NOTE: This interview contains spoilers that are best avoided until you have seen the first three episodes of Ripper Street Series III
This is how Grandmother will tell the story, a hundred years hence:
Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it,
Him and his innocent child; for which foul deed
The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures…
The Tempest – III.3
Talking Cure & Chimney Sweeping
An exclusive Ripper Street interview with Toby Finlay
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2014
Images copyright © Toby Finlay/Will Gould
Damian: Toby, you have written the following episodes of Ripper Street: The Weight of One Man’s Heart (Series 1. Episode 5), Tournament of Shadows (1.6), Threads of Silk and Gold (2.5), A Stronger Loving World (2.6), The Beating of Her Wings (3.2) and Ashes and Diamonds (3.3) not to mention your collaboration in devising the overarching story. You are therefore, the most prolific of cuckoos in Richard Warlow’s nest. How so?
Toby: Well, I suppose you’d have to ask Richard that question. We knew each other from before Ripper Street was even a twinkle and we’d got along and had a mutual respect, but it was during Ripper that we found our writing was simpatico in a lot of ways and intriguingly different in others. I think we pushed each other a bit over the three seasons, and it’s always good to be working with someone you want to beat.
Damian: To what extent was the aforementioned overarching story and individual plots for series three planned prior to the news of Ripper Street’s cancellation last December?
Toby: Back in September 2013 – before the cancellation – Richard and I (along with Joe Donaldson our superb script-editor and Will Gould, the exec producer and godfather of the show) went off to a hotel in the countryside for a few days and started throwing ideas around. What we storylined were the big beats of the first four episodes. We had the bones of the stories to a greater extent in some episodes than others. (For instance ep 3 with the clairvoyant was just something we kept bandying around as a joke about a dead clairvoyant who didn’t see it coming, and it was very much later that I realised there was actually a story in there, so I kept the line as a little in-joke). And then, as we were all set to work deeper on the stories and Richard and I were primed to commence eps 1 and 2 – the show was axed. So everything was on ice. It was only in February or so of this year that we got the green light again and suddenly realised we had to work out those stories and indeed the rest of the series.
But the shorter answer is, we knew we wanted the train crash – that was something Richard had harboured for a while, I think – and to bring back Mathilda. And to make this overarching story Reid versus Susan, really put them both through the ringer. We certainly wanted to make Susan at the fore of this narrative and give her a sort of Breaking Bad journey into darkness. So the core of series 3 was definitely planned prior to the axe, even though the individual stories were very much in gestation and much of the work came after Amazon saved us.
Damian: I find it difficult to believe that series three would have begun four years later in 1894 if the show hadn’t have been cancelled at the end of its second series. There must have been sacrifices made in terms of story and certain characters?
Toby: Actually the time jump was always the plan. I’m not sure we’d settled in 1894 specifically but there was definitely the intention of leaving a few years for the characters to have developed or sunk or fallen apart in the intervening time. Luckily, everyone who we wanted to bring back was willing to come back. The end of series 2 was such a cliffhanger that it felt unexpected to drive forward in time like that. And if it’s unexpected, it’s interesting.
Damian: And were there any creative conditions imposed by Amazon?
Toby: None. In fact they were keen to exploit the lack of scheduling or watershed restrictions, which is why the Amazon versions are longer and in some cases more explicit in language and image than the versions which will eventually screen on the BBC. The Amazon versions are, if you will, more like the “writers’ cuts”.
Damian: Before we turn our attention to your two episodes for series three, I wanted to follow up on an issue that troubled me from our previous interview when I asked you to what extent the views of Faulkner (the antagonist from The Weight of One Man’s Heart) might reflect your own personal political ideology and you respectfully declined to answer. While I respect your decision to keep your politics to yourself, I was disappointed that you went on to say that your own personal views as a writer are not important. Would an interview, for example, with Stanley Kubrick regarding Dr. Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange not be enhanced by a discussion of his political ideology or perhaps a discourse on the protest genre and radicalism with Bob Dylan?
