RIPPER STREET: Series One Review and analysis

RIPPER STREET
Series One Review and analysis by Damian Michael Barcroft
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“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”
The Simple Art of Murder  (1950) –  Raymond Chandler
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Throughout my recent viewing and subsequent writing and research on the BBC’s hugely successful Ripper Street, I am constantly reminded of this quote. Chandler, (born 1888) is one of the most significant authors to have defined mainstream American detective fiction and these immortal words describe arguably its greatest hero – Philip Marlowe. However, looking beyond the obvious wordplay – down these mean (Ripper) streets indeed! –  we might also apply these wholesome attributes to the incorruptible Detective Inspector Edmund Reid or at least his onscreen counterpart, the undoubtedly equally wholesome and incorruptible Matthew Macfadyen.
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Both Marlowe and Reid are the kind of heroes we would like to be if only we were born in the right period of history or perhaps most significantly, possessed the right set of attributes: tough-minded, loyal and indeed incorruptible. Marlowe and Reid must withstand and deal with the seamy side of life, walking the mean streets of Los Angeles and Whitechapel respectively. They both live in worlds where the socially, politically, racially and sexually conscious detective must prevail in order for those under their protection to live out any sort of meaningful and moral existence. They fight the battles that we are afraid to, they tolerate the pain that we cannot endure, they carry the scars and we – all of us – are quietly grateful.
The incorruptible Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen)

The incorruptible Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen)

Ripper Street’s central character, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid displays all these traits of a hero and more, yet he is not a man completely without transgression and his tragic past, both professionally and personally, continue to haunt him. Throughout the entire eight-episode run of the first series, we never know who he really is or what makes him so. Indeed, the same can be said of other characters in the show, especially his brothers in arms, Det. Sgt. Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) and Cpt. Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). It is this question of identity that one could argue is indicative of the entire production and I find it both amusing and somewhat ironic that in a back story centred upon the failed discovery of the identity of Jack the Ripper, that Ripper Street also fails to unearth a definitive identity of its own. As a purely British police procedural drama (therefore excluding its many American influences), it echoes everything from Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) to Prime Suspect (1991-2006) and as British period costume drama, it borrows liberally from a wealth of television culture including Sherlock Holmes and the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels to name but a few.
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However, to put this in a different and more positive way, there are simply so many good ideas going on in the series that they sometimes distract from individual episodes. It is as though the show is trying too hard at times but it really doesn’t need to because it’s already one of the most stylish and interesting of its kind on television at the moment and I’ve every confidence that it will find its own stride and indeed identity in the next series.
Brothers in arms: Reid with Det. Sgt. Drake (Jerome Flynn) and Cpt. Jackson (Adam Rothenberg)

Brothers in arms: Reid with Det. Sgt. Drake (Jerome Flynn) and Cpt. Jackson (Adam Rothenberg)

In addition to not ever focusing on any particular style or genre of its own, each week we are presented with a new, and sometimes superfluous, set of characters and themes/issues that while interesting, frequently distract from the main narrative of the show. These have included pornography and prostitution (01: I Need Light), child gangs and vigilantism (02: In My Protection), disease and hysteria (03: The King Came Calling), government/council conspiracy and capitalism (04: The Good of This City), war and post-traumatic stress disorder (05: The Weight of One Man’s Heart), anarchy and terrorism (06: Tournament of Shadows), commercial takeover and exploitation (07: A Man of My Company) and the sex slave industry (08: What Use Our Work). All these are undoubtedly fascinating and incredibly topical issues to explore but only if they are presented in a way that compliment a wider framework instead of halting the action and events for the sake of a sermon.
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Furthermore, Ripper Street wastes far too much time drawing on every scrap of Victoriana while taking a few too many historical liberties. Indeed, one is surprised that we haven’t bumped into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other celebrities of the period and perhaps it is only a matter of time before the Elephant Man makes an appearance. Instead, the writers should focus on what they do best and that is to showcase their brilliant array of characters and the excellent ensemble cast. The chemistry between many of the actors are particularly engaging and highlights must surely include, in addition to the three main male leads, the sisterly bond between Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) and Rose Erskine (Charlene McKenna), the love-hate relationship of Long Susan and Jackson, Drake and Rose’s doomed romance and H Division’s fatherly love for poor PC Dick Hobbs (the excellent and understated Jonathan Barnwell). His death provided a real and unexpected emotional punch and his absence will be a huge loss to the show.
RIP PC Dick Hobbs (Jonathan Barnwell)

RIP PC Dick Hobbs (Jonathan Barnwell)

