Above image: Toby with director Tom Shankland and series creator Richard Warlow wearing the hats of the three guys. Toby is wearing Jackson’s – naturally.
Il miglior fabbro:
He do the Police in Different Voices
An exclusive interview
with Toby Finlay
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!”
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2017
Images copyright and courtesy of Toby Finlay, Will Gould, Adam Rothenberg and Richard Warlow.
***NOTE ON SPOILERS***
You may want to read this interview later if you haven’t seen the final episode although there’s nothing here that you won’t find in The Radio Times or other TV magazines and websites.
DAMIAN: Toby, you said during our previous interview in 2014 that the third series of Ripper Street would be your last. However, since then you’ve acted as story consultant on both the fourth and fifth series as well as writing the two episodes for this final series that I’d like to discuss today. What changed your mind?
TOBY: I think that “credit” actually started with the third series. Anyway: I suppose it was two things. First, I thought – and was not alone – that the third series would be the last. Second: even if it was not absolutely the last there was a sense that it would be the last in its form as was. It’s a bit hazy now but I think Warlow himself was contemplating handing the torch to someone else to run the show, and I didn’t want that torch and I felt I was part of the Old Guard so if that passing happened I was out. Also at the time we did that interview I felt I was generally spent, so whatever happened I was done and dusted. Rich and Will were aware of this. What followed is that the opportunity came about from Amazon to do this last hurrah, this extended series (which was broken into two) where we could pursue and conclude the whole show on our terms. I still took some persuading because the end of S3 could so easily have been a credible out. But when we all went away on retreat together (see later question) I kept pissing everyone off by asking WHY ARE WE DOING THIS until we came up with something that made me stop asking that and instead thinking, ok, we actually have to do this – and I’m in.
DAMIAN: What exactly is a story consultant?
TOBY: It’s just a credit that reflects that since the third series I was very involved in conceiving the over-arching story with Rich. The credit that I take a more obscure pride in is the murder-ballad sung in ep 3.5. Rich and Will knew my love of folk and Dylan etc and asked me to write the lyrics. Within a day I’d sent them a full demo with about 20 verses like I was writing Desolation fucking Row. Anyway that was the song in the ep.
DAMIAN: You had the following to say when I asked about your working relationship with series creator Richard Warlow: “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.” Could you give me some examples of such similarities or differences in your approach to writing?
TOBY: Approach? No idea. The main similarity is I suppose a kind of visceral, brutal narrative with a deep romantic melancholy. I think – or at least hope – that’s evident in the best of our stuff, either of us. In terms of difference… I would say he has a gift for something I don’t, which is a great baroque crime plotting. For instance one of my favourites of his is The Incontrovertible Truth. I don’t think I could write that. If there are things of mine he couldn’t write I don’t know what they are and would absolutely not be prepared to lay claim thus. I think perhaps I’m more given to the grandstanding speeches, but that’s by no means to say Rich couldn’t do that if he wanted to show off.
DAMIAN: And have you beat him yet?
TOBY: I think there are probably certain eps for which we envy each other. But that’s different. We drove each other, would be a better verb.
DAMIAN: During the late summer of 2013, you accompanied Richard along with executive producer Will Gould and script editor Joe Donaldson to a hotel in the countryside to throw around story ideas for series three, can you tell me about your retreats for four and five?
TOBY: Yeah, as I said above, we had a major one to assess whether 4 and 5 were worth the doing. At least that was my attitude to it. Joe actually moved to producing for the last series, and produced my two eps in S5, so our script editor was Lawrence Cochran who was also great and shepherded us through our more wayward flights of fancy.
DAMIAN: I think it was during this time that the four or you agreed that the overarching story for series three would be Reid versus Susan and to make her at the fore of the narrative and also give her a sort of Breaking Bad journey into darkness as you described it. How would you describe the overarching stories for series four and five?
TOBY: One of my main issues in wanting to leave was that I felt the central characters had such rich ongoing stories that it was increasingly difficult for me to be engaged – or imagine an audience being engaged – by some story of the week with a guest villain. What really began to intrigue me about S4&5 – which was essentially one series of 13 – was having these Dove brothers as a force of villainy which had time to bed in and develop into something worthy of the heroes. Plus: the more it began to move conceptually from a story of the week thing into a serial, the more I began to dig the idea of transforming or maybe perverting the format and giving full reign to the main characters in a way we hadn’t seen.
DAMIAN: Again in our previous interview, you described Will as being the godfather of Ripper Street. Why godfather?