Toby: Kubrick and Dylan were/are notoriously tricky interview-fuckers who would refuse point blank to be pinned down. I’m sure an interview with Dylan about the protest genre and radicalism would be thrilling, but you won’t find one. You’ll find him telling you to keep a good head and always carry a light-bulb.
I stand by what I said last time, which is that I write partly to play with ideas and weave masks… but you can assume generally that I wouldn’t put fire behind the writing of it unless on some level I believed in it. Beyond that: read the tale, not the teller.
Damian: And from politics, we naturally move on to religion. A wise man once wrote that a man without faith is a man without hope. For comedic effect or otherwise, you have sometimes portrayed yourself as a “Bad Jew”, do you entertain any particular religion or spirituality?
Toby: I believe in Larry David.
Damian: There is actually a valid reason that I ask you this but rather than repeat previously documented material, I would direct the reader to our original interview with reference to your visual fetish with birds. However, I would like to explore the possible psychology behind such riffs pertaining to winged creatures in more depth and point out that in The Beating of Her Wings alone, the following are referenced either visually on screen, spoken through dialogue or described in possible wordplay or puns through action notes: cockerel, capon, rookery, vultures, swallow, lark, pupa, butterflies, fairies as well as a parrot outside the exotic bird shop adjoining H Buckley: Antiquities & Curiosities and also mention of da Vinci (famed for his human-powered ornithopter designs and possibly the first European interested in a practical solution to flight).
So, back to the original question of spirituality which can manifest itself in a variety of different ways from organised religion to the more personal such as private prayer or reflection, meditation or yoga. Given that our brain processes sensory experiences, it is inevitable that we will look for patterns and pursue their meaning. To what extent would you give credence to the following interpretations?: the pre-totemistic soul-belief of the Semang and other tribes believed the bird was one of the earliest of spirit animals which had to be killed so as to release the soul, the Holy Egyptian bird was a symbol of resurrection, transformation and immortality, mediating between the earthly realm and the heavenly world – perhaps the human soul undergoing spiritual development, the soul’s desire for transcendence or desire to escape (freeing a bird from captivity as was the case in The Weight of One Man’s Heart relating to the release of one’s own emotions or primal energies) and for Freud, birds were obviously sexual symbols representing the penis…
Toby: They’re penises. All of them.
I have no problem with any interpretation. I am apparently drawn to birds for some reason, as we discussed in the last interview. The imagery and… I suppose the word is “symbolism”… speak to me. But I couldn’t tell you what they say exactly. I try to feel the pulse of whatever I’m writing and sometimes if I feed it with interesting things it will throw back interesting things in return. I remember reading an interview with Paul Auster a long time ago about his brilliant novel Moon Palace, when he was asked a similar question about the imagery and language of the moon, which is everywhere in the book. And he said, basically, that some of it is deliberate and some of it happily accidental – but borne of the fact that you’ve harboured these ideas and notions for a long time, and so certain elements of language and image will just find their way to forming connections and spilling out onto the page.
Damian: Was the appearance of the aforementioned parrot a visual allusion to the historical Edmund Reid and his eccentric future in Hampton-on-Sea?
Damian: You’ve told me in the past that character is the key thing for you as a writer and if it came down to choosing between compromising the integrity of a character’s story or bending history, you would always choose to sacrifice the history. Obviously Ripper Street is not a documentary, however, I thought it was clever of Richard to incorporate the history of Joseph Merrick and the timeline of his death (2.1: Pure as the Driven and 2.2: Am I Not Monstrous?) into the events of series two without deviating too far from the known facts and remaining true to the man, the character’s psychology and motivations. In complete contrast to this however, and I speak with specific reference to Reid’s actions towards the end of series two and the shocking climax of The Beating of Her Wings, is there not a moral argument to be made against possibly changing the perception and reputation of real characters from history?
Toby: That’s an interesting point, and I think there absolutely is a moral issue. In fact I have a general rule that I won’t do biopics or true stories because I feel very uncomfortable about the dramatic liberties that are invariably required. I mean, I’ve seen some great biopics or factual dramas. But I have a problem with approaching that kind of material myself.
However, the Reid of Ripper is very much a fictional construct who happens to share a name with the Reid of history. I have deliberately never even read a biography of the real Reid, which is perhaps how I handled the issue I just mentioned. So in other words I just hid my head in the sand for my own moral convenience.
