Over the last few weeks, I have been watching two three part crime dramas. Moses Jones and Whitechapel.

Whitechapel appealed to me: the idea that there is someone out there recreating the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, and the present day police have to try and track the killer now by working out what Jack the Ripper then would have been doing is quite interesting.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read quite a few books on Jack the Ripper, and there’s nothing like an unhealthy fascination with the ritual slaying of prostitutes to — well, I don’t know what it is but the Jack the Ripper case has a certain fascination. I think it’s to do with the unsolvedness of it: I might find it vaguely interesting to read “insights into the mind of a serial killer”, but no other murders evoke the same level of interest.

So that’s why I decided to watch Whitechapel.

It’s also easy to know why I wanted to watch Moses Jones. Matt Smith, scheduled to be the eleventh Doctor Who, is in it. This is a bit of a shame for Shaun Parkes, who plays the title role of DI Moses Jones, as I suspect I was from from being the only person who was originally watching it simply for the Doctor Who connection (although then again Shaun Parkes has been in Doctor Who before himself — in The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit).

Moses Jones is a program with a lot of potential. It delves deep into the problems of the Ugandan exile community in London, starting with the murdered body of someone’s grandfather being discovered.

It’s fair to say that it looked at the less pleasant side of things: people trapped by the fear of the Ugandan ex-military monster Matthias and his brutal henchmen; prostitution, murder, casual racism, and — of course — the mismatched cop pair of Shaun Parkes and Matt Smith. It’s also got Dennis Waterman in it, who I find it difficult to see as an ex-boxer thug, partly because I still visualise the Little Britain version of him singing “the feem toon”, and partly because as a staple of New Tricks, I think he must really be a retired cop acting undercover.

(Although I have to say, there is a beautiful moment when Dennis Waterman’s ex-boxer is being threatened by someone who “went a round with Muhammad Ali”, and Dennis floors him with one punch saying “one whole round? must have been a fucking short one…”)

Please note, the rest of this may contain spoilers. If you are planning to watch Moses Jones or Whitechapel, you may wish to look away now.

For me, each episode had one problem. The first episode set the scene beautifully and presented the problems of the Ugandan exiles in crystal clarity — if you aren’t supposed to be in this country, how can you get justice if someone is commiting a crime against you, because you can’t go to the police. But it hardly featured Moses Jones and his sidekick Dan Twentyman, and so didn’t really seem to get moving.

The second — and the third — episode tried to show the gritty “reality” of brutality, with a woman having her teeth smashed out with a claw hammer, and another having her hand slashed up, as well as some very violent beatings. Unfortunately, it was just unpleasant — it might be realistic, but it’s not nice to watch — and somewhat put me off.

For me, the show was stolen by Eamonn Walker, who played Solomon, one of the Ugandans-without-visa (although the menace from Jude Akuwudike as Matthias was also outstanding). Admittedly, most of his role seemed to be wandering around telling the victims that they needed to stand up for themselves and sort it out themselves, because the police wouldn’t do it for them, but he did do it very well. It’s also a very different role — a strong character who doesn’t seem to be rent-a-stereotype — from the one he is probably best known as: Alf Garnett’s gay, black, “comedy stereotype” home help.

The characters were good: the dialogue was good, but for me the problem with the whole thing was Moses Jones’ detective work. So far as I can tell, Moses Jones solves crimes by continually talking to a prostitute and finding out what she knows, or by being told key information by his mother because his father had come across the bad guy in the past. I dread to think whether or not he would have been able to solve the crime if he had actually had to work it out for himself.

That aside, I’d have to say that I enjoyed Moses Jones: not perfect, but a promising start. If they are to run with it again, I think they have a few decisions to make. They need to decide whether it is to focus around one detective or two, as frequently it doesn’t seem to know. They need to continue with the strong characters that they have had before: one of the great successes of this program is that all of the key players have strong characters, instead of just the detectives and one key villain. Indeed, there was even one moment, when I felt some sympathy for the villain, even though he’s a cold-hearted vicious murderering bastard. Not much sympathy, admittedly, but a touch…

A great drama then, with excellent characterisation, if lacking a touch in the actual ‘detection’ part of the detective story.

I also enjoyed Whitechapel, although this was very different. The story of Whitechapel parralels the story of Jack the Ripper to a point, so this element of the plot is somewhat choreographed, but despite that the story rattled along well.

I enjoyed watching this too, although while I thought the plot element of this (up to the point in the third episode when it went a bit crap) was well written and staged, I found the characters to be more cliched (rookie cop on management fast track takes over investigation meets hard-boiled cynical detective — and don’t mention the ripperologist who lives with his mum).

Obviously, by the end of the third episode, the rookie cop on management fast track had decided that sitting behind a desk wasn’t really for him, and he and cynical hard-boiled old-fashioned detective had developed a healthy respect for one another. Now there’s a surprise. I don’t think I have ever seen that before.

Until about half way through the third episode, Whitechapel rattled along well. And then, unfortunately, it went a bit shit. Fast track and hard boiled have managed to save the ripper’s last victim from being a bit knifed-up, so naturally the ripper buggers off and kills himself to avoid being caught, because that is part of the ripper’s mystery.

You what? I don’t think that Jack the Ripper thought “ooh, I’d best commit suicide after four or five murders, just so I don’t get caught”. No, that is not the way serial killers work. Serial killers — particularly those on an escalating path — either get caught, get killed, or go on killing. The original JtR’s intention wouldn’t have been just to create an enduring mystery: no, (s)he was getting a sexual sadistic kick out of the killings.

And then we come to Whitechapel’s choice of murderer. It’s a mysterious man who is working as a doctor, and for a taxi firm, and has mysteriously managed neither to be on shift at the hospital nor being too busy driving someone to Southampton to have time to nip out and commit the murders exactly, to the day, 120 years (?) after the originals. Oh, that and the fact that the name his Doctor identity was shown to be false then leads to the questions — was he a real doctor? How did he manage to get a job in a hospital under a false name when presumably he wouldn’t have studied as a doctor under that name?

And then what’s the significance of the ripper killings to him? Why now? Why the need to repeat the murders? Who did the killer think the original ripper was? And most importantly why the bloody hell did the writers let such a promising story peter out into such a weak ending?

When I try to compare and analyse the two shows, Moses Jones wins hands down. The acting was better, the characters were better written, the dialogue was better. Yet Whitechapel — at least in the first two episodes — gripped me in a way Moses Jones didn’t, and I think for the key reason that in Whitechapel you didn’t know who the bad guy was, so there was the element of mystery to it. But Moses Jones wouldn’t have worked as well without the character of Matthias and his backstory being so well developed.

But I guess the key point is that I’d like to see a new, longer series of Moses Jones, and I sincerely hope that Whitechapel was a one-off, because I would happily cope without seeing any of those characters again.

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