Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

RIP Ripper Street

Something a bit different today. After castigating the BBC's recent efforts at historical drama - namely The Tudors and The White Queen - I thought it only fair to applaud the effort that went into Ripper Street, and mourn its premature demise. After just two series, the BBC have cancelled the show, quoting poor ratings and the need for 'creative renewal', whatever that means. 

Bye then

For those who haven't seen it, Ripper Street is a melodrama set in 1890s London, and follows the adventures of the local police of H Division in their efforts to retain a semblance of order in the chaotic, poverty-stricken slums of Whitechapel. The title derives from Jack the Ripper: though Jack himself has vanished from the streets shortly before the beginning of the first series, the police are still weighed down with guilt at their failure to catch him. That failure, as we know, was never redeemed. Inspector Frederick Abberline, who in reality was in charge of the Ripper case, features as a character, though for some reason Clive Russell plays him with a Cockney instead of a West Country accent (Abberline was from Dorset).

Frederick Abberline

The series has been much-praised for its realistic depiction of life in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden quarters of Victorian London, and for not pulling its punches in depicting the often brutal and illegal methods employed by the main character, Inspector Reid (Matthew McFayden) and his hard-nut sergeant, Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, playing a Cockney version of Bronn in Game of Thrones). The recreation of Whitechapel itself can hardly be faulted, with its narrow, crooked streets and alleys, beggars, matchgirls, tarts, pimps, and grimy urchins. No prettied-up version of the past here. Whitechapel is liberally coated in shit, and the people look suitably grimy, pale, underfed and exhausted.

The crimes that H Division deal with are usually extremely bloody, often political - the second series in particular has dealt in themes with some relevance to 2013, with homosexuality tackled in one episode, Irish 'terrorism' in another, corrupt bankers etc  - and clumsily handled. No-one could accuse the upright, violent sobersides Reid of being a particularly brilliant detective, and I sometimes wished Sherlock Holmes would turn up (it was the right period) to sneer at his methods. However, that would probably result in Holmes being escorted to the cells by Drake for a quick beating.

No, Reid, that is not a clue

I'm not wholly convinced that the series is as realistic as it claims. Despite all the stabbings and garrottings and gory fistfights, it is sometimes guilty of the usual sin of TV historical drama i.e. imposing modern values on the past. Episode Five of Series Two, 'Threads of Silk and Gold', was particularly guilty of this. Dealing with the issue of (male) child prostitution, it packs in as many abusive Victorian terms for homosexuals as possible, and depicts Sergeant Drake as a casual homophobe. Being an innately decent man, however, despite his rough habits, he eventually learns the error of his ways and appreciates that gay people are no different from the rest of us. This is designed to appeal to the thinking of a modern audience, and bears no relation to the grim reality of 19th century attitudes towards homosexuality: the chances of a rough, uneducated Whitechapel police sergeant changing his attitude towards 'mollies' were about as great as mine are of winning the Eurovision Song Contest.

Nit-picking aside, Ripper Street was a compelling watch, and got better as it went on, losing the slightly disjointed feel of the first series and successfully fleshing out the characters. One of my peeves was Adam Rothenberg, playing the dissolute American surgeon/rogue Captain Homer Jackson. He was practically inaudible in some of the earlier episodes, speaking through his nose while chewing on a cigar, but someone seems to have told him to speak up. Once I could hear what he was actually saying, the darkness and cruel wit of Jackson came into sharp focus.

Overall, then, the ambition and gorgeous production values of Ripper Street are to be applauded, even if it occasionally fell flat. The cancelled third series, with all the bugs ironed out, could have been spectacular, but the BBC apparently knows better than we mere peasants. More space is needed in the schedules for the likes of Strictly Come MasterChef Celebrity Dancing (or whatever) so you can stick your interesting, well-made, thoughtful period dramas, and get ready for a further barrage of glittery tat.

PS: Just caught a story in The Guardian that the producers of Ripper Street are in talks with LoveFilm to film a third and maybe even fourth series, so perhaps all is not lost...

9 comments:

  1. I agree with much of this ...but I did have a big problem with the dialogue, which frequently bordered ob the sloppy and frankly appalling ''knock yourself out'' said one character. This detracted from the narrative and spoilt the series for me - OK, I write Victorian fiction so it is a personal gripe. Sadly, after the ubiquitous Downton, people's tastes seem to be more for 'upstairs/downstairs' stuff...(even more woodenly scripted). One day, I really would like to see a series that ''does''' the setting authentically ..streets 4 inches deep in horse shit and rubbish everywhere. Why are all these historical dramas so CLEAN?

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    1. I forgot to mention the dialogue. It veered between trying to sound authentic - Reid always spoke in very formal, precise tones, even when he was beating someone up - to modern slang!

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  2. Despite Carol's objections to Ripper Street, she continues to use it to market her own book on Twitter, which seems just a little cynical.

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  3. Because shows like "MasterChef Celebrity Dancing" seem to be the norm in American television, we count on British TV to bring us well written, well researched period dramas. I hope BBC America will soon be showing Ripper Street.

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    1. Sadly, the majority of British TV is taken up with dancing, cooking and reality shows etc. Thank God for HBO!

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    2. I guess we have good things to share!

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    3. Petrea Burchard, You are right Indeed, We have a lot of things to share but the only problem is we are not able to share everywhere.

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