Damian: So Richard and yourself have never been creatively constricted by the destiny and historical events of characters such as Reid and Fred Abberline in terms of telling your story?
Toby: No. At least I never felt constricted. I realise what I’m saying seems to run directly counter to what I said to your previous question. But I never claimed to be anything more than a confused mess of contradictions.
Damian: There are several omitted scenes from The Beating of Her Wings, which is often the case with writing for films and television where there is always a pressure to adhere to certain running times. The first cut of some episodes (such as your A Stronger Loving World) can be as long as eighty minutes which then have to be whittled down to sixty for the final cut. I’m particularly curious about scene seventy (from TBOHW) but can you also give us a flavour of what we will unfortunately never see from your two episodes for series three?
Toby: No. It doesn’t matter. I’m not sure what scene 70 was and I don’t want to return to the script now. It’s made, it’s done, it’s gone. It was probably something transcendentally awesome but I don’t want to look back. We shark onward, to meet the next black wave with teeth bared.
Damian: The themes and motifs of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, including power and control, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness, not to mention Ariel, a spirit of the air!, were well-suited to The Beating of Her Wings (as was the case with Antony and Cleopatra and The Weight of One Man’s Heart) and beautifully interwoven throughout your script. It strikes me as an inspired and profound analogy and yet there is almost an element of inevitability surrounding its use as though it had been part of a shared vision from the very beginning. At what point in the genesis of this episode did it become apparent that there was such a close connection to water and sea creating disaster in the lives of the main characters in both The Tempest and Ripper Street?
Toby: The story of Reid and his catastrophe on the boat with Mathilda – and therefore the notion of water as nightmarish – obviously goes back to the beginning of the show, but the Tempest parallels and motifs came about only as I was writing The Beating of Her Wings. I’m not sure exactly at what point it occurred to me, but all of that was very deliberate. I suppose it was similar to the process of The Weight of One Man’s Heart in that there was a stage during the composition where I realised I was riffing on certain things – in this case water and fairies – and I wanted to throw The Tempest in. I do these things largely for myself because… I don’t know. I suppose it keeps it interesting for me to make these connections.
Damian: In addition to The Tempest, we can’t ignore other possible references although I’m not sure to what extent they are all intentional or not. There is a certain young lady named Alice who is introduced in The Beating of Her Wings who previously went by the name Mathilda which just so happens to be the same nickname of one of Alice Liddell’s sisters (Tillie, short for Matilda was Edith Liddell’s actual nickname).
There is also the matter of the caterpillar but in your second episode, Ashes and Diamonds, you also have Alice say to Long Susan Hart, “You’re the Queen around here” (thus Hart becomes the Queen of Hearts). Additionally we have various riffs on mirrors and their reflections (perhaps for the benefit of those in the cheap seats Alice also remarks, “So many looking glasses”) referencing Carroll’s second Alice story, Through the Looking Glass, which features a chessboard and is indeed structured like a game of chess in terms of its narrative – you also make copious allusions to Kings, Queens and pawns throughout both of your episodes. Furthermore, and if that were not enough, it would be remiss of me not to remind the reader that Lewis Carroll has since become a Jack the Ripper suspect – albeit an extremely unlikely one. Curious to say in the least or are some of these observations the ramblings of a pretentious madman?
Toby: No. All of that was deliberate layering and weaving. But it’s also Moon Palace syndrome again. Some things happen unconsciously and then you realise it and follow those new threads down… well, down the rabbit-hole I suppose. But as with the Tempest references, this sort of game-playing is a thing I do, for myself and for whoever might wish to grab the strands.
Damian: There are also at least two references to King Arthur (in Ashes and Diamonds) but I particularly wanted to ask you about “the Wicked King” (The Beating of Her Wings) which Alice is so afraid of. I did a little digging and found the Romanic folktale entitled The Wicked King: Tales from the Lands of Nuts and Grapes (published in 1888 – such a memorable year!) and also The Tale of the Wicked King: A Story from the Field of Blackbirds (1915) which contains the following extract: “So he (the Wicked King) kept on, as long as the horse would go, even farther into the snow-covered wilderness of the mountain, until he was lost to human sight.” For me, this certainly resonates within the context of TBOHW but what is their significance to you?
