“How do you keep law in a lawless town,” the question is asked. The 1889 H division of East London is the answer we are given; the antidote to the chaos of Whitechapel.
On Sunday the 30th January, BBC1′s Ripper Streets burst onto our screens; the first episode of an eight-part series of a Victorian age, police procedural set in London’s East End. Created by the writers Richard Warlow (Mistresses, Waking the Dead), Julie Rutterford (Life on Mars, Shameless), Declan Croghan (Waking the Dead, The Body Farm) and Toby Finlay who have sculpted the story in the aftermath of the Whitechapel murders, six months following Jack the Ripper’s last murder. The main cast is headed by Matthew Macfadyen (Spooks, Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina), a talented stage and screen actor who fills the boots of Detective Inspector Edmund Reid; based on his real life namesake, head of H Division during the Ripper murders of 1888. The other leads consist of Jerome Flynn (Robson & Jerome, Soldier Soldier, Game of Thrones) as DS Bennet Drake, Adam Rothenberg (The Ex List) playing Captain Homer Jackson and MyAnna Buring (The Descent, Twilight) who plays brothel madam Long Susan.
The show is not shown to glorify Jack the Ripper, director Tom Shankland acknowledges that the story will not focused on catching the Ripper but the legacy, the affect his presence has taken upon the detectives and the community who fear the police will never catch the monster. The first episode, ‘I Need Light’, touches upon the Jack the Ripper case by having H division believe that a girl found murdered in the alleys had been slain by the notorious killer; a feature that I hope does not become an every week occurrence during the series for it would become droll and tedious, a variety of integration to link the titular to the series would be welcomed. It is up to our protagonists of H division to keep order in an otherwise chaotic city scape and to decipher the true culprit of the crime.
The episode is slickly introduced with the statement, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Whitechapel,” as an opportunistic tour guide leads his party of dark tourists towards the back alleys where Jack the Ripper’s victims were found. Their tour is juxtaposed with intercutting shots of the undercover DS Drake taking part in a bare-knuckle boxing bout, common now in screen portrayals of Victorian society (Gangs of New York and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes use this feature). The two sequences come to a climax with Drake defeating his opponent and the tour-master coming across a new body. Another “tart”, as they put it, who has been “ripped.” “Welcome to Whitechapel” indeed. We are introduced to Macfadyen’s DI Reid in the opening along with Drake as he too acts as an undercover officer. Reid is the upstanding and composed officer, haunted by his failure to catch Jack the Ripper whilst struggling with his balance between work and home, he rarely spends time with his wife Emily (Amanda Hale) due to his hectic work schedule. Eternally fighting for justice, he is a determined officer not unlike DS Drake yet the latter is a brutish man who, as contrast to Reid, uses his fist rather than intellect to get answers. The last member of the trio, and perhaps the most interesting, is the American Captain Homer Jackson. Jackson, described as a former Pinkerton detective and one time US Army surgeon, is a brilliant, yet reluctant, surgeon come autopsist. More interested in womanising and alcohol that he frequently indulges in, as if it was the oxygen of which he needs to continue his survival. His Sherlock Holmes style detective skills are shown when he attempts to decipher who the murderer woman is; he establishes she may have taught the fiddle and that she lived in the North by impressions in her clavicle and fingers from the instrument and soot in her hair from the underground train and its direction.
His mysterious past is also touch upon with his interactions with Long Susan who, it is revealed, came to London with Jackson whilst running away from an unknown entity. In my opinion, although I enjoyed the character of Captain Homer Jackson, he seems out of place in the show. I would question if he is simply a link to familiarise and engrain an American market into the series (for Ripper Street is co-created by the BBC and BBC America), his job and identity would have certainly not gone amiss if the character was replaced with a British counterpart, but then again there will surely by some mystique surrounding the young doctors roots and reason for emigrating to Whitechapel, I just hope that the writers convince me to become pro-Homer Jackson. Early In ‘I Need Light’ the trials and hardships that DI Reid and company must contend with during their investigations are revealed to us; the labyrinth of suppressed information, internal obstacle and the manipulation of information by the press; a great turn by David Dawson (better known as Toby Kent in Luther) portraying Star newspaper journalist Fred Best who altered the crime scene of a murder so it would seem that she was a new victim of Jack the Ripper as to sensationalise the murder and increase sales of the Star. The interplay between the three leads offers solace to an otherwise busy and dark plot. Humour is derived from the relationship between Drake and Jackson, the two critiquing each others character with Drake sarcastically claiming to Jackson’s detective skills, “has the Pinkerton been confirmed with spirits,” whilst Jackson tells Drake that his eyes were not ready to see the pornography they find. They act like two children fighting to be the favourite child to DI Reid’s parent. Drake is obviously the Watson to Reid as a Sherlock figure, this is played on with their good cop (Reid) and bad cop (Drake) personas, Drake being the muscle whilst Reid is the intellect.
