Hard Medicine and Bad Money
An exclusive Ripper Street interview with MyAnna Buring
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2014
Damian: At the conclusion of our previous interview for series two of Ripper Street, we briefly mentioned the stage production of Strangers on a Train produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson which you’d just begun rehearsing. What was it like to work with the custodians of the James Bond franchise?
MyAnna: Great fun. Barbara was very hands on and has a work ethic, generosity, and positivity that is simply extraordinary. I know that might sound over the top but she is a very impressive human being and great to work with. Having met them it is not surprising that her and Michael have managed to keep the legend of Bond flourishing all this time.
Damian: While we’re on the subject of trains… No, I’m only joking – it’s more than my life is worth to reveal too much for those who haven’t seen it yet. However, I’m reminded of our discussion about the series two opener last year when you said that “the episode should bring Ripper Street crashing back into people’s living rooms”. Do you think Whitechapel Terminus, the first episode of series three tops this?
MyAnna: I think it does. I must have some sixth sense to have phrased it so last year – or maybe my phrasing last year planted some seeds, subliminally, in the writers minds? Or not… In any case, the show is definitely coming crashing back into living rooms once again.
Damian: Previous press releases have promised that we will see you returning in more of a “starring role” this time. Was this something that you personally championed for or is it simply the natural evolution of Long Susan’s character given the story and plot lines for series three?
MyAnna: No – you can’t champion for such things… if the story doesn’t have a place for you then it doesn’t. You can’t force it to, and it is not my place to force writers to write for me if they don’t feel it’s right – I would never even attempt such a ludicrous thing! Having said that, I have always felt that Rose, Susan, and Cobden were integral characters in the show, so it makes sense that we continue to be so… Richard Warlow and the producers had always had an idea that this is where Susan would end up in her character arc – a kind of Godfather of Whitechapel is how they put it to me – and as Richard, Toby [Finlay], and Will [Gould – executive producer] mapped out this season they felt it was right to go there and I am very glad and grateful they did, as she, as always, was such fun to play.
Damian: Series creator/lead writer, Richard Warlow, and Toby Finlay, who has written more episodes than any of the other contributing writers have provided Susan with many outstanding dramatic scenes and dialogue over the past three years but I’m wondering who knows your character best. Do you ever give Richard or Toby notes on their scripts with reference to Long Susan Hart?
MyAnna: Toby and Richard both get Long Susan and as they’ve gotten to know me I have definitely found Susan using language that I myself use – for example, words such as ‘delicious’ crept into Susan’s vocabulary this year which is a very me thing to say… Also I think they know all of us actors so well now – not only personally, but also what we can do as actors – and they seem to have written very much with that knowledge in mind – this season in particular I’ve noticed that… I’ve never given them notes, although we’ve had chats about where we feel Susan is emotionally – just to confirm that we are on the same page.
Damian: You’ll undoubtedly remember some negative comments regarding the portrayal of women when the first episode of Ripper Street was broadcast back in 2012 and before such hasty commentators had even given the show, or indeed, its female characters a chance to evolve. So, it’s with a certain degree of amusement to observe that Susan, in addition to exhibiting enormous strength and determination herself, has chosen to align herself with some incredibly powerful women such as Jane Cobden (Leanne Best returning in her role from series two) who was the first woman to be elected to the London County Council and helped shape the women’s suffragette movement, and also Dr. Amelia Frayn (a new character played by Sherlock’s Louise Brealey) partially inspired by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Whitechapel-born political campaigner and the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor. “Obsidian” was introduced at the end of the last series, can you tell us a little bit about how this has now transformed into a clinic and Susan’s relationship with Jane and Amelia?
MyAnna: Yes even as a feminist – I struggled a little with the misogynistic comments… It is absolutely important in our industry that we keep an eye out for the messages we put across in our story-telling: we do still live in a society where there is inequality and in a culture where casual sexism, racism, prejudice does not help to address this inequality… we need to insist on change.
