The raison d'être of this two-part fictionalised story is the filmmakers' much trumpeted access to previously secret Home Office documents (declassified 100 years after the grisly events), which apparently indicated that a cover-up of the Ripper's identity was ordered by the British government to avoid the possibility of a ruinous scandal affecting the monarchy. With the Ripper's identity revealed in the final reel, David Wickes' admittedly prestigious yet fatally conventional TV offering proved controversial and provoked a storm of debate in its day, even as it courted respectability for a subject previously addressed only in cult B-movies or, more likely, blatant horror flicks such as Hammer's Hands Of The Ripper (1971).
Michael Caine is personable yet distinctly unimpressive as top Scotland Yard sleuth Inspector Frederick Abberline, unable to make us care for his character, a career detective with romantic problems, political naivety, and professional pride in a system that does nothing except tolerate his lofty ideals when it's not actively undermining his work. Both his toadying superiors (fearful of the crown in every sense) and largely thuggish underlings (uniformed policemen are nothing more than just another street gang) resent Abberline for his sensitivity and arrogance. Caine's lack of gravitas and sincerity, and blatant scene stealing (well, this was his return to TV work after finding fame in Hollywood), almost sinks the whole show.
Lewis Collins (still trying to shake-off his action man typecasting from years of TV crime fighting in The Professionals, and his signature role as undercover SAS officer in Who Dares Wins) is equally out of his league as Abberline's cop partner and drinking buddy, Sergeant Godley. Jane Seymour certainly looks the part in Victorian costumes as the free-spirited artist, Emma, but she hasn't got sufficient depth as an actress for this promising, proto-feminist role. Among the Ripper's victims is everyone's favourite blonde of the period, Susan George, who sports an unlikely but nonetheless amusing cockney accent as Catherine Eddowes, while the ever-gorgeous Lysette Anthony is also featured as Mary Jane Kelly.
Of particular interest, and quite relevant to issues raised by the cops' inquiries into the nature of insanity and schizophrenia, is the resonance accorded to actor Richard 'Dixie' Mansfield (played with tremendous verve by Armand Assante), a foppish bi-sexual who performs a striking physical transformation on stage in his dual role as the star of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.
Despite all of its shortcomings, Jack The Ripper has good production values for TV drama, and boasts sterling camerawork by Alan Hume. Although deficient of suitably vivid tone for its serial killer tragedies, and over-involved with visually bland set designs and unconvincingly busy London streets and alleys populated with hordes of expensively costumed extras, it is a pleasant and watchable show that's worth seeing if you are easily pleased, but aficionados of Ripper lore should look elsewhere for the ultimate adaptation of this endlessly fascinating story.
Anchor Bay's special edition DVD release has a first class widescreen picture quality (enhanced for 16:9 TV), Dolby digital 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks, a photo gallery, and 20 minutes of previously unseen footage from the original unfinished version - starring Barry Foster (Van der Valk) as Abberline - which was aborted at the insistence of new American backers when the project became a Thames and CBS co-production. There are also text biographies of the main cast and director, and an intriguing audio commentary from Wickes and his researcher Sue Davies, moderated by journalist Jonathan Southcott.