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Ripper Street Reflections

2013 March 2
by Lucinda Matthews-Jones

We’ve asked some Victorianists to reflect on Ripper Street. You can read their comments below and don’t forget that you can also join in conversation by leaving a comment in the box below.

Damian Michael Barcroft

The article has been reproduced with the kind permission of ‘The Whitechapel Society’ (London’s premier society for the study of Jack the Ripper). You can read it in full here

As the sun sets over the Olympics, darkness rises on Ripper Street

On Thursday, 9th August 2012, I was contacted by Iain McCallum, the head of Press and PR at Tiger Aspect Productions about my helping to promote one of their new television series entitled Ripper Street. This was on the eve of the launch of their teaser trailer for the show which was going live the following day on the internet and set to screen on BBC One that evening and over the weekend. More than happy to oblige (they had me at the first word of the title!), I set my alarm for the next morning just before six and posted the link via my twitter account and was astonished by two things. Firstly, I was impressed by the stylish and unique promotional trailer, and secondly, I could not believe the reaction it had on the internet and the amount of interest it generated with many people tweeting me throughout the day (and the weeks and months that followed!) asking when the series was going to be broadcast. Alas, I was not privy to such information, indeed neither the BBC or Tiger Aspect knew at that particular point in time, but it illustrates the increasing power of social media.

The trailer begins with a bird’s-eye view of the skyline of contemporary London with the Olympic stadium framed at the centre of the screen. The camera tilts down through increasingly dense clouds and we find ourselves in the dark and moody backstreets of Whitechapel where a mysterious figure is being chased by three other men as the soundtrack plays Kanye West and Jay-Z’s ‘No Church In The Wild’ and the voice-over proclaims, “As the sun sets over the Olympics, darkness rises on Ripper Street”. It was a great idea to incorporate the passion and success of London 2012, juxtaposing such an iconic and British celebration with another historical event, albeit one that is far more grim and less a source of national pride. Despite lasting less than a minute and showing very little of any actual footage from the series, the trailer must surely be one of the most creative and inventive in recent memory. I was also provided with the following official series synopsis which appeared in many newspapers, magazines and websites over the days and weeks that followed:

April 1889 – six months since the last Jack the Ripper killing, East London is emerging into a fragile peace, hopeful that this killer’s reign of terror might at last have run its course. Nowhere is this truer than in the corridors of H Division, the police precinct charged with keeping order in the chaos of Whitechapel. Its men hunted this maniac; and failed to find him.

Ripper Street is their story. A police procedural set in the teeming streets of the East End as it moves into the last decade of the 19th Century. H Division was responsible for policing a relatively small area of just 1¼ square miles, yet into that space were packed some 67,000 people; a seething, bustling mass of the poor and dispossessed.

Between the factories, rookeries, chop shops and pubs that mark out this maelstrom moves DETECTIVE INSPECTOR EDMUND REID (Matthew Macfadyen) – a forward thinking detective haunted by a tragic past mistake. Accompanied by the ever loyal local brawn of DETECTIVE SERGEANT BENNETT DRAKE (Jerome Flynn) and the mercurial brilliance of the U.S. Army surgeon and one-time Pinkerton detective, CAPTAIN HOMER JACKSON (Adam Rothenberg), Reid seeks to bring justice and the rule of law to a world that is forever on the brink of mayhem.

Ripper Street is not another backward-looking ‘Hunt the Ripper’ story, but a fictionalised trek into the heart of a London borough living in the blood soaked aftermath of that forever anonymous killer. It is an investigative procedural about dedicated policemen for whom life – and crime – go on.”

So what can we expect in the future from Ripper Street? Well, despite the BBC receiving almost 90 complaints due its alleged graphic violence and negative portrayal of women, the pilot episode attracted a very respectable 6.1 million viewers and an industry insider has revealed to me (tell no one!) that a second series has already been commissioned with filming beginning as early as April.

In response to some of the negative publicity which dominated many newspaper and website columns in the New Year, I would argue that it is as unfair as it is inaccurate. Indeed, there is far more violence to be found in other prime time shows, particularly those imported from America and it is the fact that the programme dared to appear in a Sunday-night slot that is traditionally reserved for productions such as Downton Abbey and the like. Had Ripper Street been purely an American production, not made by the BBC at all and neither appeared on a Sunday night or over the sacred Christmas holiday period, I doubt anyone would have even raised an eyebrow.

Yes, there were some disturbing scenes and the female characters may conform to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (The 1979 study which examines Victorian fiction from a feminist perspective exploring the notion that female characters either embody the image of ‘angel’ or ‘monster’) stereotypes but this was Victorian England during the aftermath of one of the most horrific series of crimes the world has ever known – what were they expecting from a show called RIPPER Street?

If you’d like to keep up to date with all the news and debates surrounding Ripper Street, then why not join Damien on twitter @MrDMBarcroft and a specially created account for the series, @RipperStreet where you will find links to all the cast and crew (with twitter accounts). Finally, should you find yourself wandering about on twitter, do please also follow our own Whitechapel Society @WSociety1888

Drew Gray (University of Northampton)

As someone who researches and teaches the history of crime, the BBC’s Ripper Street represented an amusing and entertaining escape on a Sunday evening. It was a chance to suspend my disbelief and ignore the occasional anachronisms that it threw up. I teach a level six module on Crime and Popular Culture in the late Victorian City and my student presentations this year owed more than a nod to the cultural (mis)representations of 1880s London. Like Garrow’s Law, Ripper Street presented the past from a modern perspective: so we have CSI Whitechapel and a variety of themes (such as food adulteration or terrorism) that exercise modern audiences rather than trying to understand the denizens of the East End through the eyes of contemporaries. Does this matter? Frankly, not really. The characters were well rounded, the plots interesting, the costumes and sets visually satisfying – who cares if this an accurate portrayal of history or not? Our job as academics and historians is to cater for those people that enjoyed the TV series and perhaps now want to find out more. One of the challenges for the future of history in HE and beyond is to stimulate interest and further research. The phenomenon of the Whitechapel murders and ‘Jack the Ripper’ means that there is a huge market out there for ‘bad history’ (highly speculative, poor researched and badly written books about the Ripper proliferate). Ripper Street may persuade some to go in search of histories that do more than simply rehash the unsolved mystery; I certainly hope so given that my London’s Shadows is out in paperback in March!

