Ripper Street first aired on BBC television in 2012-13 to considerable applause, gaining a second series later in 2013. At the end of that year the BBC announced that they had dropped the show. But a third series was commissioned by Amazon Prime, with an intended later showing on the BBC later this year.
The first series of Ripper Street was set in 1889 in Victorian Whitechapel in London’s East End, just a few months after the last killing of Jack the Ripper. The horror of the Ripper crimes still haunts the Leman Street police station, though the actual incidents are not dealt with directly.
The real life Ripper investigator Inspector Fred Abberline (Clive Russell) appears occasionally as a rather sad and lonely character obsessed with the killer who got away. But the three leads are Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), his sergeant Drake Bennett (a mind-blowing performance by Jerome Flynn) an ex-soldier and bare-knuckle fighter, and an American surgeon and ex-Pinkerton man Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenburg), who handles the forensics, has a mysterious past, and is handy with a revolver. Rather like with Doc Holliday’s relationship with Wyatt Earp in the Wild West, Jackson sometimes comes out to join the others in a shoot-up.
Many of the staples of Victorian low-life crime are here, including pornography, white slavery, illicit boxing, prostitution and vicious murders. The programme deals with Victorian social problems very graphically and with considerable fidelity; hunger and destitution, worker’s strikes, the exploitation of women and children, outbreaks of cholera. All gritty stuff. Ripper Street occasionally falls down in its depiction of women and in particular prostitutes, who don’t always have the same depths of character as the male leads.
The programme was filmed in and around Dublin where so many Victorian buildings remain. Sadly, London’s East End was butchered almost out of recognition, first by Hitler’s Luftwaffe and the careless planners of subsequent decades.
Ripper Street as a television series improves as it goes on as the characters are allowed to develop. Although it may on occasion juggle history, show incidents out of their actual time, it does give a flavour of the period – a far cry from the Victorian values that certain British politicians ignorant of real history, are always harking back to.
As a writer of Victorian crime fiction, I tend to ignore the errors and just enjoy the Ripper Street experience. My own William Quest character roams the same street some forty years earlier and I have a kind of professional interest in how these matters are handled. Some years ago I investigated the original locations of the Ripper crimes myself, often walking the streets of Whitechapel by day and by night. Watching Ripper Street reminds me of a great deal that had slipped my mind from these fascinating excursions.
The differences between the period of William Quest and Ripper Street are very obvious. London was much better policed in 1889 than it was in 1854. We tend to think of the Victorian period as one long era of similar styles and values. In reality, each decade was very different from the one before.
I have been re-watching Ripper Street on the Drama Channel, the second series starts tonight. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth seeking out, either on DVD or on view-on-demand.
I’m currently writing the second William Quest novel, so my mind is very much in Victorian London. Exciting, fascinating, but – on reflection – not a period we should yearn for.
If you haven’t yet entered the mysterious world of William Quest do click on the link and take a look: