In an exclusive interview originally published in The Journal of the Whitechapel Society, writer and historian Damian Michael Barcroft talks to the prolific actor Mark Dexter about JACK THE RIPPER, his work on FROM HELL and RIPPER STREET – plus, his passion for ‘craft beer’!
DAMIAN: First of all Mark, thank you so much for agreeing to share your experiences of Ripper Street with our readers. Before we discuss that however, I’d like to talk a little about some other items of interest on your increasingly impressive and diverse CV. You were part of two acclaimed productions of Tennessee Williams plays, the Olivier Award winning production of The Glass Menagerie and the Tony award winning production of Not About Nightingales. Can you tell us what it was like working with such distinguished and high-profile directors such as Sam Mendes and Trevor Nunn?
MARK: It’s actually funny hearing you refer to them as distinguished and high-profile because even though they both absolutely are those things – they are also two of the most down to earth and personable directors I’ve worked with. I find that’s very often the case with people who’ve reached the highest levels of success, and I’m convinced it’s no coincidence. Trevor has since become the director I’ve worked with more than any other, which says something about how enjoyable and rewarding he makes the process. Of course, a little bit of genius also helps, and they both have that too.
DAMIAN: As I’ve already intimated, you are a prolific actor on our screens and although I couldn’t possibly mention all of them I did want to highlight and remind our readers of some of the shows in which you’ve appeared. There have been regular parts as Paul Stokes in Coronation Street and as Matt Hinckley in The Bill, appeared in two episodes of Doctor Who (Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead) and other more recent credits include The Bletchley Circle, Father Brown and Red Dwarf. However, I think many of our readers will remember you from another Ripper-related production, From Hell, in which you played Queen Victoria‘s grandson, Prince Edward Albert Victor. What was it like to work on such a big-budget Hollywood movie with Johnny Depp?
Mark: Well, Johnny Depp is another example of someone operating at the highest level who couldn’t be nicer if he tried. It’s a bit of a long story, but I’d been given a private message to pass on to him from Judi Dench (they’d recently worked together on Chocolat) and I was a bit apprehensive about picking my moment to do it. As it turned out, Johnny beat me to it by speaking to me first which made it a lot easier. He went out of his way to make sure everyone on the set was at ease and that gives you a good idea of what he’s like. So my first experience of a Hollywood movie turned out to be a surprisingly comfy one. The Hughes brothers, who share directorial duties on all their films, also go the extra mile to create happy sets – they were hilarious.
DAMIAN: I’ve read that there were various drafts of the script and alterations were made long after principal photography had finished, was your character affected by any of the script revisions or reshoots?
MARK: I was very much affected. I was brought back to shoot an extra sequence eleven months after I’d originally finished work on it. My moustache, which had once been real, had to be fully recreated by specialist wig makers and my hair was way too short as I’d been filming something else at that time. I think Prague had been switched for a studio in London, and I remember feeling like I’d forgotten how to play the part. As it turned out, they never even used that newly shot sequence. There really were some definite differences of opinion about the final cut of From Hell. I don’t really know how much I should say, but the DVD director’s commentary for that film gives a strong sense of how tough things got.
DAMIAN: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s From Hell on which the film is based, is one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels ever published but it is extremely hard going, did you ever get a chance to read it?
MARK: A director friend of mine, Julian Kemp, had a copy and loaned it to me when he heard I’d landed a part in it. I actually don’t remember finding it hard going – in fact I couldn’t put the damn thing down – but it’s unquestionably challenging and profound, and it can seem quite esoteric and out of reach in places, but for me those elements of darkness, magic and mystery are all part of the ride. I was totally absorbed by the haunting style and it still ranks as one of my favourite reads. Alan Moore has ‘Godlike’ status in my mind. Come to think of it, I don’t actually remember giving that copy back. Sorry Julian!
DAMIAN: There’s a scene in the film in which Johnny Depp (Inspector Abberline) and Heather Graham (Mary Jane Kelly) view a fantastic portrait of you as the prince and it occurred to me what a great conversation piece the picture would make hung above the fireplace in your living room or perhaps even hidden away like Dorian Gray – you must have wanted to keep the portrait for yourself?
MARK: I might as well admit that yes, of course I wanted it! Sadly, the artist who painted it also had the same desire. Between you and me, I still intend to get my hands on it one day!
Do you have theories or opinions as to who Jack the Ripper might have been? For example, your character, Prince Edward Albert Victor was a suspect or perhaps Sir William Gull as depicted in the film?