Toby: I’m delighted those books exist but I didn’t know of them. What I did know about was the general obsession with fairies and fairytales which pervaded parts of Victorian culture and I wanted to engage with it. The Wicked King was something that sounded right to me, but as far as I knew it was something I’d conjured. If it was provoked by anything it was probably – though I’ve only just thought about it – the Yellow King in True Detective.
Damian: Why do you insist on having characters speak the episode titles, either word for word or phrased slightly differently, through their dialogue?
Toby: Actually this is a Warlow tic. I think he got it from Deadwood. It was something that I was not only always indifferent to but in fact ended up sailing against twice. There are only two episodes, as far as I know, where the title is not spoken verbatim – and they’re both mine. One is A Stronger Loving World, which is ALMOST but not quite spoken. The other is Ashes and Diamonds, where the title is not actually spoken but is engraved on the silver pocket watch which Olivia once gifted her husband and shows Drake. You can just about make it out if you freeze frame the close up of the watch.
Damian: Series three is rattling along at a staggering pace and many plot strands from the previous two years are being resolved surprisingly quickly. Is there a sense that both you and Richard are bidding farewell to Whitechapel?
Toby: Well. I can’t speak for Richard. And his connection to this show is longer and deeper than mine. But for my own part… Yes, I think that melancholic, valedictory tone in Ashes and Diamonds was not accidental.
Damian: Again, I would direct the reader to our previous interview [see link below], but I’m pleased to see your fascination with the Western endures (mainly through the character of Captain Homer Jackson) and there are references to the genre in Ashes and Diamonds. Also, as I’ve told you before, I particularly enjoy your affinity with the character and in A Stronger Loving World, Jackson says to Reid, “This entire day can kiss my holiest of holies… First, I’m gonna drink this. Then I’m gonna throw up. And then, (reaching for another bottle) I’m gonna drink this. And then I’m gonna pass out. Now, you wanna make use of my brain, do it now.”
This is pure Toby Finlay – won’t you miss writing for Jackson?
Toby: Fucking right I will. I’ll miss a great deal about writing for Ripper. Not only the key characters, but writing for those actors is a privilege I don’t know if I’ll experience again. I mean, I hope I’ll work with Matthew, Jerome, Myanna, Charlene and Rothenberg again – but probably not all together.
Amid all of that, though, the character who comes most naturally to me with his self-loathing and rage and bottomless romantic yearning is Jackson, and I have never before experienced a professional pleasure that comes close to writing that stuff and seeing Rothenberg nail it like the drawling dirt-bag he is.
Damian: Given our references to pupa and the butterfly, might your decision not to work on Ripper Street again mark something of a chrysalis and the transformation of your own career as a writer?
Toby: I don’t know. I just feel like it’s time to do other things. I’d never written television before Ripper, and now I’m going back to writing film for a while and I feel like I’m having to learn to write film all over again.… So… I don’t know. The uncertainty and terror is useful, an electric shock out of complacency.
Damian: Of all the episodes that you’ve written, what do you consider to be your greatest contribution to Ripper Street?
Toby: In terms of contribution, you’d need to ask Warlow. It’s his show. But since you’re asking me…
I think The Weight of One Man’s Heart was a significant episode for Ripper in that it was the first ep in which the crime story intertwined deeply with an intense personal drama for one of our main characters; and a lot of Drake’s backstory and his own dark myth came into being through the composition of that episode. I think that ep made both Warlow and I take a slightly shifted angle on the show as a whole.
Damian: And so we come to end of our final Ripper Street interview. Toby, on behalf of the birds, butterflies and indeed all the winged creatures, I wanted to say that Whitechapel will be a less interesting place without you in it. I admire your talent and I appreciate your inspiration. So long cowboy.
Toby: Keep a good head, friend. And always carry a lightbulb.
“O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”
My first interview with Toby can be found below:
All interviews and articles on this website are copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2014