|Bruce Robinson (centre). Photo by Murray Close. www.murrayclose.com|
It'll come as no big surprise that round these parts we're interested in whatever Bruce Robinson, best known as the writer and director of Withnail and I, is up to. For many years, the answer has been, at least in public, 'not much'. He resurfaced in 2011 with The Rum Diary, a film of Hunter S. Thompson's novel which its producer/star Johnny Depp persuaded Bruce to adapt and direct, and one suspects he still works as an uncredited script doctor on various films, but the lion's share of his time for the past decade and more has been taken up with a massive research project.
Bruce Robinson has discovered the identity of Jack the Ripper, and he's been busy writing the Ripper book to end all Ripper books.
As long ago as 2003, he was telling the Daily Express: "The 'mystery' is complete rubbish. They knew and I know exactly who the killer was. By 1892 they knew his name unequivocally. My book has taken four years and it will burst the mystery open once and for all. It's the dirtiest political story I've ever come across. The whole thing is a juggernaut of lies. The mystery is a complete invention – there isn't one. When my book comes out people will either think I'm completely barmy or be appalled at how craven and cynical people could be."
Fast forward to 2011, and Robinson started mentioning the project in interviews to tie in with the release of The Rum Diary, including this one: "I’ve been working for 14 years on the same book, about the Whitechapel murderer, which is kind of an obsessive passion of mine at the moment. But the problem is, I spent half a million pounds on the research of this book and it’s unbelievably expensive because you can’t just walk into the Metropolitan Police and say: “Okay, get it all out, come on I want to see it…” Because all of those, we remember very well the dodgy dossier over Iraq… well, exactly the same thing applies to Jack the Ripper, all the Metropolitan Police files are all completely faked, they’re all complete bollocks all of them, so it’s a difficult area to be working in. But it’ll take me another two years to finish that."
Around the same time, Will Self visited Robinson's home, and reported that an entire converted barn had been given over to a 'Ripper Research Unit', "complete with groaning shelves, bursting filing cabinets and a brace of desks." Though the manuscript had reached 800 pages, Bruce was not ready to publish: "I need it locked down. I don’t want there to be any doubts expressed at all, and for that I need to do more research — and that costs."
Since then, there has been no sign of the book. The nearest thing to an announced publication date was this mention in his Random House author bio here: 'For a dozen years he's been working on a history of the Whitechapel Murders which he hopes to publish in 2013 to coincide with the centenary of 'Jack the Ripper's' death...'
Evidently, his hopes to publish in 2013 have been dashed, unless there's a Morrissey-style last-minute reveal to come in the next month. Somehow I doubt it. But wait, that little mention is actually a very tantalising sentence: 'to coincide with the centenary of Jack the Ripper's death'. The murders took place in 1888, and of course the Ripper has never been identified... but Bruce's candidate evidently lived on until 1913.
So who is it, who has Bruce Robinson unmasked, and how did a jobbing film writer/director get caught up in Ripperology in the first place?
From what I can piece together, the chronology goes something like this.
Back in 1993, The Diary of Jack the Ripper was published, in a flurry of worldwide publicity. The story of the diary, purported to be by Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick, its discovery, and the vehement arguments about its veracity which ensued could (and have) take up several books. The bottom line is that even the Ripperologists who think it's a fake don't believe the guy who 'discovered' it, and later claimed he wrote it, actually had anything to do with its creation, but they don't have an answer for who did fake it. (It's a long and tortuous tale, brilliantly told in this book.)
But back to Bruce Robinson. UK copies of The Diary of Jack the Ripper are prefaced by this quote:
"If this Diary is a modern forgery — which I am sure that it is not — and if I were the faker, then I would consider it to have been the summit of my literary achievement." — Bruce Robinson, Oscar nominee and scriptwriter of The Killing Fields and Withnail and I.
So, Bruce was evidently impressed by the diary (though you'll note that he leaves open the possibility that it is an old forgery), enough to lend his name to a nice puff quote. Not surprising then that he was soon reportedly attached to a film version of the book, called Battlecrease (the name of Maybrick's Liverpool house). The diary movie was hot property for a while, and there was talk of Anthony Hopkins playing Maybrick, but after several years in development, the Johnny Depp Ripper film From Hell came along, and killed off any chance Battlecrease had of reaching the screen.
By this time however, we are to assume, Robinson had uncovered something in his research for the film which he wanted to continue pursuing, even if it was going to take him a decade or more, not to mention half a million quid of his own money.
