Ripper Street: Series 1
The fascination held with serial killers is certainly not a recent one. It began in earnest in the ninetieth century sweeping in through our culture along with the inexorable advances called the industrial revolution. Just as science and industry where pushing mankind to new endeavors and forever altering the paradigm of society a darker force, one inevitably always with us, was becoming increasingly evident. One of the most heinous category of criminals was insinuating themselves into the collective consciousness of the public, the serial killer. It is foolish to think people of murdering one victim after another with no sign of remorse. In the nineteenth century an increasing portion of the population had at least a rudimentary common of literacy allowing newspapers, magazines and inexpensive novel to proliferate. In a perfect example of synchronicity one individual became an active serial killer still well-known almost 140 years later, Jack the Ripper. Between 1888 and1891 slaughtered a number of victims, mostly prostitutes in the impoverished Whitechapel district in the East End of London. The BBC series, ‘Ripper Street’ considers the impact on the population and police force a few months after Jack’s reign of terror apparently ended. In keeping with the fine tradition of the BBC many of the primary characters are representation of actual historical figures.
The main protagonist of this crime drama is Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen). The real man was one of the lead detectives assign to the case and working out of the H division centered in the threatened Whitehall district. Detective Inspector Reid was highly regarded both among the public and the constabulary. He was promoted quickly through the ranks with his career culminating helping to found the new Criminal Investigation Division at Scotland Yard. In England this series represents the same glorification of the ultimate lawman as our shoe ‘The Untouchables’ did for Eliot Ness; men entirely devoted to the pursuit of the law justice. Understandably there is certain to be a degree of dramatic liberty regarding some of the details of Reid’s personal and professional life. Still, with that stated, by all accounts the show remained truthful to the essence and sensibilities of the time. I one perspective you might very well regard this as ‘CSI: Whitehall’. Reid was a cutting edge detective who took it upon himself to bring on a forensic U.S. medical examiner, a physician from the military and former Pinkerton, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). The relationship between Inspector Detective Reid and Captain Jackson is mot one that runs smoothly; they are frequently at odds with each other.
Reid’s strong right arm is Detective Sargent Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) who is able to detain and interrogate suspects with a vigor that would not be legally or morally feasible in our enlightened society not with so much as a modicum of sadistic glee but driven by a need to protect the people through use of force as brutal as necessary. His methods might appear to be unconscionable today but there was a far more acceptance by the law abiding citizens to ensure their security from the undesirable elements, a common euphemism for the desperately poor. This section of London was exceptionally densely populated with the number of cut-purses, brothels and thousands of street walkers making it one of the worse slums in recorded history. This was the environment and social structures that members of law enforcement such as Reid and Drake faced on a daily basis. Some have rationalized that the overwhelming prevalence of crime and a propensity of corruption among the police and politicians made the job of dedicate officers unimaginably difficult. These conditions are by all accounts this show offers a historically reasonable depiction of life during that period. The attention to details and the nuances of the presentation are remarkable. The sheer attention to the sets, costuming and language in a fashion that the BBC is famous for you are transported back through time and space.
Woven throughout the season, or as they call that string of episodes in the UK, a series, are plot lines that carry throughout tying the individual episodes together. One of the major threads concerns a young woman who accompanied Captain Jackson from America, Long Susan (MyAnna Buring), the proprietress of one of the more upscale brothels in the area. The Captain is afforded lodging there but the extent of their association is not fully elucidated in this series although it is seriously stressed when Jackson becomes interested in one of the establishment’s more popular, hence profitable commodities. Rose Erskine (Charlene McKenna). Providing a sharp contrast between two of the only pathways afforded to young women living in Victorian England; whore or housewife. DI Reid’s wife, Emily ((Amanda Hale) remains depressed but to the death of their daughter. The child’s demise was under circumstances shrouded in mystery. Emily at least has found a means to channel her distraught feelings in an outlet that is both constructing and socially progressive. Emily spends as much of her time as possible in the slum district helping the children placed with some form of group home of foster care, in whatever form such services were available in the late eighteen hundreds.
The second tier of characters perform significantly more the typical ‘B’ story fodder than American audiences are likely to be accustomed to. They enhance the very nature of the production with the expansion of experience through members of different level of this strictly striated society. One look at what would now be considered the middle class, speaking not a designation at that juncture, Police Constable Dick Hobbs (Jonathan Barnwell). He is hard working and usually the one performing the grunt tasks that arise in an investigation. The distinction between what we would regard as the mainstream press and tabloids was not as pronounced then. The newspapers, as always, depended on sensationalistic and salacious stories to drive distribution. Jack the Ripper was one of the first media sensations to captivate the public through the media. Representing this growing influence of the journalist is Fred Best (David Dawson), a reporter for one on the popular newspapers. With Jack the Ripper no longer providing headlines Best is typically seen at crime scenes in hopes of finding a scoop that will catch on with the readers. One of the dominant threads is what secrets he knows about the Reid’s daughter. One episode that highlighted the power class distinctions dealt with what appeared to be a return of cholera. The rich portion of London was under the jurisdiction of the independent City of London’s own Police force apart from the municipal force that Reid is a part. falling through the cracks the citizens had formed vigilante groups that had been sanctioned during Jack’s killing spree but refused to stand down once the crisis was declared over.
There are many crime thrillers available on television but this is by far among the best, this is expected from a drama set in Victorian London presented by the BBC. They have built a well-earned reputation in this arena having provided such fair to audiences for over fifty years. We used to have to hope a show or two would make its way to us in the States via PBS whereas now BBC America, Blu-rays and various streaming video services keep us well supplied with quality shows such as this.