Paul Fyfe

The Dreadful City of Few Delights

I hope Judith Walkowitz isn’t watching Ripper Street. Her magisterial 1992 book The City of Dreadful Delight has been a touchstone for anyone interested in the political and cultural dynamics of late-Victorian London. In it, she explodes a vision of the fascinating, dangerous city bequeathed by that prototype of urban modernity, the flâneur, as an exploitative fantasy of sexual and commercial consumption, privileging a masculine gaze which compasses tourism, exploration, social investigation, and social policy. Add to this list the forensic detectives who dominate television’s CSI franchise and its downgraded nineteenth-century version Ripper Street. The show features an expressionless head detective, his working-class enforcer (dubbed a “gorilla” by one of the criminals he beats during interrogation), some kind of mustachioed American forensic investigator, and a brothel. The police uncover crimes roughly sketched within nineteenth-century historical contexts (e.g. disgruntled veterans from the imperial frontier, slum clearances for a railway line); the characters have a half-handful of dramatic problems to work out. There are mysteries afoot—as signaled by the show’s nod to the recent Sherlock Holmes movies with similar slugs of slab serif type in the title credits—but they are mired in the strangely stylized dialogue, as if James Thompson, fresh off the publication of his 1874 epic poem “The City of Dreadful Night,” tried his hand writing for television. It is television, after all. Victorianists can get excited when the era makes it to the screen. But watched from a Victorianist’s perspective, the show redraws the gendered contours of a delightfully dangerous city that have for the last twenty years been thoroughly revised by scholars like Walkowitz, Susan Buck-Morss, Elizabeth Wilson, Deborah Epstein Nord, Deborah Parsons, and others. Ripper Street is once again the darkest London of cops, criminals, and the women they pay to love them. When does the next season of Sherlock start?

Jessica Hindes (Royal Holloway)

In case my original JVC post on Ripper Street didn’t make it clear: I loved Ripper Street. I spend most of my time reading early penny fiction (full of murder, sex and sensation), and a large chunk of the rest of it watching procedural crime dramas (Bones, CSI, Criminal Minds… Rastamouse); so the programme’s combination of the two (along with Matthew Macfadyen and his oh-so-abundant eyelashes) has made it absolutely irresistible. My housemates and I have been dedicated viewers, cowering and squealing on the sofas every Sunday: and the promise of a second series next year is the only thing getting us through the bleak reality of its absence. I even painted my nails in tribute.

More seriously, I’ve found the show extremely rewarding to engage with on a critical level. Writing and thinking about my post for JVC, I found myself reconsidering not only the shows I spend so much time in front of, but also the crime narratives on which I’m working for my PhD. As with Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, dramatized for the BBC in 2011, Ripper Street’s preoccupation with the body exposed seems in part to be a statement of intent: a declaration of difference from the cosiness and crinolines of Cranford (2007) and other more conventional period dramas. Although I think its visceral vision of the Victorians is less radical than the show imagines, there are other, more interesting, meanings in the gore. Both the bloodthirstiness and the engagement with new technologies are established generic conventions of the television procedural: and this successful transposition of a twenty-first century genre into a late-Victorian setting highlights continuities which I’d not previously been able to articulate. Ripper Street’s preoccupation with the body, how we perceive it and how it defines identity speaks both to its Victorian setting and to our own society.

Guy Woolnough (Keele University)

I watched Ripper Street as a historian, but appreciated it as a drama. The strength of the series was its strong characters, all of whom were in a dynamic conflict with each other. All were flawed, their failings balanced by their strengths. Reid himself epitomised this with his scarred body and deep uncertainties about his lost daughter, concealed beneath his impeccable dress and his professional confidence. Drake was physically tough but emotionally weak.

The dynamic was implicit in Victorian policing. Were police forces established as a ‘blue army’ to suppress unruly and dangerous elements in society? Or were they a benign service to protect the weak? Both strands have been explored in the historiography of policing, and were present in Ripper Street. For example, Drake and Reid could dish out a ferocious beating or go out of their way to protect Rose or a boy accused of murder.

The dilemmas will always be there in the work of the police. No one wants to call on the assistance of a policeman who hesitates and says ‘I’m not sure,’ but everyone is outraged when a constable takes vigorous action against the wrong person.

The programmes have all been very precisely located in time and place, with remarkable attention to historical detail. Names (Abberline, Reid, Monro, Leman Street) were all correct. Police procedure was shown with accuracy. Reid’s speech patterns replicated the way police expressed themselves in their written narratives. (An oddly unreal reality: surely police inspectors did not actually speak in that way?)

The extreme historical precision of most of the storylines meant that anachronisms really jarred. (see, for example, my blog on episode two.) But this was entertainment, not a schools’ history broadcast, and it succeeded well in its primary aim of entertaining the viewer. I enjoyed the series.

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