It is to be celebrated that we can voice our concerns, and as valid and right as that sometimes is, I would argue that at other times this right allows us to make bold statements about whether or not something is or isn’t misogynistic based on a crumb of evidence: one scene, one image… a little more attention may reveal the context in which the scene is shot and may flip our initial knee jerk reactions to it.
RipperStreet is at its core, structurally, a procedural cop drama set in the streets of Whitechapel – streets still reeling from the violent aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s horrific murders of local prostitutes. At its helm is a male police officer flanked by two “helpers” – one brains and one brawn – (there were no female police officers at the time, and even though the show takes liberties with the truth – there are certain constraints by which it abides in order to make the “world” of the show believable).
This is the core structure of Ripper Street and it is the streets of Victorian Whitechapel – this dirty, poor, socially unjust back drop against which all the Ripper Street characters wrestle out their lives… it is against this back drop that the characters question and challenge, and try to fight the misogyny, the corruption, the social and moral bankruptcy – without the images of inequality all around them the show could not make a case for the importance to fight it… the characters are not necessarily any of those things themselves – Reid, Drake, and Jackson are all supporters for the most part of the women in their lives, I feel they are quite evolved in this respect, and the women they are surrounded by are to a large extent written as fully fleshed out humans like the men are as opposed to simply caricatures – if they are victims of their circumstance then I would argue that all the characters in Ripper Street – male and female are fighting those very circumstances.
The nature of a TV show means that some characters develop quicker than others in order to drive the story telling – which is perhaps why some of the female characters may have felt less developed to begin with… It takes time to get to know some people, the same goes for characters… We always knew Susan was at odds with the limitations her society placed on her sex and that she would always be drawn to people and situations who challenged them, the writers had discussed this at length and that was why I was drawn to the project in the first place three years ago… The inclusion of the characters of Cobden, and Frayn was not, I believe, a response to the critics of the first episode, but the natural evolutionary result of a story based in this particular place and this particular time with these particular characters.
So, like I said, Susan always struggled with the injustice of the world she was born into and for her, especially towards the end of the last season, she becomes clear in her conviction that to swing the pendulum of power to favour a woman she needs money and a financial hold over people. She tells the dying Duggan that she will amass his wealth, make it her own, and with it take his place as the most powerful person in Whitechapel.
Cut to season three, four years later she has done just that… however, her dream is to use this power to build a better Whitechapel for its people…She builds a clinic – Obsidian clinic – and brings in a female doctor to run it, and is in the process of building affordable housing for which she has received governmental support in the shape of Jane Cobden. Two women who, like her, are challenging the perceptions of what women can do – however, in the case of the first she is doing it, not through business, but through her education and medicine, and in the case of the last through the means of politics: political campaigning, engaging with and drumming up the support of the disenfranchised people she represents… all equally impressive means to achieve the same end…
Damian: In previous interviews with female Ripper Street cast members, I’ve discussed the Gilbert and Gubar feminist theory concerning how women during the Victorian period were portrayed in fiction as either “angel” or “monster”. To be absolutely clear on this, I have always defended the women of Whitechapel as depicted in the show as incredibly complex and multifaceted but I found Susan’s actions in series three, with particular reference to end of the second episode, The Beating of Her Wings (by Toby Finlay) to be unforgivable and, indeed, truly monstrous. Does the end always justify the means and, on a moralistic level, has Susan passed the point of no return?
MyAnna: It is an incredibly monstrous act she commits… I would argue it is no more or less monstrous because she happens to be a woman – wouldn’t you agree?
Damian: I dare not do otherwise!
MyAnna: It is written – as are so many of Rippers’ scenes – precisely so, in order that we question whether the end justifies the means – that is one of the over riding themes of Ripper – we keep coming back to it… There is a wealth of source material in the world to draw from; look around us at the acts committed everyday in the world – that we, our communities, politicians and bankers justify… what is justifiable? Ripper does beg the question, however, from whose perspective are you shown the series of events? And how does this influence our judgement of them? Susan is driven, due to the world she has suffered in and for, by a vision of a greater, safer, fairer world – an altruistic vision – which without her to ensure it’s manifestation will simply never materialise – not in the way she sees it.