TOBY: Well, he was exec producer and it was Will and Rich who first hired me when I had zero experience in TV. Will is a perfect producer because he’s totally amiable until you need him to bare teeth; but also while he can be a field-marshal on the frontline of production he’s also fantastic on a forensic line by line script level. He’s just Full Mensch.
DAMIAN: So if Richard is father and creator of the show and Will is its godfather, what relation might you be?
TOBY: Jesus I dunno, creepy uncle?
DAMIAN: In your script for The Dreaming Dead, you wrote a scene in the Alexandria Theatre with Reid and Jackson in which they study the ordnance survey map of the Hackney Marshes and there is a “flash of excitement between them – a flash of these two in the old times, before all the ruin and the sorrow…”. Would such ruin and sorrow have been avoided if Jerome Flynn hadn’t decided the leave the show and would series five be drastically different?
TOBY: Well obviously if he’d stayed it would have been radically different. Better? Worse? No idea.
DAMIAN: Why did Jerome want to leave with only one series and just six episodes left?
TOBY: That you’d need to ask him. Maybe he felt Drake has run his course. I think by the end of S4 one is inclined to agree.
DAMIAN: Were either yourself or Richard disappointed?
TOBY: For Rich’s take you need to ask Rich. I was dismayed in that I loved writing for him. That said, I think having him die in those circumstances was ballsy and it created an engine dramatically speaking which thrilled me. I think I would’ve been more dismayed had he not come back for the final ep, which created a sense of completion and circular narrative logic that would have been missing without his presence. Put it this way: even if he hadn’t wanted to leave, killing Drake at the end of S4 would have still been a bold and dramatically expedient thing to do and I think when it became an option in purely creative terms I would’ve pushed for it.
DAMIAN: Let’s move on. All the Glittering Blades, your first episode for this series was truly remarkable and I can’t decide if it is almost as good as or supasses The Beating of Her Wings which you wrote for series three and remains possibly the finest of all the episodes. However, perhaps another way to look at it is why on earth spend almost an entire episode fishing for eels when the three main characters have only a couple of scenes and there are only four episodes remaining of the final series?
TOBY: I think two major factors. The first was: in a series that subverts the format, why not subvert even the subversion? It felt daring, and we gambled on having earned the risk. The second factor goes back to what I mentioned about creating these fully evolved villains. This wasn’t just a villain – this was a villain who had murdered Drake in front of us. Drake, possibly the most beloved of the three heroes. Nathaniel was therefore the show’s villain of villains. As a pure creative challenge, forcing an audience against their will to connect with – sympathise with – this figure who had been the monster essentially driving series 4 and bringing Reid out of retirement… I was hot for that.
DAMIAN: In oneirology or dream interpretation, the eel might be seen as a phallic symbol representing masculinity and fertility or the way in which man might deal with his emotions and violent anger. You must have been aware of this as you wrote the script?
TOBY: Aware of it, yes. At the same time it was one of the most credible things for him to fish. The first thing was – for me – a happy coincidence.
DAMIAN: And you mention ragwort and foxgloves in your script when we first see Nathaniel fishing. Again, in the study of dreams, Foxgloves might suggest a hidden secret in either protecting yourself or being deceitful. However, with its deeply-cut toothed leaves, it is ragwort, or the Jacobaea vulgaris, that I find particularly interesting as it has various more commonly used names including stinking willie. Also, in ancient Greece and Rome, it was supposed that you could make an aphrodisiac from ragwort (Satyrion) which helped erectile dysfunction. Again, this can’t be coincidence?
TOBY: This, actually, is a coincidence. And it amuses me to learn it.
DAMIAN: Do you dream much, Toby?
TOBY: When I’m awake.
DAMIAN: Nathaniel sits at the table in his cottage with a pack of cards playing patience –Tick tock. Tick tock…– when he sees a beetle and stares at its twitching mandibles (oral appendages used to cut their food or protect against predators). Bitela, the Old English word for the beetle literally means little biter! You’ve had a few chuckles writing this haven’t you?
TOBY: That bit was deliberate, but as above with the eels it was an issue of credibility (in terms of flora and fauna) first.
DAMIAN: Nathaniel could have simply been a vicious and terrifying serial killer but like your antagonist Faulkner in The Weight of One Man’s Heart (series one), you manage to humanize and even find sympathy for him. Given his monstrous actions in All the Glittering Blades in particular, which greatly upset one particular newspaper by the way, were there any concerns regarding the graphic nature and context of the violence from either Amazon or the BBC?
