Jonathan Sothcott looks at the complex production history of David Wickes' 1988 television masterpiece.

British director David Wickes' interest in the Ripper case goes back to 1973, when he directed a docu-drama for the BBC which utilised Z Cars characters Barlow & Watt to unearth the (then) popular Stephen Knight Masonic conspiracy theory. Ten years later, Wickes - with a roster of successes under his belt, including The Professionals and The Sweeney - was still fascinated by the mystery, and decided that - with the 1988 centenary just a few years away - the time was right to mount a definitive filming of the Whitechapel murders.

With this in mind, Wickes gave his assistant, Sue Davies, the unenviable task of attempting to unearth the truth, an undertaking she entered into with gusto. Unlike many underpaid researchers before and since, Davies was bankrolled by Wickes' production company, and was able to carry out a thorough investigation. As 1988 drew nearer, Wickes approached the Home
Office and, having convinced them of his integrity, was granted unique access to their files on the Ripper case. These files had been embargoed for 100 years, but Wickes had argued that allowing him (and thus Thames Television) early admittance would pre-empt the rush of amateurs and lunatics who would descend as soon as the embargo was lifted. Ultimately, there was nothing decisive in the files, but a suspect was already beginning to emerge: Sir William Withey Gull, the physician-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria. Gull, who had suffered a minor stroke in 1897, fitted the bill in terms of influence and medical knowledge; he had been known to wave bloody human hearts around at dinner parties, suggesting that, perhaps, he wasn't all there. Wickes and Davies decided that there had to be an accomplice and that, because of the lack of blood at the murder sites (and the ragged cuts of the victims' wounds) a coach had probably been employed. As the driver, they fingered John Netley, a freelance coachman who occasionally worked for the Buckingham Palace Mews - but specialised in driving surgeons, and harboured aspirations to be a doctor himself. The clincher came when Davies uncovered Gull's death certificate, which had been signed in total breach of medical conduct, by his son-in-law, Dr Acland - suggesting some kind of high-level cover-up.

Wickes wrote a script around the theory and took it to Thames as a two- hour Television Special for broadcast in 1988. Thames readily accepted the proposal and production began in September 1987 with Barry (Vandervalk) Foster as Detective Inspector Abberline. However, the winds of change were blowing across the Atlantic. David Wickes recalls: "During this period, a friend of mine, who was the head of Lorimar in the States, called and asked if I'd like to go there to direct a film of Doctor Jekyll & Mr Hyde. I told him I couldn't because I was doing Jack The Ripper and he said, 'Oh my God, David, fuck Jekyll & Hyde, let's do Jack The Ripper!' I said we couldn't because we'd already been filming for ten days. Then my friend said he thought he could get it on CBS. I left on a Friday lunchtime and met the guys in America on Saturday, and flew back on the Saturday night, collapsed on the Sunday and was back on the set on Monday with a deal thrashed out - and by the end of the week it was signed, so we had to stop filming our original version."

With the inking of the $11 million CBS deal, the Thames production was dismounted and the cast and crew paid off. In order to give the project a suitably epic feel, Wickes hired the very finest technicians he could, including cinematographer Alan Hume and composer John Camerson. The American market, of course, required an all-star cast, and CBS suggested Jane Seymour and Armand Assante. Wickes himself brought Lewis Collins in, and pulled off the film's second great coup by securing Michael Caine to play Abberline in a deal which reportedly earned the actor $1 million. When Caine's casting was announced, the Thames Television shares broke through the £5 barrier for the first time.

The production was a smooth one, with principal photography at Pinewood Studios further adding to the prestige of the production. "David Wickes," Michael Caine told The Hollywood Reporter in 1993, "is the nicest, fastest and most pleasant director I've worked for, and he's the master of filming Victorian England."

Wickes was determined that as few people as possible should know who would be unmasked as the killer and shot four dummy endings - revealing anarchist George Lusk, Inspector Sprattling, DCS Arnold and Sir Charles Warren as the Ripper - to put the cast and crew off the scent. He also mocked up a scene with Godley (Lewis Collins) pulling Gull from a coach in a case of mistaken identity, and then edited them all together to produce the end result. Theoretically, only eight members of Wickes' staff knew the truth, though Michael Caine guessed correctly shortly before production wrapped.

When it aired on the 18th of October 1988, the film's ratings were the highest ever recorded for a Television drama on both sides of the Atlantic. Roads were clear of traffic as everyone strived to be home in time to see the mystery solved. The whole world seemed caught up in the Jack The Ripper mystery.

Jack The Ripper is, quite possibly, the finest example of British horror television one is ever likely to see. Wickes' script is so tightly oiled that it never once (during a mammoth 192-minute running time) flags and his direction is so meticulous that the storyline's credibility can never be in doubt. Michael Caine delivers one of his finest and most underrated performances as the doggedly determined Abberline, and is ably supported by Lewis Collins (in his finest role), Jane Seymour and Armand Assante. Alan Hume's glorious technicolour photography gives the proceedings a lush, opulent look and John Cameron's rousing score compliments the atmosphere perfectly.

JACK THE RIPPER will be released to Region 2 DVD by Anchor Bay UK in March 2003. The Special Edition DVD includes an Audio Commentary by David Wickes, Sue Davies and Jonathan Sothcott, an extensive stills gallery, liner notes, talent biogs and the only remaining footage from the Barry Foster version, presented exclusively for the first time ever.

Text © Jonathan Sothcott, 2003