AS I watched the trailer for Ripper Street, BBC1′s new Sunday night slice of primetime for stay home round the telly winter’s nights, a succession of troubling and random thoughts cascaded through my mind. But before we get there, let me recap on what happens (or you can simply click the link above – thanks youtube, thanks BBC). We open on a shot of the glistening new Olympic Stadium, artfully retouched to blur out all the nasty grubby bits of East London that stubbornly
refuse to disappear, no matter how much Olympic flavoured fairy dust is sprinkled upon the area. The camera pans down through a bank of thickening cloud and when we emerge below we have been transported back to 1889, cheerful guttersnipes run down cobbled streets delivering coal and turnips (be quick lad, Victorian Whitechapel’s life expectancy means you’re unlikely to make it past 14) and the adults occupy that strange ground beloved of Jack the Ripper tourists, where everyone is either a prostitute, drunk or both. Respectability for men is conferred by the wearing of a bowler hat. A voice solemnly intones that, Olympics over, it’s time to go back to a colder, darker, scarier age. Clever stuff – visually grabbing and the BBC manages to yoke its new drama to the back of its hugely successful 2012 Games coverage, while reminding everyone of how solidly the Beeb stands for everything good in British drama and sport, and giving a heads-up to the American audience (they’re hoping Ripper Street plays big in the US) as to where exactly Whitechapel is. (That’s London, England sir).
Except, the pedant in me cries that if you panned down thus-wise you’d be in West Ham, not Whitechapel, as the perspective on the site is from due East. My second random thought was ‘won’t my team look nice playing in there’. I’m a West Ham fan you see – no glory hunting for me. My next was how the cosy Sunday night viewing has changed on the BBC. Crime has always been an element, strangely. But where we once had Hamish McBeth, Pie in the Sky and Lovejoy we now have the ritualistic evisceration of sex workers recast as family viewing. Onto my fourth thought, ie, how the hell are they going to do Jack the Ripper again. It’s a story that’s been, ahem, done to death, and as we all know, he never gets caught, so very unsatisfying as a procedural. But here is where I was derailed, because this isn’t Jack the Ripper, it’s the Whitechapel Murders as a franchise. A year later the East End is still in a state of febrile terror – has he finished, will he be back? And every murder or sex crime (of which the East End of 1889 had its share) whipped the terror up again. So we have Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Edmund Reid, desperately trying to damp down panic and speculation. We have newspaper reporter Fred Best (David Dawson) excellent as he was in Edwin Drood a year ago, mischievously redecorating murder scenes to make them appear the work of Jack the Ripper. And we have glum Inspector Fred Abbeline (Clive Russell playing the sole genuine historical character) still mightily pissed off that he never nailed Jack, and working with Best to keep the public interest bubbling (the Met and Fleet Street getting over-cosy is obviously nothing new).
And so Jack the Ripper becomes merely a device, a starting point from which to spin off a whole other raft of tales about Victorian London’s surfeit of death, misery and prostitution. Episode 1 was actually rather good. Again, the pedant in me finds it hard to watch Victorian Whitechapel street scenes that don’t look anything like Whitechapel, but then you’d have a hard job filming down Brick Lane these days and maintaining any historical illusions – too many curry restaurants and Shoreditch hipsters in monocles and spats. Ungentrified Victorian Dublin will fit the bill just fine for most viewers, just as Chatham did in Call the Midwife.
Ripper Street trailer from BBC TV
The interesting twist was in pursuing a line from Victorian prostitution to the early days of photo-pornography and thus to snuff movies. Historially accurate? I’m not sure – and certainly the brothel and its staff all seemed suspiciously squeaky clean and jolly. But historically interesting for sure, and tied nicely together with the tech-savvy Reid using photographic evidence, and even knowing how darkrooms work. And our American cousins even get an ex-Pinkerton detective as a medical examiner. Everyone is superbly flawed, as per every detective procedural, though it came as a disappointment to see that Reid wasn’t a bent copper but was merely fixing bare knuckle boxing matches as an elaborate entrapment … He still looks troubled, though that might just be Matthew Macfadyen’s face. But how refreshing, in this post-Sweeney world to see a policeman (Jerome Flynn as Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake) not merely questioning a witness but beating the words out of him till he can barely mumble them. Drake then surpasses this by not simply restraining the guilty man in the final act, but running him through with a sword. None of your namby pamby rehabilitation there. We look forward to tonight’s thrilling instalment.