Excellent production values and atmosphere have been consistent throughout the series marking it as arguably the most visually memorable television show in recent times. Many episodes also boast some exciting predicaments for the lads to escape from (the fire at the photographic lab, the seize at the children’s orphanage, the cholera outbreak, the race to prevent Lucy Eames’ (Emma Rigby) medical “treatment”, the shootout with Drake’s former colonel, the abduction of Rose and many more. Indeed, with the combination of some of the action set pieces and the brotherly dynamics of Reid, Drake and Jackson, the series often feels like an East End equivalent of a western complete with an American character although one could cynically argue that Jackson’s inclusion was designed to appease audiences across the pond as this was a co-production with BBC America.
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In a series that takes its title from Jack the Ripper, teases the audiences with copious references to the Whitechapel murders (the baker and his secret room full of newspaper cuttings and other assorted Ripper memorabilia – 03: The King Came Calling etc.) and even features copycat killings, or at least comparable disfigurement of the bodies (Maud Thwaites – 01: I Need Light and the streetwalker – 07/08 – A Man of My Company/What Use Our Work), one does feel somewhat underwhelmed and ultimately disappointed that the man wearing a top hat and carrying a Gladstone bag fails to make an appearance. Imagine what a great end to the first series and what a hell of a cliffhanger into the next installment it would have been had he emerged through the shadows and fog to claim just one more victim.
H Division

H Division

However, series creator and lead writer, Richard Warlow has repeatedly stated in interviews that he never had any intention of including the Ripper although I always suspected that he protested too much and this was merely an attempt to sidetrack the audience’s obvious anticipation and inevitable expectation rather similar to past Timelords who claim to know nothing about their possible inclusion in the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special. I would argue that the show would have worked equally as well, indeed perhaps even more so, had the writers constructed their fictional stories alongside the actual Ripper investigation but perhaps my enthusiasm for the subject clouds my judgement.
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Had it been the case that there were two storylines running simultaneously (both fictional and factual), I believe that there would have been an opportunity for a more satisfying story arc which would have allowed for greater scope in which the supporting characters might have flourished. As it is, Ripper Street features an impressive rogues’ gallery to rival those of Batman and DC Comics but which are sadly underused, never fully realised and failing to reach any ongoing dramatic potential, particularly Mark Dexter as Sir Arthur Donaldson (01: I Need Light), Joseph Gilgun/Carmichael (02: In My Protection), Paul McGann/Stanley Bone (04: The Good of This City), Iain Glen/Madoc Faulkner (05: The Weight of One Man’s Heart), Edoardo Ballerini/Frank Goodnight (07: A Man of My Company) and David Oakes/Victor Silver (08: What Use Our Work).
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Regardless, Ripper Street has achieved highly respectable viewing figures internationally and continues to grow in popularity with fan fiction and artwork, music videos via YouTube and my own specially created twitter account, @RipperStreet, has many followers hungry for news and gossip surrounding the second series due to start filming in late March/early April to be broadcast sometime in 2014. Early rumours suggest it will be set between six months and a year from the last episode by which time all the surviving characters will have reached the final decade of the nineteenth century. However, for those that cannot wait that long, a three-disc DVD box set was released on 18 March with all eight unedited episodes and a documentary, Walking Whitechapel: Behind the Scenes of Ripper Street.
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We began with a citation of a literary classic and shall conclude in a similar fashion by referencing another. In Edgar Allan Poe’s 1840 short story, The Man of the Crowd, we are treated to what one might label a “walk narrative” in which a nameless narrator and flaneur pursues a mysterious gentleman as he explores a crowded and increasingly depraved, degenerate and decadent London. It is in this tale that we first observe the seeds of the original detective story in which criminal profiling and deduction are developed which would accumulate in the creation of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and later Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1852/3) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet, 1887). Poe’s Dupin adventures The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) and The Purloined Letter (1844) together with The Man of the Crowd offer the concept of an impenetrable and deeply personal mystery as the narrator witnesses all manner of sin and vice that we like to publicly condemn but are secretly fascinated with and which provide a psychological backdrop to the dark exploration of the parasites, prostitutes, thieves and gamblers.
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Despite the many criticisms put forward in this review, I remain a committed viewer of Ripper Street and want to explore their vision of Victorian Whitechapel further. Perhaps I can explain my intrigue with the series by revealing that my greatest enjoyment comes long after the end credits have finished as I replay and absorb the images and scenarios therein in some kind of post-voyeuristic way. Indeed, perhaps it is the promise of what might happen next, the anticipation of another encounter where our darkest fantasies may be indulged by the very worst of the criminal underclass but then ultimately redeemed by our most valiant and fearless Samaritans. Perhaps from the safety of our own living rooms we continue to stare through the televisual window into Whitechapel, not only hoping to discover more thrills and horrors, but continue to watch in pursuit of “the man of the crowd” and our deeper, darker selves.
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To be continued. . .
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This article was originally published in The Whitechapel Society Journal – Edition 49: April 2013 for subscription details and back issues, please see http://www.whitechapelsociety.com/

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