A riveting docuseries explores why police failed for years to catch Peter Sutcliffe.
“It was a fish and chip murder,” journalist Alan Whitehouse says in the first episode of Netflix’s recent true crime series The Ripper, describing the brutal 1974 death of a sex worker named Wilma McCann — the kind of murder that quickly becomes yesterday’s news. “I spent very little time thinking about people like Wilma McCann.”
It’s an irresistibly blunt way of describing the cultural attitudes that would doom the victims of Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, subject of the largest, most expensive, and most notoriously botched manhunt in British history. In Britain, the Yorkshire Ripper investigation is a case study in what not to do. And the first thing the police did wrong was to ignore the victims because of their class and presumed profession.
The Yorkshire Ripper case is one of those stories that you eventually just absorb if you’re a true crime follower like me. It’s why I cringe when there is news of an investigation involving the West Yorkshire police, even today, four decades after Sutcliffe was finally apprehended. Over the course of the five-year investigation, Sutcliffe was questioned by police nine times but never considered a chief suspect. Between those chats with investigators, he murdered at least 13 people and attacked at least eight more. When he was caught in 1981, after years of police missteps, lost opportunities, false leads, and rampant miscommunication, it wasn’t because of detectives closing in on him at long last, but because of an unrelated traffic stop.
The Ripper, released in December, just one month after Sutcliffe’s death in prison from Covid-19, covers all of this, as many documentaries do. But from its opening moments it emphasizes the why of the investigation, instead of the how, and that makes The Ripper one of the most gripping true crime docuseries I’ve seen lately. That’s because the “why” of the Yorkshire Ripper case is “misogyny,” and directors Jesse Vile and Ellena Wood never let you forget it.
The Ripper has been criticized in the British media for glamorizing and glorifying Sutcliffe. The victims’ families called out Netflix in particular for renaming the series from its less salacious working title of Once Upon a Time in Yorkshire. Salon argued that it reduces Sutcliffe’s victims to their alleged sex work. But having watched it, I strongly disagree with that assessment. Throughout the four episodes, the focus returns again and again to Sutcliffe’s victims and to the women of Britain who were impacted both by the culture of fear his crimes established, and by the blatant sexism of the criminal investigation and the public’s reaction to it.
We see footage of Reclaim the Night marches, held by frustrated women in protest of police encouragement to keep women indoors after dark. We hear appalling transcripts of police case notes in which victims’ personal histories were ransacked and demonized because of sex work and/or their “loose morals.” The documentary calls attention repeatedly to the inherent victim-blaming of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation — which in its early stages involved police actually differentiating publicly between the “respectable” victims and the other sort. Misogyny is a well-known facet of the Yorkshire Ripper case, but in this series, it frames the narrative, and the result is striking.
Equally effective is the way Sutcliffe himself gets downgraded in significance. When we first see him, it’s at the moment he enters the courthouse after his arrest. Police have bundled him into a bulky overcoat that completely covers his head, as hundreds of members of the public shout at him in outrage. So that’s how we meet him: with a bag over his head. As Whitehouse puts it, “He was a very insignificant man.”
Compared to, for example, the slow pans of Richard Ramirez’s body that we inexplicably see in Netflix’s recent Night Stalker docuseries, this de-emphasis really jumped out at me.
At one point in The Ripper’s fourth and final episode, the documentary even delivers something like a fake-out based on our expectations of the way this sort of serial killer documentary usually goes: The voiceover reminds us that we still haven’t seen Sutcliffe’s face — only for the episode to cut to one of Sutcliffe’s earliest surviving victims, Tracy Browne, describing his assault on her when she was 14. As she describes her encounter with Sutcliffe, we’re shown a photo — but it’s of Browne as a teen, not him. The voice, face, and identity of the survivor have commandeered the narrative away from the criminal, and it feels like a small victory.
The documentary also repudiates the idea that Sutcliffe ever targeted “prostitutes” at all. This narrative took hold early on, but The Ripper does a good job of pointing out how unfounded that idea was, and how much ground investigators lost as a result. The series could probably have spent an entire additional episode on tracking the many solid but overlooked leads in the case that ultimately boiled down to sexism.
For example, investigators noted Sutcliffe’s resemblance to the physical description one of his survivors had provided. But this resemblance and other signs pointing to Sutcliffe were repeatedly dismissed because they didn’t fit lead investigator George Oldfield’s belief that the killer was from the northeast region of England. And that fixation itself was inherently sexist, since it directly contradicted the eyewitness accounts of women — survivors who’d heard Sutcliffe and described him as having a local Yorkshire accent.
The Ripper unfolds nonetheless with empathy for both the victims and the police. Hundreds of detectives and beat cops worked tirelessly to catch the killer but were foiled again and again by the limits of technology and shortsighted leadership. Yorkshire police, hampered by a lack of computers and easily searchable databases, kept everything relevant to the case on note cards. I knew this in theory; but seeing their unwieldy system at work — police erected an enormous metal Rolodex-like wheel of thousands of index cards in the middle of the office, which they organized using an indecipherable cataloging method — drives home just how immense, intense, and impossible the investigation was.
There were some details of the sprawling case I wish had gotten more scrutiny in The Ripper. The most competent aspect of the investigation — the systematic way that determined detectives nearly tracked down Sutcliffe by tracing a five-pound note he left at the scene of one attack — gets mostly skimmed over. There’s no mention of the time that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher censured the police for taking too long to catch the Ripper. (For a deeper dive into these and other details, I highly recommend Casefile’s four-part podcast series on the case.)
But some cases are so big that no single documentary can do them justice. And if The Ripper had to sacrifice some well-known story beats to center the less well-known ones, like how Sutcliffe’s crimes affected women who lived through the era and were mad as hell about it, then I’m in favor of those cuts.
It’s an approach I hope more true crime documentaries consider, not only because it makes for better, more informative entertainment, but because it can arguably make for better, more informed detectives. The Ripper soundly argues that removing sexist hurdles from police investigations improves their odds of ending with a successful solve. That having a police force committed to believing and respecting women makes them less likely to chase their own tails and more likely to catch criminals. In the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, it was a hard-won lesson — one still in need of revisiting.
Author: Aja Romano