The BBC’s new drama Ripper Street transports us to London’s East End in the late nineteenth century, six months after Jack the Ripper has struck fear into the city. But as the series reaches its halfway point, it is clear that the Ripper’s role is a minor one.
Ripper Street is more about the general corruption and sleaze that plagues the East End and those who attempt to fight it. Inspector Reid, played fantastically by Matthew Macfayden, leads the police in their battle against an assortment of perverse and wicked criminals. Brutal, gruesome and sexually violent, this programme is not for the faint hearted. Starting as it meant to go on with Reid’s closest colleague in a graphic, bare-knuckle boxing match, the first episode ended particularly grimly as the police saved a prostitute from being strangled to death in the making of snuff pornography.
Despite its grisly tone Ripper Street is exciting, fast-paced and full-on. The storylines are interesting and inventive, and whilst the race to stop the criminal underworld slicing up the city is somewhat predictable (the police always arriving just in time), the ride is nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable.
One of the triumphs of the programme is the casting of the three male leads. Matthew Macfayden – who fans will recognise from Spooks and Pride and Prejudice – offers us a multidimensional Inspector who is hard yet kind, sensible but creative – one who harbours secrets and repressed emotions which undoubtedly fuel the mysterious air (what do his scars mean and will his lost daughter ever emerge?). Macfayden is flanked by Jerome Flynn, a local East-Ender always more than willing to let his fists do the talking in his role as the
Inspector’s tough but loyal colleague Sergeant Drake. The third leg of the tripod is the enigmatic American Captain Jackson, who Adam Rothenberg plays brilliantly as a mischievous and irresponsible but wonderfully gifted surgeon. The dynamic between these three men is part of the programme’s charm, and provides for some entertaining exchanges. In one scene, Drake accuses Jackson of being late because he was “hanging off a tarts’ tit”, to which the American retorts, “don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it”. A stellar performance is also given by Joseph Gilgun (This is England and Misfits) as the cruel and manipulative leader of a child gang in the second episode.
Each episode presents a new crisis and the series has dealt with a number of provocative issues including the abuse of women and children. Some scenes make for difficult watching, and the series has been criticised for both the level of violence and the claim that women feature almost exclusively as prostitutes. The fact that the writers have refused to sugar-coat the gory reality of the East End though is quite commendable.
So far we have been given some stand-out moments. Watching Reid connect the poisonings in the third episode, especially once his wife became involved, was thrilling, and the examinations carried out by Captain Jackson (often immediately after drinking sessions and sexual exploits) are always grotesquely captivating. With half the series yet to come it will be interesting to see whether Ripper Street maintains the high standards it has set itself.
Ripper Street is on BBC One on Sundays at 9pm.
words: Harry Day