As a fresh series from the BBC Ripper Street was an exciting, if somewhat challenging portrayal of a time and place when murder, corruption, and the expansion of scientific thought and ideas gripped the city of London.
Set in 1889 on the cusp of the 20th century, as traditional policing gave way to scientific advancements, Ripper Street’s first episode starts six months after Jack the Ripper’s final victim has been found and the Ripper has skulked off into history and is presumed by some to be dead. The constables of Whitechapel are left to pick up the pieces as their city marches towards progress, and the trials of both real and imagined characters, blend together in tragic and sometimes fascinating ways.
At its core Ripper Street is a procedural crime drama that focuses on the new ways in which the police of Whitechapel have begun using deduction and chipping away at old corruption to reform the criminal justice system of London into a more modern incarnation. Along the way the audience is exposed to characters from both fiction and history that represent some of the most seminal archetypes of the times. Two of the men policing Whitechapel are the real life Detective Edmund Reid (played by Matthew Macfadyen) of the criminal investigation department in Whitechapel during the Ripper murders, and Bennet Drake, a police sergeant and war veteran who functions as Detective Reid's heavy hand of justice using the skills he learned in the military.
These two men represent a dual face of policing at the time. Each of these men, in his own way, is selfsacrificing and noble, but ultimately flawed when faced with the prospect of change and regret. Detective Reid begins the series struggling with an estranged wife, a lost child, and the crushing regret of not being able to apprehend the Ripper. Still the detective is determined to extricate himself from the spectre of the notorious killer, repair his life, and get back to the business of keeping the peace in Whitechapel. Sergeant Drake, played by Jerome Flynn, stands ready to assist the Detective in whatever brutal manner is necessary, though his humble demeanor belies this proclivity. However, sergeant Drake is haunted by the savagery of war and the physical and mental scars it has left him with.
Throughout the series each of these men combat the corruption bred by the poverty, depravity, politics, and class system of Whitechapel, as the greed and exploitation creeps into the area from the more affluent regions of London. But much of the scientific insight and technical know-how comes from the comical and tragic Captain Homer Jackson, an American surgeon and pathologist who has a shady past and a talent for discovering how some of the worst crimes in Whitechapel were committed. Unfortunately, Captain Jackson had not begun working with the officers of H Division until after the hunt for the Ripper had died down. In fact his expertise with a scalpel lands him on the list of potential Ripper suspects early on in the series.
Though Ripper Street is focused mostly on the three men who hunt down the criminal element in Whitechapel the women of the series are the ones who drive the narrative of the series much of the time. MyAnna Buring of Downton Abbey and Twilight fame portrays Long Susan, a pragmatic Madame at one of the many brothels in Whitechapel and wife to Captain Jackson, who works hard to protect her girls and pick up the pieces after the Ripper's reign of terror. Aside from the creeping intrusion of the shady past she shares with her husband, she feels obligated to address the plight of the women in Whitechapel when and where she can, even if it means blackmail and afflicting the rich men who come to her brothel to enjoy the company of her girls.
Amongst those girls is Rose Erskine, a prostitute with soulful eyes and a wit that generates some of the best dialogue of the show, and stands as the only woman whose strength and charisma makes her an excellent match for the gentle soldier Sergeant Drake. From the beginning Rose is a magnet for trouble who consistently finds herself in deadly peril every week. Rose is as blunt as she is charming and has proved that she can be as dangerous as the streets of Whitechapel. During the first season one of the other prominent characters was Detective Reid's wife the dour and pious Emily Reid. Mrs Reid existed in a state of perpetual mourning at the loss of her daughter, a loss that has left her still buried in guilt as well, which has caused her to retreat into charity and religion, and alienated her from her husband.
Ripper Street is a look at a city recovering from darkness and how both that darkness and the recovery itself, can damage the ego and the soul. The dialogue is written in such a way that Detective Reid can wax poetic about the beautiful implications of homosexual love and the injustice of the laws of the time that prohibit such unions and still allow him room to come off as the hardboiled cop, whose authority stretches to every corner of Whitechapel. Notably, Jerome Flynn provides the natural born man killer Sergeant Drake with a childlike innocence. One of the best episodes involved an appearance by John Merrik the Elephant Man, an episode full of pathos and suspense, where the disfigured gentlemen becomes involved in a high pitched mystery, complete with kidnapped children and living circus oddities .
Though the show can at times suffer as the procedural investigatory elements of the story, which are at times dealt with on a level of truly engaging detail, bracketed by spats of good authentic Victorian violence, it gets bogged down by either heavy moralizing, or slightly distracting peripheral drama. But what audiences will really enjoy is the amount of future shock tied in to the procedural aspects of each episode, as the 19th century gives way to the 20th.
Review: James Thomas (February 2014)
In December 2013 the BBC took the decision to cancel Ripper Street. The news of the show’s cancellation was revealed by actor Jerome Flynn, who plays Sergeant Bennet Drake in the series, in an interview with presenter Simon Lederman on radio station BBC London 94.9.
"We're all in absolute shock," said Flynn of the original decision to cancel the show. "It's a wonderful job and we feel like it's kind of this unfinished work. So we're hoping it will turn around if anyone from the BBC is listening."
There was an immediate protest from fans of the series forcing the BBC to make the following statement: "We are very proud of Ripper Street which has enjoyed two highly ambitious series on BBC1. However, the second series didn't bring the audience we hoped and in order to make room for creative renewal and new ideas it won't be returning."
Over 92% of RadioTimes.com readers thought the BBC were wrong to have cancelled the series and some fans launched an online petition for the BBC to reverse their decision. Their cause was supported by a number of national newspapers including The Guardian who printed: 'Ratings may be everything nowadays, even to the BBC, but the price of that silly battle to get more people watching during peak hours will be the annihilation of one quality drama after another, trampled by the clodhoppers of reality TV. It's such a shame.'
Then, on 26 February 2014, it was confirmed that Amazon Video would resurrect the show. Filming began in May 2014. In June 2015, the series was renewed for a fourth and fifth (final) series. All the episodes from series 3 onwards premiered on Amazon Prime before they were shown on the BBC. The 'Prime' episodes were of varying length, exceeding the standard BBC 60-minute episode format, but they were edited down to 60 minutes when shown on the terrestrial channel.
Published on January 25th, 2019. Written by James Thomas (February 2014) for Television Heaven.