Borhamwood Times - U.K.
Murderers who haunt the screen
Thursday 30th November 2006
Some of London's most infamous killers have been portrayed on film. PAUL WELSH looks at a few of the crime stories which have captured the city's imagination for centuries
This week we descend into the murky depths of murder most foul and three killers, two of whom came to Elstree Studios, albeit as screen versions of the real thing.
The first was also the first world famous serial killer and the first to give a national newspaper a headline that would sell a million copies.
He was, of course, Jack the Ripper, who prowled the streets of Whitechapel in 1888 and created a host of myths and a hundred potential suspects.
Nowadays it is felt he lived in the area he terrorised and some find it strange the police never caught him, leading to conspiracy theories about a royal prince, a freemason cover up and much more. The simple truth probably is that the area was swarming with candidates for the suspect, and Victorian coppers did not have CCTV cameras, blood matching, DNA or even fingerprinting to help them.
On screen, the Ripper is portrayed operating under the cloak of darkness and swirling London pea souper fogs, which was not actually the case. His escapades have certainly created an industry of ripperologists. I have been lucky enough to visit the Crime Museum, formerly known as the black museum', at Scotland Yard, and saw photos of the victims and the letters the murderer was supposed to have written. The curator insisted there were no secret files at the Yard which would name the criminal and I believe we will never know his identity.
In 1978, I walked around the murder sites in Whitechapel, some of which were then still relatively unchanged, which cannot now be said owing to themodernisation of the area.
They were about to shoot Murder By Decree at Elstree Studios, starring Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Doctor Watson, solving the Ripper crimes. It was a good movie and they built an excellent East End street set on one of the large stages.
At the time, James told me that he was enjoying the role and working at Elstree. He recalled: "The first time I worked in movies was here in the 1930s but the director said I was too wooden to be an actor and sacked me."
Our next gruesome guest from hell is Doctor Crippen about whom a film, starring Donald Pleasence, was made at Elstree in 1962. I am never sure why he is still so infamous today as he only murdered his wife. It is probably because he is regarded as the first murderer to have been caught by use of a ship-to-shore telegraph.
Crippen and his mistress, Ethel, were on board a steamer bound for Canada when he was recognised by the captain and was then pursued by Inspector Walter Dew across the ocean in a faster ship. By a strange irony, Insp Dew, as a young constable, had been involved in investigating the Ripper murders 22 years earlier.
Crippen had killed his wife, chopped her up and buried her in the cellar of their house in Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Town, which was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. He appeared a bespectacled, mild-mannered man and just before Bow Street police station closed, I sat in the cell in which he was held when Inspector Dew brought him back for trial. Subsequently, Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison and is still buried there in an unmarked grave.
Ethel was tried but acquitted and disappeared from public view. Later it was discovered she married and lived a quiet life until her death in the mid-1960s.
Donald Pleasence enjoyed a successful career up until his death in 1995 following heart operation complications, I met him only once when he told me: "I enjoyed playing Crippen as at that time I was fascinated by murder trials and sometimes went to the Old Bailey to sit in on cases."
Our final monster of the macabre is Reginald Christie who was a serial killer in London during the 1940s and Fifties. All his female victims ended up in his house or garden at 10 Rillington Place, which I also visited in 1970, when they were preparing to shoot the film of that name starring Richard Attenborough. It was an eerie and very seedy part of the capital and thankfully the whole area has been redeveloped with a garden where his house once stood. I seem to remember there were exhibits in the Crime Museum relating to this case and Christie got his just desserts when he was caught and hanged.
Today, houses of infamous killers such as Ian Huntley and Fred West tend to be demolished, to avoid them becoming tourist attractions, whereas Jack the Ripper walks in London are as popular as ever.
I guess there is nowt as queer strange as folk', but don't have nightmares, dear reader, for one thing is certain: Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, has been dead for many years, and Christie and Crippen are permanent residents of prison yards six feet down.