Magazine article The Spectator

Television Watching the Detectives

Magazine article The Spectator

Television Watching the Detectives

Article excerpt

Did Dr Jekyll turn into Jack the Ripper?

Besides becoming evil Mr Hyde, did Robert L. Stevenson's fictional creation morph into the serial killer who terrified Whitechapel?

In a way, he did. A stage version of Stevenson's novel was playing in the West End at the time of the East End murders. On stage, the actor who played both Jekyll and Hyde performed the switcheroo to such effect that women in the audience fainted. At the same time, the bodies of dead prostitutes - their internal organs expertly removed - caused many to surmise: a doctor did it. That good/ bad doctor who was scaring everybody! A newspaper declared: 'Mr Hyde is at large in Whitechapel.' Some even pointed fingers at the actor, Richard Mansfield. Obscuring things further, hoaxers sent letters to the police, some signed 'Jack the Ripper'.

The Victorians went gaga mixing real life and make-believe. In the days before reality TV - indeed, before TV - they blended fiction and non-fiction with gusto, especially where it concerned killings. Murder went meta. The historian Lucy Worsley demonstrated this in her BBC4 documentary A Very British Murder, which examined the nation's fascination with true crimes and detective fiction. (She didn't explicitly make the link between Victorians and reality telly but I, as a super-sleuth, made that deduction all by myself. ) The second episode of this three-parter held up a magnifying glass to the 19th century. Charles Dickens was obsessed with the London underworld, and followed detectives around as they went about their jobs.

These detectives often wore disguises to fit in with the criminal class. Thus Dickens stalked the stalkers, and real cops and villains re-emerged in books such as Bleak House, disguised by different names. The scientific rigours of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, meanwhile, spurred actual detectives to improve their fingerprinting skills. Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone borrowed details from the Road Hill House murder, where a teenager killed her toddler half-brother.

Worsley got in on the role-playing herself. The impish presenter does this in all her documentaries, but this time the context gave it more theatricality than ever. Worsley was Jekyll on the stage, transforming into Hyde; she was an accused woman at court, protesting her innocence; she was one of Britain's first fictional female detectives, taking off her crinoline to chase her suspect down a hole. She took us down the trail of the centuries, telling us the story of crime, and the story of the story of crime, checking out clues, showing us Exhibits A, B, C. …

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