superb from an historical point of view is that much of the East End of London still looked similar to what it did in the Victorian Era in 1973, which gives the series an authentically grimy feel.
It isn’t available on DVD, it probably never will be released commercially. There’s simply not enough interest, but it does live (for the moment) on YouTube in what looks like copies from a master tape. I’ve no idea how long these might last there but if you’ve got six hours free and are a bit of a Ripper enthusiast give it a go.