Working with the veteran Ripper writer Keith Skinner, his attention turned (according to a poster on the thread here) to James Maybrick's brother, Michael, a popular singer and composer of the day who also went by the name Stephen Adams. In 1893, at the peak of his success, Michael married his housekeeper, and retired to the Isle of Wight. "By 1892 they knew his name unequivocally," Robinson said. Hmmm. Add in the facts that Michael was a very high-up Freemason, and that he died in 1913 (when Robinson has already revealed his candidate died) then it's hardly proof if proof be need be... but could this be the face of Jack the Ripper?
Here's hoping that one day soon, Bruce Robinson's book is finally published. Whatever his conclusions, one thing's for certain: it'll be brilliantly written. It's also going to be very, very long. In 2008, I attended a recording of Radio 4's The Reunion, celebrating Withnail, at the NFT. Afterwards, I took the opportunity to get the great man's autograph, and ask him when we were going to see his Jack the Ripper magnum opus. "Few more years yet," he said with a big grin, holding up his thumb and forefinger several inches apart. "The fucker's this thick!"
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2014:
Well, a book called The Name of the Ripper: One Man's Obsessive Quest to Discover the Identity of History's Most Notorious Serial Killer has appeared for preorder on Amazon. It's coming out in April 2015. Bated breath doesn't cover it.
UPDATE FEBRUARY 2015:
No doubt to avoid confusion with the similarly titled 2014 release Naming Jack the Ripper, Robinson's book appears to have undergone a name-change to They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper. The publication date has also slipped to September 2015...
UPDATE JUNE 2015:
Confirmation that Michael Maybrick *is* Robinson's suspect: read more here.
... and the blurb for the book has been released. It just makes me even more intrigued...
The iconoclastic writer and director of the revered classic Withnail & I—"The funniest British film of all time" (Esquire)—returns to London in a decade-long examination of the most provocative murder investigation in British history, and finally solves the identity of the killer known as "Jack the Ripper."
In a literary high-wire act reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Errol Morris, Bruce Robinson offers a radical reinterpretation of Jack the Ripper, contending that he was not the madman of common legend, but the vile manifestation of the Victorian Age's moral bankruptcy.
In exploring the case of Jack the Ripper, Robison goes beyond the who that has obsessed countless others and focuses on the why. He asserts that any "gentlemen" that walked above the fetid gutters of London, the nineteenth century's most depraved city, often harbored proclivities both violent and taboo—yearnings that went entirely unpunished, especially if he also bore royal connections. The story of Jack the Ripper hinges on accounts that were printed and distributed throughout history by the same murderous miscreants who frequented the East End of her Majesty's London, wiping the fetid muck from their boots when they once again reached the marble floors of society's finest homes.
Supported by primary sources and illustrated with 75 to 100 black and white photographs, this breathtaking work of cultural history dismisses the theories of previous "Ripperologists." A Robinson persuasively makes clear with his unique brilliance, The Ripper was far from a poor resident of Whitechapel . . . he was a way of life.
And here's another version from the Harper UK site...
For over a hundred years, ‘the mystery of Jack the Ripper’ has been a source of unparalleled fascination and horror, spawning an army of obsessive theorists, and endless volumes purporting finally to reveal the identity of the brutal murderer who terrorised Victorian England.
But what if there was never really any ‘mystery’ at all? What if the Ripper was always hiding in plain sight, deliberately leaving a trail of clues to his identity for anyone who cared to look, while cynically mocking those who were supposedly attempting to bring him to justice?
In THEY ALL LOVE JACK, the award-winning film director and screenwriter Bruce Robinson exposes the cover-up that enabled one of history’s most notorious serial killers to remain at large. More than twelve years in the writing, this is much more than a radical reinterpretation of the Jack the Ripper legend, and an enthralling hunt for the killer. A literary high-wire act reminiscent of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson, it is an expressionistic journey through the cesspools of late-Victorian society, a phantasmagoria of highly placed villains, hypocrites and institutionalised corruption.
Polemic, forensic investigation, panoramic portrait of an age, underpinned by deep scholarship and delivered in Robinson’s inimitably vivid and scabrous prose, THEY ALL LOVE JACK is an absolutely riveting and unique book, demolishing the theories of generations of self-appointed experts – the so-called ‘Ripperologists’ – to make clear, at last, who really did it; and more importantly, how he managed to get away with it for so long.