TOBY: Actually no. You’re referring to an Express article and the Express found some clickbait shit in every ep somewhere or other. I’m kind of proud however that this is the one ep which had a BBC warning of explicit sexual context.
DAMIAN: Prudence was an ironic name given her obvious lack of cautiousness and good judgment wasn’t it?
TOBY: Yes, although she was primarily named after a cat my mother had when I was little.
DAMIAN: I would direct the reader to our previous interviews regarding your references to birds rather than repeat ourselves here but I wondered if it would have been better, given that the name Caleb comes from the Hebrew word for dog and Nathaniel’s tendency to call young boys pup, if you’d switched the names Robin and Caleb?
DAMIAN: Caleb demonstrates a clear disliking for Hebrews and racism against Jewish people also featured in your script for A Stronger Loving World. You yourself are Jewish and I’ve asked you about this before but rather than give me a sensible answer and address the question of faith or religion, you told me you believed in Larry David! I’m nothing if not persistent, does returning to these matters reflect some attraction to or obsession with your Jewishness after all?
TOBY: Well, probably. For me I suppose it’s cheap shorthand of marking someone as an arsehole. Plus in this specific instance Nathaniel has a historic connection with Jews so it has an additional edge to their interactions. And for that matter in fact in A Stronger Loving World there’s a reason for it with the involvement of Isaac Bloom.
DAMIAN: You described Nathaniel in the script as hugging his pillow tightly, like an absent child in a curled foetal position and additionally he is ultimately unable to perform during the blissful mystery of his yearned-for pleasure. This reminded me of the scene with Duggan in the barber shop from series two which you said was designed to make Jackson feel impotent. Would you agree that you have a curious and rarely seen gift in television for effectively emasculating your characters?
TOBY: That’s my gift? That? If I joined the X-Men, that’s my f*****g gift?
DAMIAN: Was there any particular reason or significance to the fact that Susan is reading The Well at the World’s End by William Morris?
TOBY: Well it sounds right. I mean, that’s kind of where they are.
DAMIAN: I liked the way that Nathaniel’s imposed imprisonment was juxtaposed with Reid, Jackson and Susan with the ticking clock. Indeed, the metaphor is made all the more explicit by both Nathaniel and Jackson playing idly with a pack of cards. However, was there also a sense while you were writing this that your time on the show was coming to an end and that the following episode would be your last?
TOBY: Absolutely but I think the valedictory stuff is more apparent in The Dreaming Dead. I mean Shine’s last lines – “I’m finished” and ultimately “I’m done with dreaming” – are not accidental.
DAMIAN: Well, let us move on to the The Dreaming Dead then which features some wonderful lines as one would only expect from your scripts. Possibly my particular favourite is when Susan/Caitlin is reluctant to shoot Nathaniel during the scene in which they rescue their son and Jackson quips “Swear to Christ, Caitlin – you don’t put a bullet in him right now, I’m getting a divorce”. However, I wonder if you were also determined to cram in as many new Western flavoured Finlay/Rothenberg/Jackson-isms one last time such as “I’m gonna finish my drink, and leave this shit-hole. Anyone says a goddam word about it – I’ll blast every motherfucking skull in this room to dust, then I’ll hunt down your families and your friends” and “Let the ocean take him. It’s coming for all of us”, (both of which sound a little bit Eastwood/Unforgiven to me)?
TOBY: The thing about letting the ocean take him remains in the ep but the other stuff you mention was shot but cut from both Amazon and BBC versions for good reasons. The divorce line was cut because we didn’t want humour at that moment. The other thing was cut for pace. And I have full agreement with both those cuts (I mean, I was in the edit). But yes it was me going full western and especially Unforgiven at the last.
DAMIAN: Joseph Mawle has given a gloriously raging and seething performance as Shine comparable only to Mitchum or De Niro as Max Cady. Other than the fact that he’s the main character, why didn’t Shine kill Reid?
TOBY: His performance in that ep is something else, isn’t it? I’ve seldom seen anything like that anywhere, let alone on British TV. Why doesn’t he kill him? I’m partially prepared to leave that to interpretation. But consider this. What immediately stops him in the moment is the appearance of Mathilda, who represents to him some kind of life beyond the half-life he occupies. But maybe more that that: as he says to Reid, he wants Reid to know what it means to live that wretched half-life. Killing him would be an instant out for Reid. Shine wants Reid to suffer. He has beaten him. Out-coppered him, as he says. Shine is not so much interested in visiting death upon Reid as visiting a permanent and inescapable shame, pain, loss.
