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The Ripper Documentary – A look at how one man shaped Yorkshire’s identity

9 mins read

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Available on Netflix, Rating 15

Content Warning: Mentions of murder and violence

I’ve always had a slight fascination with the Yorkshire Ripper. I was first exposed to the story when as a laugh in Year Eight my friends and I all typed our surnames into google to see what would come up. You can imagine my shock and terror at 13 when the first result was ‘Peter Sutcliffe’ with the information that he was a serial killer from the 70s who targeted young and vulnerable women. Obviously I immediately went home to confront my dad about the link in surnames and was relieved to find out we were not actually related. I do remember the conversation I had leading on from it with my father. At the time I thought it was hilarious about this connection, thought it would be a laugh at school.

My opinion on the matter swiftly changed as my dad told me his experience of the Yorkshire Ripper having grown up in Bradford in West Yorkshire his whole life. He was 12 when Peter Sutcliffe was finally caught in 1981 and it made his and my aunt and uncle’s lives hell growing up. It didn’t help that he was arrested not 15 miles from where my dad was living at the time and the all boys school he attended were vile, my dad recalling having hundreds of boys yelling ‘Jack the Ripper’ at him as he walked across the playground everyday. It really affected my dad, physically and mentally, he got into a lot of fights in school growing up because of the association and even now people will accidentally call him Peter (his name is Paul so he’s aware its a slip of the tongue).

As a result of this it has always been a touchy subject in my house because as much as my siblings and I can joke about being related to a serial killer we never really understood the impact the Yorkshire Ripper had on my dad’s family and the rest of Yorkshire. None of understood why my dad said he developed trust issues as a result of everyone he knew even his friends calling him ‘Jack the Ripper’. When the documentary came out I jumped at the chance to understand what it was like living in Yorkshire at this time, the fear, the apprehension everyone felt and how the social climate amplified this to a greater level. 

The documentary followed the murders in chronological order from 1975 when the first murder happened, spanning across four 50 minute episodes. Not only does the series look at the events of the murders and how the policing disaster but also the social and economic situation of Yorkshire in the 1970s. It was interesting to see how this played a part making this easier for The Ripper to act. The show played out through retellings and experiences of various people involved. There were police officers, police sergeants, journalists, surviving victims and some family members of those who were killed. It provided a well rounded look at the story and was captivating at every moment despite knowing how it was playing out. 

The chronology of how the Police handled the situation was also cleverly portrayed with the developing understanding of incompetence building with every episode, the final one filling in the gaps as a reflection once they had caught Sutcliffe. Even then it is astonishing at how badly they protected the women of Yorkshire and also how they spoke about the victims and by setting it out this way it despite how famous the case is it allows a sense of tension and intrigue .

One particular aspect of the documentary that I didn’t expect was the focus of a surge in feminism in the late 70s as a result of the deeply misogynistic response to the crimes. The expectation was as a result of the poor police work with their plan focusing around women not going out late at night or own their own anywhere. The response to restrict women instead of looking at the problem that it is acceptable to have women fearing being attacked by men showed what the priority was. It placed the idea that by women breaking these rules it is essentially their own fault for being attacked.

Victim blaming has become prominent in the past couple of years but the documentary showed how historic it actually is with the feminist movement fighting back against this mindset 40 years ago. Watching women talk about the ‘Reclaim the Night’ protests and how this had affected them was inspiring it, it made me think of my granny and my 16 year old aunt at the time and how they would have felt. There was a slight feeling of discouragement looking at how little we’d come in 40 years, barely any changes have been made with women still feeling unsafe late at night and on their own. 

The flow and focus of the documentary is important. Peter Sutcliffe is not introduced until the final episode and there isn’t a humongous spotlight on him as a serial killer. Obviously they look at his past to try and his trial but there isn’t a fanatical like focus or obsession with him like there can be with other documentaries around serial killers. Instead they gave the narrative back to the victims telling their stories, refusing to give him the attention and control he had for so long. Looking at the spark in women sending love letters to Chris Watts after the release of the documentary detailing how he murdered his wife and kids (‘The family next door’ also on Netflix) it’s important to tell the story right and to show the killer as a coward and someone we should stop giving our undivided attention towards. 

The documentary is a must watch on Netflix. It’s not dragged out, it’s informative and it’s important. It’s important to know how women’s fear of the night was used against them and how those in the power to help did nothing and allowed it. Documentaries like this show how the past can shape the future and we must use them as a learning tool to better our society. As a woman I hope something like this never happens again and the series sparked something inside me to never stop trying to change the systems put in place that allow the fear that is still here 40 years on to reign on. 

Featured photo credit – BBC/ Photofusion

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