MARK: Getting involved with Ripper Street reminded me about all the research I did for From Hell. There are so many compelling theories and I ended up with no firm favourite. I do happen to think the the royal theory is a red herring, exactly as it is in From Hell. (Oops, late spoiler alert!) Can you imagine if those killings were happening today, the sheer number of crazy ideas that would be whizzing around! You’d have people calling it a ‘false flag’ operation by the police in order to justify budget increases!
DAMIAN: While we’re on the subject of period dramas, there seems to be a pattern here: in addition to From Hell, and Ripper Street, you’ve also appeared in the Channel 4 series, The Queen as another royal character (this time as Prince Philip no less!) and also ITV’s Mr Selfridge as Ernest Shackleton. Apart from your classical good looks of course! – what is it about you that casting directors find so irresistible when asking you to play such aristocratic characters in period dramas?
MARK: Ha! You’d be better off asking the folks who dish out the work! I’ve heard a few theories about me having ‘period bones’ which is pretty disturbing on certain levels, but I’m sure there’s an element of people seeing what I’ve already done and feeling I must me okay at that sort of thing. I try not to over-analyse about castings because the truth is you could never find a definitive answer. I once had the pleasure of witnessing a director and a producer arguing with each other about why they’d given me the job!
DAMIAN: So Ripper Street, allow me to congratulate you on being part of such an exciting and successful production. I recently wrote in my review of the first episode for The Whitechapel Society Journal that I believe the series to be “the most significant reinvention of Victorian iconography since the BBC’s Sherlock“. The original Whitechapel murders were in 1888 and Ripper Street is set a year later, given the fact that there have been so many books, films and TV shows on the subject and many people (including, I dare say, many of our readers!) have devoted their lives to the study of Jack the Ripper, why do you think we continue to be fascinated with this period of grisly Victorian history?
MARK: Somebody out here in LA said to me last week that Victorian London is basically Britain’s version of the Wild West in terms of backdrop to dramas. I think there may be some truth in it. Take away all modern technology and the extra constraints of contemporary society, and what you have is the unruly infancy of today’s world with all the danger and volatility that comes with it. You also have a sense of fun, of the possibilities and a pervading feeling of ‘anything goes’ which wouldn’t really work in too many other areas. Add into the mix some great legendary characters like Jack the Ripper or Billy the Kid, not to mention the odd iconic location or fancy costume, and it gets easy to see why writers feel so drawn to these worlds.
DAMIAN: Also in my review, I praised your performance and I don’t just do this with any member of the cast – only the actors I’m interviewing! I wrote that “in a role which could have easily descended into the hammy and melodramatic, Mark Dexter impresses as Sir Arthur Donaldson with a subtle and nuanced performance remaining still and silent for much of his screen time while his haunting eyes tell a very different story, portraying an inner evil and perversity”. I’m curious as to how you approached the role, from reading Richard Warlow‘s script to being directed on set by Tom Shankland, what was your particular vision for the character and how did that translate onscreen?
MARK: I went looking for a health problem! In the absence of ‘evil’ (which is always a less interesting options) there was clearly something not functioning correctly in the mind of this man. I had some conversations with a psychiatrist friend about the sorts of conditions that they encounter in their work which can lead people towards dark acts like those Donaldson commits. It turns out that there is so much still not fully understood about people’s darker motivations, but just hearing some of the examples was enough of a foundation to build on. At the end of the day you just have to plunge down into the filth!
DAMIAN: I thought that the brilliant Charlene McKenna who is one of my favourite young actresses at the moment, had an incredibly difficult role given what her character has to endure throughout the episode’s climax but she managed to pull it off with dignity and an innate empathy for the part. Was it difficult to film those scenes?
MARK: Thank God for Charlene McKenna! The fact is, those were tough scenes to shoot for so many reasons, but things could have been infinitely harder if the two people involved didn’t fundamentally get along, and Charlene is so fabulous that we actually managed to have a curiously pleasant experience overall. But boy did we have our work cut out! Even the weather was against us. It wasn’t just brutal sexual assault involving chains, drugs and asphyxiation, but some of it involved skimpy costumes in hailstorms, icy rain and high wind!
DAMIAN: While we’re on the subject of those final scenes, you had to wear some rather interesting choices of wardrobe – what did you do to upset the costume designer?