DAMIAN: There’s a beautiful moment between Reid and Jackson in The Dreaming Dead where they are sat by the fireplace smoking and drinking whiskey from a bottle. Jackson says “Maybe we ain’t dead… But life in the shadows – that ain’t living, neither” and shortly afterwards in reference to the two attempting to protect those that they love from darkness, he asks Reid, “…we tried, didn’t we? We can say that, at least”.
This scene and a number of other moments in both All the Glittering Blades and The Dreaming Dead reminded me of The Waste Land which I know you’re fond of and you might remember I’ve referenced before but what I find especially satisfying is that Eliot himself alludes to various other writers in that poem* including Baudelaire which kind of brings us full circle as we began our first interview discussing this. Are we writers naught but the creative consummation of what we have already seen, read or listened to?
TOBY: I don’t know how to answer that. Anyone who makes work does so both because of and in spite of their influences – but if you never escape the shadow of those influences then your work won’t amount to much more than pastiche. The goal is always to find your own singular voice, nourished but not overwhelmed by but those who first shone the torch for you; but it can take an entire career to do it. For my own part, I feel nowhere near it yet.
DAMIAN: Jackson has tried to get out of Whitechapel since the first series but Reid can be cruel and manipulative when he wants to be can’t he?
TOBY: I don’t think he’s necessarily cruel, but he’s obsessive – and he can be oblivious to those who, as Jackson puts it in The Dreaming Dead, fall under the hooves of his crusade.
DAMIAN: Episodes like The Weight of One Man’s Heart and The Beating of Her Wings demonstrate your proficiency in what I would call televisual poetry but to what extent would you agree that your two scripts for this series also showcase your versatility as a writer?
TOBY: Well, those two eps are different in some ways but all I really do is broken men brooding in solitude over their burden of their ruin or else making baroque battle-speeches about it so I don’t know about this versatility thing.
DAMIAN: I’m not sure how sentimental you might be about these things but there must have been a certain sense of sadness as the final episodes were filmed. I mean this has been a huge part of your life for the last five years so what was it like to visit the set for the final time?
TOBY: True story: production deliberately scheduled things such that the final scene we shot was the one from the last episode where we see Reid and Drake meet Jackson for the first time. So Jerome was back on set, the three guys back together again at the very end. It was very bittersweet. There were tears. Rothenberg and I might have done a hug.
DAMIAN: It’s no secret that Adam met and fell head over heels with someone very special during the making of Ripper Street. Do the two of you still keep in touch?
TOBY: He was actually supposed to be staying at my house this week but then his trip to London got cancelled. So no, he’s dead to me now.
TOBY: You mean aside from five years’ worth of the greatest profanities he’ll ever drawl? (On which: Will Gould and Rich gave me a Mont Blanc pen inscribed with “Come get your cream, Peaches”.)
DAMIAN: Toby, thanks for this and much more besides. I suspect that Ripper Street was merely a brutal but beautiful prologue and I very much look forward to your future work. So long cowboy…
TOBY: Thanks for all the interest and support over the years. Goodnight and good luck.
“You! Hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!”
* Firstly, there is a reference that Eliot makes to John Webster’s revenge tragedy The White Devil but he changes the wolf from that play with a dog and in doing so, effectively transforms the wild animal into a domestic one just as perhaps Nathaniel hoped to be tamed by Prudence. Moreover, the poem, and the many other texts that it alludes to and quotes from (including Conrad, Milton and Dante) all share a sense that life is ultimately at the mercy of evil and that man can do nothing about it or as time goes by, has the strength or even the will to do anything about it. Like Reid and Jackson, by the end of the episode, there is simply an overwhelming melancholy regarding their failures, deteriorating spirits and the ongoing corruption of the city. It’s almost as if they are ready to accept the ghosts from the past and finally make peace with their own demons.
Also, the “What do you want? – I want to die” epigraph is in keeping with Shine while the ideas from Baudelaire and Eliot that we become one step closer to hell with each passing day on account of our guilt, sins and failures in a decaying city upon which the weight of the deceased provides an oppressive burden could describe Reid and Jackson’s mindset . It would seem that all three share such disillusionment and despair and much of their dialogue evokes the imagery of death that both Baudelaire and Eliot describe in their work.
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