Ripper Street

31 December 2012

Well, after months of hype and much speculation, we were finally treated to the first episode of Ripper Street on BBC1 this evening. I’ll be honest that I didn’t have very high expectations of the series – having seen photographs of the foggy Jolly Olde England set and rather over made up cast in their costumes, which seemed to have that flashy, gaudy look reminiscent of those awful Ripper films of the 1960s and 1970s (I’m particularly thinking of A Study in Terror, which had Barbara Windsor playing Annie Chapman – a boggling concept for anyone familiar with the Ripper case although we have to remember that the ‘popular’ idea of the Ripper as a dapper toff and his victims as tawdry, over made up dollymops dates back to the early twentieth century when people didn’t actually have a clear idea of what he’d actually done or what his victims actually looked like as the post mortem photographs of the women concerned weren’t in wide circulation until 1988).

However, the photographs of Ripper Street were clearly misleading as it didn’t actually look all that bad on screen. Despite having been filmed in Dublin, 1880s Whitechapel with all its grime, sinister back alleys and miasma of blank despair was well realised and almost convincing, as were those dubious costumes, which looked much less garishly out of place than expected. The overall appearance, therefore, of Ripper Street wasn’t bad at all, especially with the more than occasional nods to the aesthetic of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, which I absolutely love.

It was just everything else that didn’t really work for me, I’m afraid. You’d think that a programme with such a profusion of sexual activity, violence and iniquity would have me on the edge of my seat but I actually found it rather, well, dull. I can’t quite put my finger on what was wrong as it all looked so lushly alluring and there was So Much Going On but it just failed to capture my attention. Maybe it was the oddly stilted script, which sounded almost Shakespearean at times (and not in the manner of Robbie Coltrane’s Godley in From Hell either) rather than Victorian or maybe it was some sort of problem with the plot, which seemed to just plod along in a rather confusing manner? Either way, I just couldn’t love it as much as I hoped to even though it was a relief, as the great-great-great granddaughter of an actual H Division copper who lived and worked in the heart of Whitechapel in the period depicted in Ripper Street, that it wasn’t worse than it was even if my ancestor’s lot were described at one point as ‘alcoholics and incompetents’. Ouch.

As an aside, while it was on, I noticed a lot of chat on Twitter and so on about there being ‘yet another drama fetishising Jack the Ripper and his violence against women’ and thought that once again I’d reiterate that although I am a Ripperologist and have been since my early teens, my interest in the case revolves pretty much entirely around the identity, lives and legacy of his victims both ‘canonical’ and suggested. I don’t like the actions of ‘Jack the Ripper’ being used as an excuse or springboard for ‘entertainment’ that revolves around violence against women but I do think that we should still be talking about the case in the wider context of the social history of the period in general and that of women in particular.

Anyway, what did you think? I wanted it to be more like The Crimson Petal and the White, which was SUPERB but instead, well, it was a bit like The Bill only with bustles. Not that there’s anything wrong with The Bill or indeed with bustles but when you want winsomely decaying Victoriana with an artful touch and a strong central female character who doesn’t seem destined to be either throttled, raped, chopped into bits or beaten around it’s a bit of a disappointment.

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