The three combine their individual skill to unveil the identity of the villain and even receive help from the previous hinderer, Chief Inspector Frank Abberline (Clive Russell). They navigate several dangerous situations, including a fantastic fiery escape, before competing with time to save one of Long Susan’s employees, Rose (Charlene McKenna), from the grip of the “toff with whiskers” and his lust-filled plot. The episode ends with the saviour of Rose, no apprehensions but justice is served before Reid chastises both Fred Best and Abberine. Reid leaves the office, composes himself with a smile and walks on to fight another battle against the criminals of Victorian London.
The first episode, ‘I Need Light’, is filled with depravity, deceit and a dark tone that surrounded the action based set pieces whilst scenes of dialogue are drenched in mystique. Laced with sex, violence and gore, it may not be for the feint hearted. For some, the autopsy scenes may be a bit much. While you could argue that the episode is trying to push the boundaries of the grotesque in terms of its use of murder and sexual violence, you must accept that for the show to display any connection to Jack the Ripper, rather than just link the figure by newspaper clippings and dialogue, it will show scenes that depict murder; not unlike BBC favourites Waking the Dead and The Body Farm. Why watch a programme named after an infamous serial killer of female prostitutes and expect not to see the monstrous results of like deeds? Especially after the trailer depicted such actions.
The tone of the episode seemed oddly familiar and comparisons to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, regarding its style and set pieces. Ripper Street is not a comedy like Sherlock Holmes nor is it a modern retake like ITV’s Whitechapel. It is, in its own right, an entertaining and impressive piece of television, full of flair, atmosphere and great visuals. In my eyes it worked as a whole. The mise en scène conveys what I commonly associate with Victorian London, being squalid, bleak and confining, although it had been framed in a picturesque way under the gaslights. Its authenticity is crafted through the filming location of the series, an old Victorian barracks in Dublin, this added to the charm of the scenes. The pace of the episode allows the mystery to broods whilst giving time for character substances to be developed and hints at backstories to be exposed. To me the editing at the climax seemed, at times, a bit brash (rather than calling it interfering, only a personal opinion). The dialogue was somewhat poetic and a homage to the Victorian age. “This populous, still without a culprit, it is to our uniform that they direct their fury. So you stand strong and follow your sergeant,” Reid stated to his fellow men in their carriage, raising a little smile from me being a fan of late 19th century literature. Some terms that I was not acquainted with did pull me back from my escapist gaze though, but the set pieces made their relevance obvious (who knew the “snide” was a term for counterfeit money? It’s probably common isn’t it). The only problem I have with the dialogue was the monotonous way that the writers had attempted to integrate historical advances, such as the recently established underground trains or the newly built suburbs of Highgate and Finchley. I feel that the acting was on key, I only hope that there is more character development for Long Susan, a character underused in ‘I Need Light’ and surely who will be utilised in further episodes (I see her as a Victorian age Gillian Doherty, with more strength about her).
Even though the show has divided audiences with its dark tone and use of violence and gore, the episode attracted 7.89 million views, the highest amount of viewers for a BBC program that weekend whilst ranking 13th over the week as a whole in a competitive week of Christmas specials. I give the episode itself 3.5/5, worthy of a watch and a welcome addition to BBC programming that could eventually develop into something special. Having lived up to all expectations I drew from the highly advertised spree of trailers, I have been left intrigued, if this lasts over future episodes we will have to see.
You can catch up with episode one on BBC iplayer until 10pm on Sunday the 3rd of March if you live in the United Kingdom, for those across the Atlantic Ripper Street is set to premiere January the 19th at 9/8c on BBC America’s Dramaville season.
Let me know what you made of the first episode of Ripper Street, if you will continue watching the series or if not, why.
We are currently seeking TV contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a TV contributor, click here.