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Two Shows Fail to Win One for the Ripper

As Count Floyd, the fright-night host of SCTV comedy fame, would say: “ Oooooooh , kids--this is really scary!” And, as always, he’d be exaggerating.

Airing at 9 tonight and Sunday (on Channels 2 and 8), CBS’ two-part drama “Jack the Ripper” exploits the enduring charisma of one of contemporary history’s more macabre figures, creeping ever so tediously across nearly four hours en route to a suspenseful payoff.

Scary it isn’t, though--not in the sense of “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or the actual mass murderers who have strangled and slashed their way into our popular culture.

Living in perilous 1988--a century after the Ripper cut up five prostitutes in the London slum of Whitechapel--sharpens your perspective on terror. Fiendish though he was, the Ripper seems a tad musty compared with some of the fictional and real-life characters that greet us these days via movies or TV, and you can’t help wondering what the big fuss is about.

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Inexplicably, however, the Ripper’s celebrity continues to grow, or so you’d think from the 100th anniversary attention given the unsolved grisly murders that jolted the British government and spawned scores of books and other accounts of his bloody deeds.

Just as tonight’s “Jack the Ripper” vows to unmask the real Ripper, so does a live two-hour program airing Wednesday (8 p.m. on Channels 11, 6 and 63), “The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper,” with Peter Ustinov playing host to a slew of determined Ripperologists. The biggest news here is not that the Ripper may be exposed, but that Geraldo Rivera will not be there to do the exposing.

CBS’ “Jack the Ripper” gives us Michael Caine as Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline, a Scotland Yard mastercop charged with investigating the Ripper, whose first victim was a penniless prostitute named Mary Ann Nichols and whose method of killing suggested a surgeon or someone else skilled with a knife.

Abberline and the loyal Sgt. George Godley (Lewis Collins) methodically begin their work but immediately are confronted by mysterious obstacles, social ferment instigated by a rabble-rousing anarchist and a hysterical press that whips the public into a frenzy and puts pressure on the government.

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Producer-director David Wickes and his co-writer Derek Marlowe also give Abberline a romantic flame in the person of newspaper artist Emma Prentice (Jane Seymour), who is so irrelevant that you have to believe she’s there only because there was a spare bustle and no one else to fill it.

In the theory department, Wickes and Marlowe suggest that the murderer had an accomplice--they were Jacks the Rippers, presumably--and that the duo used a coach with the royal seal to travel to the victims.

Hence, Abberline’s suspects include Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson and second in line to the throne (in reality, the prince’s name didn’t publicly surface as a suspect until more than 80 years after the murders). Also high on Abberline’s list is American actor Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), who is able to hideously transform his face while starring in a London play based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Then, too, there is mysterious police surgeon Dr. Llewellyn (Michael Hughes); the anarchist George Lusk (Michael Gothard); a sneering coachman named Netley (George Sweeney); the queen’s ghoulish psychic adviser, Robert Lees (Ken Bones); the devious Dr. Acland (Richard Morant) and Acland’s father-in-law, the royal physician Sir William Gull (Ray McAnally). Don’t forget about police commissioner Charles Warren (Hugh Fraser), either--or Abberline himself in light of Caine’s radical wardrobe change to the mad butcher in “Dressed to Kill.”

And don’t discount a surprise appearance by Elvis.

The “Jack the Ripper” script never does fully justify Abberline’s early obsessive interest in the slayings of a few prostitutes in an area where violent crime was already rampant. And when it comes to manhunts, this one has to be the most inept ever. A deranged killer is loose, and most of the time the only cops you see stalking the foggy streets are Abberline and his trusty assistant.

Do give the writers credit, though, for shrewdly slipping in some dialogue relevant to the 1988 presidential campaign. Dr. Gull could be referring to TV appearances by each candidate when he hypothetically advises Abberline about the Ripper: “He’ll probably appear quite normal, until his insanity rears its head.”

In an exciting conclusion, meanwhile, seven of the potential Rippers hit the streets almost simultaneously, one of them surely headed for a police trap and the promised expose.

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Which one is it? I don’t know: The outcome was excluded from the cassette given to reviewers. Four different endings were filmed, according to the producers, with not even the actors knowing which will be part of the program.

Meanwhile, only two of CBS’ possible Rippers--Dr. Gull and Prince Albert Victor--are among the six candidates listed in the publicity material for Wednesday’s “The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper.” Will the two programs agree on the Ripper or Rippers? And, more to the point, does anyone really care?

Hit the road, Jack.


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