Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Review: WHITECHAPEL, 3.1 - episode one

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Whitechapel started as a silly but entertaining miniseries about a serial-killer copying the crimes of notorious Jack the Ripper in the same titular London district. Creatively, it should have ended there and then, but ratings were so strong (at a time when ITV was desperate for drama success) that it was recommissioned for a second series about the secret twin offspring of the notorious Krays. That bizarre follow-up has its supporters, but I found it to be so ludicrous and dumb that my interest nosedived quickly.

Upon hearing that Whitechapel was to then be remolded into a six-part series (telling three two-part stories), by losing its "copycat" basis and connecting to historical cases in a looser way, it felt like a logical step to take. (They've already exhausted famous Whitechapel cases, besides.) But it's also a change that erodes the show's USP, and essentially turns it into just another mismatched detective drama; albeit one where pathologists keep mentioning historical precedents and sepia slides of 19th-century newspapers are shown on overhead projectors.

The premiere two-part story of series 3 concerns the vicious and puzzling murder of four tailors working late inside their secure workshop. DI Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) and DS Miles (Phil Davis) are assigned to solve the "locked room" mystery, hours after Chandler's suggested they should use history as a "kind of map to guide us through present crimes". What better way to crack modern cases than by remembering valuable lessons from history, right? That's the kind of thinking behind the revamped Whitechapel (history repeats), but it doesn't wash with me. It makes sense when you're chasing someone who's purposefully basing their activities on historical crimes (i.e. reading the same library books as you), but you can feel the story straining to link this crime to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 because of some superficial similarities.

It also doesn't help that, for me at least, the relationship between upper-class OCD sufferer Chandler and working class grouch Miles has run its course. Their differences made for a compelling first series, where they grew to respect each other, and mileage was squeezed out of the chalk-and-cheese dynamic in the second, but they're now best-friends who engage in light banter about each other's quirks and backgrounds. It just doesn't feel as enjoyable as it once did.

Plus the return of crime expert Buchan (Steve Pemberton) strains credibility. He started as an oddball Ripperologist tour guide, was revealed to also be an erstwhile expert on The Krays, and is now Chandler's official historical guide? Given a HQ in the basement of the police station, to browse archival files and find connections between the past and present, Buchan only serves to remind you how silly this show's become, and his insights don't feel like they should be taken seriously in a non-copycat context.

Whitechapel is what happens when a decent miniseries is forced into an ill-fitting shape because of unexpected popularity. It's still one of ITV's better crime dramas, but it's leagues away from equalling the BBC's atmospheric Luther or mesmerising Sherlock. The performances are adequate at best, the direction's rudimentary with cheap visual flourishes, and Ben Court and Caroline Ip's scripts are largely hogwash (especially now they can't lean on the enduring appeal of The Ripper.)

And yet, I wouldn't blame you for watching more. It's undemanding fun at times, and at least this series will give us quicker resolutions and a few different stories. But the lack of a truly compelling hook (like the previous "modern-day Jack The Ripper copycat" or "secret progeny of the Krays rebuild their East End crime empire"), means I just can't get excited about a bunch of dead tailors.

written by Ben Court & Caroline Ip / directed by John Strickland / 30 January 2012 / ITV1