In spite of its wonderful period setting, incredibly strong central performances and dark, grisly storylines, crime procedural Ripper Street was unceremoniously dumped by the BBC, following the final episode of its second season, for failing to eclipse an utterly thoughtless reality TV show. And it’s a damn shame, too, because this series was just getting started.
Though more famous for dull, samey period dramas – in particular the overrated Downton Abbey – when given a chance the BBC can really deliver the goods when it comes to horror. Ripper Street, a series detailing the work of the infamous H Division, in 1800s Whitechapel, following the infamous Jack the Ripper murders, was a delight and a surprise in itself, in spite of the fact that it came to us courtesy of the often maligned broadcaster, who then decided to axe it after just two, short seasons.
Filmed in Dublin (because apparently certain parts of our fair city still resemble 1800s London?), the series showcased, first and foremost, a hugely strong central cast of British character actors, from Spooks’ Matthew Mac Fadyen to Game Of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn (he of Robson and Jerome fame), and even Kill List’s Myanna Buring who, although often relegated to the background, managed to take charge as the only female in a lead role with any depth.
Mac Fadyen and Flynn excelled in the lead roles, as tough coppers, punished by the unfinished Ripper case, which although it was technically closed six months previous to the first episode, still haunts them. Alongside the incredible Adam Rothenberg, a newcomer on British TV, as a wise-cracking American ne’er-do-well/surgeon, the threesome traded barbs and witty, easy banter in plush period clothing, amongst the smog and dirt of a very realistic Victorian setting.
At first, Ripper Street seemed like an odd prospect – why bother focusing on the events after the Ripper killings? Why not focus on the killings themselves? Somewhat shockingly, more horror, mystery and drama was gleaned from the crimes committed after the infamous murders than one would have ever thought possible, with gruesome autopsies punctuating the flowing, chewy period dialogue and fractured inter-personal relationships anchoring the drama, simultaneously making the horror more palatable and rooting everything in the real world.
Unlike other genre TV outings, Ripper Street is remarkably understated, the pacing slow and intentional. More often than not, the gore comes out of nowhere, only to be followed by a personal conflict that throws the audience back into the lives of these characters, all of whom are well-drawn and expertly played by the very game ensemble cast.
The first season, though it only comprised of eight episodes, got stronger each week. The first instalment was strong, setting the scene immediately by establishing where the action would take place, and with whom – without the three central performances, it would’ve sunk before it had a chance to swim, but thankfully the first introduction to them was very well done, setting the standard high for the rest of the season.
Immediately, Mc Fadyen’s Inspector Reid was the softie, who had weathered the Ripper storm but wasn’t quite ready to move on, Flynn’s Drake was a tough nut with a heart of gold, just looking for a chance to shine, and Rothenberg’s Captain Jackson was the wildcard who may or may not make things worse for H Division in the long run, with his constant intrusions and invaluable knowledge.
Certain storylines worked better than others – an earlier one involving amateur pornography and strangulation was well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless – but each week a new case was presented, and with it, untold horrors, mystery and intrigue. Part of the fun of the series was solving the case before H Division, and watching the events unfold.
Ripper Street is several different shows at once; a crime drama, a police procedural, a character study and a horror. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The rapport between the three central characters is so natural, so believable, so effortless, that it’s been likened to the classic relationship between Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Doctor McCoy.
Conducting initial press for the series, it was obvious just how well Mac Fadyen, Flynn and Rothenberg got on, and it was easy to understand how their relationship translated so well onto screen. It may have been, in essence, a horror series, but it was the characters that kept us hooked every week.
Sometimes, the horror element didn’t quite ring true, in spite of certain assertions to the contrary (yes, in comparison to Downton it’s gory, but anything would be). BBC are notoriously conservative, but the first season was broadcast at 9PM on a Sunday, and the second in the same time slot on a Monday, so there was no reason for Jackson’s so-called “dead room”, for example, to be fully shown sometimes, but only hinted to at others.
Let’s face it, if something isn’t heavily implied, we need to see a little bit of it, or the impact simply isn’t as great. The second season corrected this somewhat, but the series still wasn’t quite as brave as, say, Hannibal (a different beast entirely). Having said that, it was still very grisly, gory and dark for a show of its nature, especially compared to contemporaries like the dull Whitechapel, with deals with similar issues but with far less scope or intelligence. There isn’t anything else quite like Ripper Street, and a lot of the horror contained within is thanks to its realism, and just how dirty and terrible everything feels in Victorian London.
Even in spite of its sometimes conservative nature, when it was shown (which was quite often, in fairness), the violence was visceral, and at times quite shocking, especially in the context of an otherwise typical procedural narrative. Rothenberg stated in early press that it had to be that way, remarking that: “It was a tough age so it has to be that violent and that hard” and, in a lot of ways, the reason most people clung on to the show, in spite of its darkness, was thanks to the realism which couldn’t skimp on the gore.
The insane attention to detail, along with a sharp, finely-tuned script, gorgeous period costumes and a setting that never seemed like a set, meant Ripper Street never felt like anything less than a snapshot of the past – the creators even inserted certain, significant historical moments, such as the building of the underground Tube line, to give the series even more authenticity and its to its credit that these moments never felt shoehorned in.
Sadly, following the smart, strong second series, the BBC have decided to axe (excuse the pun) Ripper Street, blaming low viewership ratings. Fans have since countered this argument by pointing out the significance of its move from a prime Sunday evening slot, to the less appetising Monday.
A number of petitions have been set up to save the show, along with, of course, corresponding Twitter accounts, while The Guardian newspaper waded in by asking “What is the BBC thinking?” – a question that those of us who loved the show, and tuned in on a weekly basis to immerse ourselves in it, will be asking for the foreseeable future.
If Ripper Street were, for example, as gory or dark as Hannibal, then the BBC’s decision to cancel it might ring true because the channel isn’t exactly famous for its dark, mystery thrillers (unless you count Murder She Wrote). But it feels like a BBC show, just a braver, more interesting one.
The Guardian even described it as “one of the finest period dramas it [the BBC] has produced in a decade”. Apparently, the series’ lower viewing figures were as a result of the massive audience tuning in, on a weekly basis, for the brainless I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here, which says something far more sinister about the British viewing public than an episode of Ripper Street ever could.
This annihilation was surmised by The Guardian as “like a flamethrower smashing a snowflake” – a fitting description for a show that prided itself on the less is more aesthetic. Jerome Flynn, who played Inspector Drake, described the cancellation as “like a marriage being broken” while Myanna Buring urged fans not to give up, stating emphatically that if we all band together, we can convince the BBC not to axe the show for good.
In fact, just a couple of weeks after the cancellation was announced, entertainment site BleedingCool.com reported that the decision may be being reversed sooner than we know it, as apparently the BBC and the makers of Ripper Street are said in talks with LoveFilm about the possibility of funding a third series. There has been no significant news since, but the fan campaign to get the show reinstated remains strong, and if media coverage continues as it has, the BBC may just be forced to change its mind.
One thing’s for sure, if the future is Downton, then that prospect alone is far more horrible than anything H Division could possibly have to deal with in future.
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