DI Reid's Victorian heroes return to wreak havoc on the Whitechapel underworld. Their only weapons are slow-motion action sequences, arty cinematography and the Elephant Man.
You can tell it’s autumn because the
TV channels are trotting out their big drama shows, either new ones or
returning favourites. Promoted from Sunday to the primetime Monday night slot, Ripper Street is rather appealing because
if Sam Peckinpah had directed Downton
Abbey, it would surely look like this.
Watching a first scene that has a
Victorian policeman smash through a window to be impaled on iron railings, you
know the next eight Monday nights are going to be lively. Ripper Street is the anti-Abbey:
whereas ITV trots out (increasingly dull) theme park history, the BBC opts for
a roll in the historical gutter. The grimy mise
en scene emphasises bloody wounds, poverty, sex and slo-mo violence.
Whoever did the casting is a genius, as all the actors look like they’ve
stepped straight out of a Dickens novel’s illustrations.
The set up is that Detective
Inspector Edmund Reid (MatthewMacfadyen), his sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome
Flynn, successfully rehabilitated after the crimes of the Robson and Jerome
years) and cigar chewing American doctor Captain Homer Jackson (the sardonic
Adam Rothenberg, keeping the overseas salesmen happy) deal with the criminal
elements of Whitechapel in the wake of the Jack the Ripper murders. Reid was a
real person, but there the connection with reality ceases. Although the love of
seedy historical realism might suggest a British Deadwood, the different inflections in Ripper Street’s incidental music – Western, thriller, action show –
pin point the series’ gleeful mixing of genres in a Victorian setting. This
always makes for an entertaining brew, even if it’s not always that demanding a
The interesting thing about the show
is that every 19th century innovation that comes along is shown to be
corruptible: synthesised drugs, London’s underground railway and the
kinematograph, among other things, have all been the fulcrum of the series’
plots. (It’s weirdly similar to when Life
on Mars, shown in the same Monday slot, would showcase The 1970s Issue of
The Week). Last night, the villains invented heroin with the co-operation of a
Chinese concubine, which was a good excuse for London bobbies to be trounced in
frenetically edited martial arts sequences. That’s another thing: Ripper Street is without a doubt the
most violent British TV series for a long time. Presumably it gets away with it
because it’s set in the past?
Because the whole thing is so
heightened, I can live with the anachronisms – I don’t think Reid would have
ever used the phrase ‘reverse engineered’, let alone known what it means – but
serious lapses in plotting is another thing. All last night’s arty direction
and authentic period grime couldn’t hide a hole in the plot that you could have
driven a hansom cab through: you don’t tell your chief suspect that one of his
injured men is going to make a statement against him, particularly when Reid
should have known the crim was likely was to go straight round and shoot the
bewilderingly unguarded informer full of a lethal dose of heroin. Even the
normally dependable Macfadyen looked like he couldn’t quite believe the dialogue
he was required to say.
That said, on its past form Ripper Street is appealing enough to
keep me in front of the box for the next two months of Mondays. Although Reid
claims to uphold the law, last night he admitted that he can make it up as he
goes along. As the man is getting his laundry done by the local brothel madam,
the wonderfully named Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) and his wife has left him,
Reid is clearly on the edge, so it will be intriguing to see if his Judge Dredd
complex is developed. There’s also a great new recurring villain, the equally
wonderfully monikered Jedediah Shine (Joseph Mawle – another made up name,
It may not be Breaking Bad, but Ripper
Street consistently entertains as great, grubby fun.