She feels incredibly strongly that she needs to protect this vision. Also, she has been presented with information that makes her question the behaviour of Inspector Reid – and until she is certain his actions were innocent she will definitely NOT risk losing all she has strived so very hard for to protect him – but it’s not as if it doesn’t cost her…
Damian: Although I fully empathise with Susan’s history, ambition and protective loyalty towards her friends such as Rose Erskine, why can’t she forgive Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) despite his copious collection of flaws and certain peculiarities of temperament?
MyAnna: Come ON?!?! The love of her life, her husband – the only man she has ever truly loved – has due to his idiocy, gambling, and inability to take clear action (that doesn’t involve running away), forced her to essentially sell her body to the filthiest, most corrupt and vile human being in all of Whitechapel. I’m sure if you had that dirty corruption hammering away over you and into your body, taking physical and financial ownership of you, stripping you of your precious independence, turning the only small place of safety you had in the world to ruin, you would feel pretty resentful of the person who you feel helped make it happen… or perhaps you are more forgiving than Susan? Or perhaps Jackson’s sweet charms would mean you wouldn’t mind taking one for the team for him?
Damian: *Clears throat*
MyAnna: Having said all this there is and always will be an inexplicable bond between these two characters – that unquantifiable and mysterious connection, gravitational pull some people just have between them… so the question lingers will that ultimately pull them together despite the deep hurt between them? Or have the actions of the past cut scars too deep and wide to overcome?
Damian: It seems to me that almost all of Jackson’s actions leading up to the shocking climax of series two were made because of his love for you. There were some truly heartbreaking scenes between the two of you as evidenced in the following excerpts of dialogue between the two characters from the last year’s grand finale, Our Betrayal (by Richard Warlow):
SUSAN: A moment comes in a woman’s life when she may no longer deal in dreams. This? This is fantasy… or is it death? – and it might well be both. No. Captain Homer Jackson. Matthew Judge. Husband. No. I will have no more of you and your dreams. The world is what it is. And I must live with that.
JACKSON: Look, whatever it takes darling, till my blood be spilt, I will find what it takes to make you smile again. Only allow it. Allow me the opportunity, this opportunity.
Without any more pain to feel, has Long Susan Hart become the heartless or might she smile again?
MyAnna: I don’t think anyone ever becomes heartless, but the protective wall Susan has built around her heart, is thick and tall… She cannot allow herself to feel too deeply, because to do so is too painful…she wrestles with this, but, ultimately, the best she can hope for is to help those in need and less fortunate than herself, to create some kind of monument to make her existence worthwhile, and to protect herself, make herself infallible to all the people who threaten her independence, her dignity, and to the man who took her heart and smashed it to smithereens…
Damian: For me personally, and I’ve told you this before, one of the many pleasures of the show is watching the relationship between Susan and Rose, played so wonderfully by the voice of gaiety herself, Charlene McKenna. I remember thinking that one of the tragedies of cancelling Ripper Street, and I genuinely mean this, was the thought of your two characters not sharing the screen again. Did you and Charlene keep in touch during the show’s hiatus?
MyAnna: We are all aware of your soft spot for dear Rose and Charlene – we all share it with you and join the queue! She is simply joyful. Rose is one of Susan’s few close friends and luckily for me Charlene is one of mine. We all keep in touch – it is a very close show…
Damian: Charlene painted a wonderful portrait of the relationship you both share when she told me that the two of you “snot, sing and laugh all over each other”…
MyAnna: Yup – pretty much sums it up!
Damian: MyAnna, it is always a great pleasure and a privilege to do these interviews – thank you very much indeed.
MyAnna: Thank you.
Damian Michael Barcroft