Jack The Ripper – No Comedy

Argus title :

At times, when I look at the pages of the Argus I can’t quite believe my eyes.

There was a moment like this when I read that an amateur theatre company is performing a musical “comedy” about Jack the Ripper, who murdered and horribly mutilated 5 women. It’s be staged at Brighton University’s Sallis Benney Hall.

The poster for “Jack The Ripper – The Fun Musical” depicts the body of a dead women flanked by policemen and the killer alongside the words “A musical romp around the streets of Whitechapel”.

In fact, the killings terrorised working class women in the East End, who had no choice but to travel on foot through foggy and dangerous streets. My own grandmother, who was a small child at the time living in Edinburgh, remembered clearly the terror that little girls felt at the time.

Peter Hall, Chairman of the Brighton Musical Theatre Company has defended the play, describing it as “fun”. He claims it sets audiences “laughing” and “tapping their toes”.
Charlie Daniels, a former prostitute and brothel owner, has disagreed.

Ms Daniels, who ended her career as a prostitute 10 years ago, said:
“to me the nature of this so-called comedy is simply tragic. I also think the timing is in poor taste, bearing in mind the recent Ipswich murders.
“The Victorian Ripper became an icon for serial killers. His victims were real women – they were not fictional characters. …..Had the women he killed not been prostitutes I wonder if this ‘comedy’ would ever have been written.”
She is right. “Jack’s” sadistic killings provided a blue print for many subsequent woman killers. And it is less than a year since a serial killer butchered 5 prostitutes in Ipswich. The man accused of their murders is shortly to come to trial.

It is true that this play has been performed before, but public attitudes are changing. People are now aware of the widespread nature of sex trafficking and conscious that many thousands of prostitutes work under duress or to feed addiction. In the wake of the Ipswich killings, people have begun to realise that prostitutes are at constant risk of violence.

In the past, when prostitutes have been killed, the police and the media have tended to present them as partially responsible for their fate, making a cruel and profoundly sexist distinction between “innocent” victims and prostitutes. This was certainly the case in the 1970s, when Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, terrorised women in the North of England.

However, in December last year, when the brutal killing of prostitutes began in Ipswich, the response indicated a sea change. The police spoke about the women with respect, acknowledging that in every case they had been driven to prostitution by heroin addiction. There was widespread media and public outrage at the suffering of the women and the risks they bore in their day to day lives.

Given this shift in consciousness, it would be a great shame if the people of Brighton – a city which prides itself on its enlightened views – put their enjoyment of light entertainment above their commitment to combat hate crime. For hate-crime is what this is.

Prostitute-killing is violence against women based on desire for ultimate physical control. Serial killers, like serial rapists, may rail against “slags” and “whores”, but it is women in general that they hate. Prostitutes are just an easy target.

Brighton University is committed to promote equality and human rights. I suspect it would not even consider hosting a musical comedy – however “toe-tapping” or “humorous” – about the Holocaust, racist lynchings or homophobic murder. Yet for some reason it seems to accept that the serial butchery of female prostitutes – one of the social groups most vulnerable to hate crime – is a suitable subject for light entertainment.

It is one thing for a production such as this to be staged in a privately owned theatre, quite another to seem to have the imprimatur of a publicly-owned seat of learning.

Some have likened the play to the light opera “Sweeney Todd” – but the so-called demon barber who cut customers throats and cooked them in pies is a fictional character, not based in reality.

His story does not reflect and has not inspired, a pattern of crime against a particular social group. Male customers are safe from assault by their hairdressers. Women, especially prostitutes, remain at risk of widespread male violence.

The organisers have cited the film of “The Producers” which poked fun at Hitler in a deliberately tasteless way. However, the difference here is that, despite its insensitivity, it did not present genocide as farce nor make the names of holocaust victims part of the plot line.

This debate has exposed a wider area of concern. This is a more general unwillingness in many institutions of learning to properly address issues of sexism and violence against women. This is reflected in government, which refuses to categorise violent sexual crime against women as hate crime and repeatedly fails to effectively address issues of sexism and sexist bullying in schools.

I was horrified to discover that, while some enlightened schools, as part of the History GCSE syllabus, offer options on women’s struggle for suffrage, others choose to offer their 14 and 15 year olds a specialist course on Jack the Ripper. One local school used to arrange a trip to the London Dungeons as a supposed “history excursion”.

Those setting the history syllabus may have thought that the potential for prurient exploration of sex murder might attract and engage students, especially boys. If so, it is a revolting thought. An internet examination of coursework topics and teachers’ worksheets makes it clear that little if any thought is given to how such a subject might distress girls (and non-sexist boys) or impact upon power relations in mixed sex classrooms.

Small wonder that examination boards are now expressing concern about the level of extreme violence revealed in some GCSE creative writing coursework – and the inflated marks it has received from schoolteachers.

I asked Brighton University for a comment, but none was forthcoming. I spoke with a theatre company representative who told me he felt “harassed”. He expressed the view that Charlie Daniels had attacked the play to promote her own book “Priceless: My Journey Through A Life Of Vice” – and assured me that on the internet she had all but admitted this and retracted her statement.

In fact, when I re-examined comments on the internet I found no admission or retraction, but did discover a number of personal attacks on Ms Daniels. Several of these suggested that she had used the issue to promote her book – which was in fact published over a year ago.

Some of the comments were both sexist and insulting, such as the contribution from Dave in Hove who wrote: “A whore getting all jumpy about a comedy relating to an act in history?? Mmmmm, self promotion me thinks!” And John who wrote: “Hiring a prozzie £50. Writing a book about being a prostitute and calling it Priceless. Priceless.”

What characterizes these comments is a sexist refusal to take Ms Daniel’s seriously and intense irritation at being challenged. These men appear personally affronted that a prostitute has dared to speak out.

Ms Daniel’s wrote in response: “Thank you to those of you who placed ME personally on trial (instead of my views) and to all of those who called me things like “shallow” & whore, and to the person who said I was a hypocrite for becoming spiritual…… didn’t it occur to you that I do recognise my own faults and have tried to turn my life around?”

She wrote of her book: “ it WAS self-promotion – however this is becos (sic) the book was written in order to turn my negative experiences into positive ones – and in doing so to help other women in the industry…… My friend Lyndsay Bourne was murdered & chopped up by a Stuart Burns (do a search if you doubt me) the killing of street girls really is no laughing matter.”

I doubt the men in question will have the inclination to do the computer search. So I did it. Lyndsay Bourne’s body was found in woods near Leeds in September 2004. She had been beaten to death and dismembered, her body parts ferried to the wood in sacks and black bin liners. She was just 28 years old.

I’d say there wasn’t a lot to tap your toes to in that.

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