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Grotesque, glorious nonsense

This whodunnit may not win points for originality, but it's exciting stuff


So, what have we here, detective inspector? A grisly murder mystery, starring the super-smooth hunk of the moment, Rupert Penry-Jones, that ticked so many police procedural clichés in its first 20 minutes, I began to wonder if there was any point in me sticking with it.

Only then, I noticed that I was enjoying myself. For all that it's a bit, well, daffy, there is also something irresistibly comforting about Whitechapel (Mondays, 9pm), in which a 21st-century serial killer is busy copying the heinous modus operandi of Jack the Ripper. Basically, this is old-fashioned Sunday teatime television, albeit on a Monday and with a thoroughly post-watershed scattering of intestines, and it induces in me a feeling of deep cosiness, even as the cobbles of east London are liberally splashed with fake blood. "Welcome to hell, gentlemen," said the pathologist as she gazed on corpse number one - at which point, I rubbed my little paws together gleefully and yelled to my husband to put the kettle on.

Let me run through these clichés. Penry-Jones, who has a face so uninteresting he should be modelling fluffy dressing gowns in the back of the Radio Times rather than appearing on its cover, is D I Joseph Chandler, a cop who is heading for the top (we know this because early on, his boss, Commander Anderson, tells him as much, as they visit the urinals at some gentleman's club). In real life, top cops are never very posh - not even the ones who, like Sir Ian Blair, went to Oxbridge - but in tellyland, you will notice, they are extremely plummy, and owe their promotion solely to smoking cigars with the right people. The reason for this is obvious: it's so that they look supremely daft when they come into contact with the ordinary blokes who do all the donkey work.

Thus, Chandler, in charge of his first murder investigation, is run ragged by D S Ray Miles - ordinary coppers are always called Ray - and his team of podgy, sweaty, cynical detective constables (Miles is played with ratty conviction by the brilliant Phil Davis). Oh, how he wishes they would wear deodorant and ties and use their waste-paper bins, and when they refuse to do so, he rubs Tiger balm into his temples and breathes deeply. What a wimp.

OK, the Tiger balm was a new flourish here, but otherwise, I have seen this dramatic trope dozens of times before. Still, no matter. It was all done so very nicely. "If I'd have known, I'd have made vol-au-vents," said Miles, on being told that a new boy had been parachuted in to his investigation, a cut-out-and-keep bit of dialogue if ever I heard one. The case, of course, was grim: a woman had been murdered, and an attempt made to gut her body. Miles thought her husband, a butcher, was chief suspect, but Chandler - once he had swallowed his nausea - became convinced, thanks to a Ripperologist called Edward Buchan, that a serial killer was on the loose, one who was carefully copying all the "canonical" murders carried out by "Saucy Jacky" in the 1880s.

Buchan is played with predictably grotesque aplomb by The League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton, but his performance is distracting. He is miscast. Anyway, another murder was duly committed, and Miles et al were forced to accept that their new boss was on to something. Now it's up to them to prevent a double murder: the Ripper's next two victims were killed on the same night. Hmm. Something tells me - possibly because this is a three-part series - that the 21st-century Jack will strike again while their backs are turned.

Look, this is not highbrow stuff, but it's exciting, and the director has made the new East End look both corrupt and bewitching, which is as it should be. During the boom of the past decade, the City, all glass and steel and bad manners, loomed over Whitechapel, with its lurking alleys and its teetering houses, without ever sharing a single sovereign of its wealth. The East End has changed a good deal less than some people like to imagine, and for that reason alone, something in me responds to this nonsense in all its gory glory.

Pick of the week

Iran and the West
Starts 7 February, 9pm, BBC2
Superb documentary series. Jimmy Carter is among the interviewees.

Mad Men
Starts 10 February, 10pm, BBC4
At last - the best drama on TV returns. Starring Jon Hamm and many, many cigarettes.

Free Agents
Starts 13 February, 10pm, Channel 4
Rude sitcom about talent scouts.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009