The Victorian thriller Ripper Street has again been getting down and dirty on BBC1. It's third series is better than ever.
|I fought the law, and the law... (Image copyright: BBC)|
Regular readers will know about my enthusiasm for Ripper Street, BBC1’s Victorian melodrama. For newbies, it’s based around the fictional Whitechapel cases of the decent but repressed Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), his equally conflicted deputy Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, unrecognisable from the family-friendly Soldier, Soldier) and the decorated and often drunk American military surgeon Captain Homer Jackson (if you’ll forgive me, a ‘spirited’ performance by the great Adam Rothenberg).
With its authentically grisly look at the squalor of the Victorian era, the series was a breath of fresh air for BBC costume drama after the cosiness of such fare as Larkrise to Candleford. Ripper Street wasn’t to everyone’s taste, certainly, which is why, for a while, it looked as if it was all over after the second series. It was a relief, then, when Amazon Prime Instant Video (previously LOVEFilM) picked up the funding for a third series, which would be shown on BBC1 several months after it was available on Amazon.
Ripper Street has always been unapologetically bleak. But the third series, in the best traditions of the Victorian Gothic novel and perhaps because it premiered online, has gone to some psychologically very dark places. Reid has been reunited with the daughter he believed dead, who’s been through harrowing mental agony because of her imprisonment by a childless couple, as well as her father’s investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders. ‘Long’ Susan (the glacial MyAnna Buring), Jackson’s estranged wife, drifts slowly into corruption while she paradoxically tries to improve the lot of Whitechapel’s citizens. Meanwhile, Drake is still grappling with his feelings for ex-whore turned actress Rose (Charlene McKenna), as Jackson oscillates between his surgery and a battle with the bottle. In one of the series’ best examples of Grand Guignol, he goes out drinking with a dead pig, dressed up in a hat and jacket, which he christens ‘Reid’. You wouldn’t see that on Call the Midwife.
|(Image copyright: BBC)|
That’s what sets Ripper Street apart from being a Victorian Deadwood, the HBO series that similarly revelled in the gutters of its era: the poetic and twisted strangeness. The most striking example, unusually in this image-obsessed age – as well as the reporter with a china ear, victims drowned in beer and a little girl who believes she’s a fairy – is Ripper Street’s dialogue. It’s ornate, gothic, even existential, a stylised Victorian idiom the actors clearly relish delivering. Delicious lines like ‘there is a stench around this man’ and ‘the clown we see cavorts everywhere but the stage’ fit Macfadyen’s simmering portrayal of an honourable man brutalised by the horrors he’s witnessed, while Flynn’s Drake (above with Reid), who looks like he belongs in a Dickensian thriller, has a neat line in earthy philosophy, with pearls of wisdom like ‘we fight monsters, we become monsters.’ A sign of the writers’ attention detail is that even the names of pubs reflect the visceral ambience; my favourite – The Lamb and Kidney.
Ripper Sreet 3’s debut online may be another reason why, this time around, the production team has played around with the series’ narrative. As well as the relationships between characters weaving satisfyingly and more prominently through each episode, they’ve tried a shock cliffhanger halfway through the season and a story told more or less in real time. The online environment is also more relaxed about violence, so, more than ever, Reid and his crew can shoot, punch and head-butt their way through the Whitechapel underworld like Old West gunmen (the composer recognised the similarity from when Ripper Street first started, with cheeky snatches of Western-style music from the title theme on). Notably, one story ended with the most violent scene shown on BBC television for years, as Reid repeatedly smashed a suspect’s head into a wooden post. Surprisingly, as far as I could see, no-one in the media even noticed it; perhaps a sign of how the social impact of terrestrial TV has dwindled.
The running story of the third series – Long Susan’s attempt to build a social utopia built on theft, dirty money and violent intimidation – sums up the whole ethos of the series, of basically decent people being contaminated by the brutal world around them. Striving for social acceptance through good works, abetted by her sinister adviser Mr Capshaw (softly-spoken John Heffernan, who easily wins the award for TV Villain of the Year), the irony is that Susan has become more of a criminal than when she ran a brothel. The disparity between public and private life is pleasingly authentic to the realm of Victorian fiction, and, significantly, still murmurs contemporaneously today.
Ripper Street Series 3 ends tonight on BBC1. It’s a bit late to give it a go if you haven’t already, but a DVD/Blu-ray box set is imminent, so you can sink into the loquacious Victorian ambience at your leisure. Be aware, though, that the set apparently has the edited episodes shown on BBC1, rather than the longer ones seen online.
So – Series 4, Amazon? By God’s boots, do not deny it!