When his service in BBC One’s Spooks was brought to an end courtesy of a car bomb, fans of TV drama were left wondering when Rupert Penry-Jones would be heading back to their screens.
Having played Richard Hannay in the corporation’s Christmas remake of The 39 Steps, he’s shortly to be seen in Whitechapel, a major three-part drama for ITV where he plays Joseph Chandler, a modern policeman investigating a Jack the Ripper copycat killer.
Discussing his latest role Penry-Jones is quick to point out that DI Chandler, his character in Whitechapel, is no hero. “He doesn’t have all the answers. He doesn’t know how to fix everything. He doesn’t kill the bad guy and save London like Adam in Spooks,” explains Rupert.
“He’s a bit less of an action man and a bit more cerebral. He doesn’t really like the sight of blood. Chandler is the total opposite to Adam in that way; he finds the whole thing quite scary.
“It was actually really nice to play someone who was not an action man for a change.”
Describing his character Rupert says: “DI Chandler is basically a fast track policeman. They call them ‘plastics’ in the force. He is destined for great things at the higher end of the police force but has to go through the ranks and work a little in each of the departments; get his feet wet.
“Whitechapel starts with him being given his first murder case which all concerned think is going to be a simple domestic. But of course it turns out to be a serial killer. So he ends up on this investigation having to muck in a lot more than he expected and realises he enjoys policing rather more than just sitting behind a desk.
“He is a slightly obsessive, compulsive, asexual guy. You get no insight into his personal life at all. It is all work with him.”
At first Chandler sits uneasily among his new colleagues; a rough and ready East End station.
But, as Rupert explains, the relationship between him and his men does develop during the series.
“To start with Chandler and Miles, his sergeant played by Phil Davis, absolutely hate each other. For Miles particularly, Chandler is everything he dislikes about the modern police force. But gradually they find a mutual respect for each other.”
Ripperologist Edward Buchan is another stumbling block between the two officers.
“Chandler likes Buchan from the start. He respects his ideas and thoughts on the case and they end up being good friends. Miles thinks he’s an idiot and a liability.”
Rupert says that the prospect of working with Phil Davis again was one of the things that attracted him to the part.
“The first thing that hit me was the script – a real page turner. I was totally gripped by this modern telling of the Jack the Ripper story. And I loved the relationship between Chandler and Miles. Even more so as Phil is an old friend from when we made North Square together, so that was an added bonus.”
Rupert admits he knew very little about the original 19th century Ripper before doing his research.
“To be honest I didn’t even realise he hadn’t been caught,” confesses Rupert. “I thought they caught the suspect in top hat and tails. I never realised that there was this huge conspiracy story going around.
“I found the research very interesting. I didn’t realise how gruesome it all was though. They really were the most awful murders. He did terrible things to those women, even eating bits of their bodies. He was the original serial killer.”
Many of Whitechapel’s pivotal scenes were filmed at night. Rupert recalls: “You can’t get very close to many of the original murder scenes but what was strange was while we were filming these big scenes we would see the actual Ripper tours walking past the sights. It was a bit surreal.”
“The night shoots were extremely gruelling on everybody. All the London boroughs have different curfews so we would only be allowed to film up to a certain time – some would be 10pm, some midnight and so on. It meant you couldn’t get a good run at the night shoots and we were always having to change our hours.”
But perhaps the toughest part of the role for Rupert was remembering the dialogue littered with names and dates and locations…
“When I was discussing all the victims I had the art department put up a big storyboard behind me. I used it as a prop to emphasise my speech but also as a prompt for remembering the names of the women who were killed. I had it all up there behind me to reference if I got lost.
“I find all that line learning rather tiresome but lines are easy to learn if the dialogue is good. And this was compelling.”