MARK: I wiped out her entire family! You’d think so right? Actually, to be fair, I was heavily involved from the start and was able to organize a design which was as comfortable and practical as possible. What I’m saying is – it could actually have been worse!
DAMIAN: Following the broadcast of the first episode of Ripper Street, there was some negative publicity from certain newspapers and websites and nearly ninety viewers made complaints to BBC. I would argue that this was as unfair as it was inaccurate. Indeed, there is far more violence to be found in other prime time shows, particularly those imported from America and it is the fact that the show dared to appear in a Sunday-night slot that is traditionally reserved for productions such as Downton Abbey. Had Ripper Street been purely an American production, not for the BBC at all and neither appeared on a Sunday night or over the sacred Christmas holiday period, I doubt anyone would even raised an eyebrow. Yes, there were some disturbing scenes and the female characters may conform (to an extent) to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar‘s The Madwoman in the Attic (the 1979 study which examines Victorian fiction from a feminist perspective exploring the notion that female characters either embody the image of “angel” or “monster”) stereotypes but this was Victorian England where it is estimated that there were up to 120,000 prostitutes working in London during the 1800’s. Furthermore, on the subject of pornography, albeit in Victorian literary form rather than the cinematograph, it frequently depicted a male protagonist controlling the object of his desire through force, violence and rape. Regardless to how disturbing, and despite having the opportunity to switch off after a warning of such graphic content, it seems to me that the show accurately portrayed certain historical aspects of Victorian society rather than exploiting them and besides, what exactly were viewers expecting from a show call RIPPER Street? What was your reaction to all the fuss?
MARK: I saw it coming. I mean I do agree that once you have established the tone with the reference to Jack the Ripper in the show’s title, anyone taking offence really might have been better off heeding the implicit warning and switching channels. This is not ‘Fairy Cake Street’, after all. On the other hand, this is the BBC and it’s Sunday night, and maybe some folks are taking issue with such a show being on their TV at all. I think it’s only fair to allow those people to have a voice. But in terms of the portrayal of women, them being seen as monsters or angels, I think the BBC should make more shows which deal with exactly how things were for women in Victorian London, in the poorer streets of the East End, the challenges they faced on a daily basis and the adversities they were forever striving to overcome. But the fact is, Ripper Street was not one of those shows, it was never going to be, and nor was it ever meant to be. This was the BBC choosing to do something else entirely. At the risk of repeating myself, the clue was always in the title.
DAMIAN: Finally, what’s with this bottled beer blog of yours? Why the fascination with beer and of bottled beer in particular?
MARK: Poor old beer. It’s so massively misunderstood. There are products out there on the market, many of them very new, which are nothing like the popular conception of ‘beer’ and I’m trying to spread the word. I feature all kinds on my blog, good and bad, but the ones at the top of my high score chart are nearly always from new breweries who go under the banner of ‘craft beer’. Remember that term – it’s going to be everywhere!
DAMIAN: There’s actually a Ripper bottled beer from the Green Jack Brewery – have you tried it?
MARK: I think I’ve had enough “ripping” for a while – please don’t encourage me!
DAMIAN: You’ve heard of Desert Island Discs, but how about Desert Island Drinks? You’re stranded alone on an island with only eight bottles of beer for company – which eight different bottles of beer would take with you?
MARK: I hope there’s a fridge on this island as most of these need chilling! (DAMIAN: yes Mark – you’re allowed one luxury item!). In my present mood I’d take ‘Kipling’ from Thornbridge, ‘Maharaja’ from Avery, ‘Export Stout London 1890’ from The Kennel, ‘Hardcore IPA’ from BrewDog, ‘East India Pale Ale’ from Brooklyn, ’90 Minute IPA’ from Dogfish Head, ‘Conqueror 1075’ from Windsor & Eton and ‘Joseph Williamson’ from Liverpool Organic. But I’d be building a boat with the empties as there are loads more I’d miss very badly!
DAMIAN: Mark, it’s been a huge privilege to have the opportunity of this interview and I look forward to seeing much more of you in the corner of my living room. Cheers!
(Please enjoy Mark Dexter responsibly!)
Mark Dexter is represented by the Curtis Brown agency. For contact information please see http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/mark-dexter/
Series two of Ripper Street is currently filming once again in Dublin and the eight episodes are tentatively scheduled to be broadcast early 2014.
This article originally appeared in The Journal of the Whitechapel Society Journal – Edition 50: June 2013. For subscription and back issues, please see http://www.whitechapelsociety.com/