The Ripping Yarns of Ripper Street

Ripper Street (BBC) was dark and gruesome entertainment for the post-Christmas period. One part Deadwood, one part CSI and one part Sherlock Holmes, the American Wild West was relocated to the East End of London in the late 1880s but its themes and preoccupations are pure 21st century. Set in the immediate post-Ripper climate of Whitechapel, East London, Ripper Street was set in the London of the Hughes Brothers’ From Hell or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock, and the population is roughly the same.  Prostitutes and police inhabit the same world rubbing shoulders with a motley crew of Fagin-esque street crime über-bosses, white slave traders, right-wing purists eager for infamy, immoral industrialists and sleazy journalists. Its plot lines however, are strangely modern for the historical setting.

This could be partly due to the fact that this ‘costume drama’ had clearly set its sights on an American market – it received good reviews when it aired on BBC America and included and America character (Captain Jackson). The programme aimed to please by inviting us into a steamy sexy underworld of crime, sex and violence but despite the graphic violence and sexual sub plots all sex appeal is eradicated largely by the cast who delivered the lines effectively but failed to make the sordid underworld steam… but this is the BBC after all. However, the production values were high and settings, costumes and props created a convincing backdrop to the Victorian characters struggling in a world divided between the haves and have-nots. This was a world where the poor have no social safety net and so struggle to eke out meagre existences. It’s also a time of great social change and there is evidence that some people are creating great wealth from the technological developments of the period. Rich or poor, everyone was, however, clean and well turned out and whilst there was real peril on the streets of Whitechapel with key characters losing loved ones and colleagues to the darker elements of this society, its police procedural framework provided reassuring resolutions to most of the mysteries if not all of the character plot points. Sadly though the characters lacked development and in many cases were two dimensional and wooden.  Women were clearly divided into Angels and Whores and were even less well developed than the male characters. Dialogue veered from archaic turns of phrase to anachronisms in a pretty chaotic fashion. Pretty it may have been but despite watching loyally for two months and enjoying the daft and slightly grisly ride this was no Deadwood, Carnivale or Firefly (just three of the US series that Ripper Street owes a lot to) and it already has made its way into the category of being a bit of a ‘guilty pleasure’. Someone once said that there’s a fine line between clever and stupid and Ripper Street looked like it had the potential to cross into clever, but it never quite did. The ‘contemporary issues’ woven through the stories felt well meaning but clunky with their somewhat simplistic metaphors (see below) but this was Sunday evening TV and I would take this over Downtown Abbey any day.

A Brief Episode Guide

Episode 1 The death of prostitutes at the hand if a serial killer using the new tangled moving image technology to invent snuff porn begins the series. We learned that new technologies are wonderful but there’s always someone out there who’ll use them in a dubious way.
Episode 2 Oliver Twist is revisited – the episode focuses on street gangs and the loyalty they generate.  Gambling dens are the sources of crime and vigilante justice is shown to undermine the work of the police. The streets are beset with youth crime. No one wears a hoody but the message is clear.
Episode 3 This episode considers public health scares and domestic terrorism – in this case one and the same thing!
Episode 4 Environmental issues are raised via a story about the building of a brand new underground train system. There was hope that in years to come the underground would benefit everyone but it was shown being built to fill the pockets of industrialists at the cost of the living environments of the local poor. A parallel plot focused on medical experimentation, the rise in psychiatry and media corruption. Quite an action packed episode.
Episode 5 The way military personnel are abandoned by the state once they leave the service makes up the main plot. A mercenary militia tempts an ex-colleague into criminal activities by flagging up the social hierarchy within the police ranks and highlights class divides.
Episode 6  The main plot deals with a dockers strike and the social unrest caused by the rise of concerns regarding workers rights. Links to international terrorism are made and the episode draws in global issues from the period including the rise of anarchic/Bolshevik politics in Europe, ideas about anti-capitalist movements and revolution.
Episode 7  Shipping magnates become the focus in this story of industrial corruption and espionage linked to the sexism of the time in a secondary plot that highlights the difficulties experienced by women who step outside the domestic roles expected of them. A connection to US history is made by the inclusion of members of The Pinkerton Brigade, a private security firm employed by the US government and ex colleagues of Captain Jackson.
Episode 8 The prostitutes are under threat when a white slave gang strikes and kidnap Detective Sergeant Drake’s romantic interest. Links are made to the death of Detective Inspector Reid’s daughter and he is convinced he will find her alive being held by the kidnappers. The series ends where it began with women in peril.

Ripper Street has been re-commissioned by the BBC and the second series will be broadcast early 2014.


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