‘You know the other man?’
‘With regret I do?’
This is how they talk in Ripper Street. It soon becomes addictive.
‘I shall get about it presently.’
How complicated conversation is without the present participle. Watch Ripper Street for half an hour and it is possible to imagine Henry James sitting barefoot and inventing Victorian slang. The dialogue in Ripper Street may be mannered and artificial but the style is sustained and effective. Anachronisms are few compared to most period drama, although the reference to ‘technology’ in the first episode of the fourth series was a bad error that jarred. This is being picky. Ripper Street has much to enjoy, and why the programme is no longer shown on BBC TV is a disgrace that must have something to do with Tory hostility and budget cutting, evidence of the continuing oppression of an enlightened bureaucracy.
The ornate dialogue keeps the actors happy which is fine because Ripper Street has a good cast. Mathew Macfadyen is tortured and sensitive, and his performance defines a complicated man who has principles but who is also preoccupied with his gifts and his destiny. Macfadyen is the star but the cameos are also important. The women have good faces that encourage the camera and us to linger. Lucy Cohu plays the Jewish woman that Reid should have dallied with longer. She has weary, wary, mysterious eyes that evoke unseen drama.
The names of the lead characters are great and, like the dialogue, they suit Gothic taste. The intellectually curious policeman played by Macfadyen is called Reid, and reading is what the curious do in their spare hours. For Reid knowledge requires understanding of what appals but that means loss of innocence and inevitable guilt. His anxious and haunted assistant is Bennet Drake. This bare-knuckle fighter has had a troubled past and he wears the bruises to prove it. His face looks like dough between rolls. His appropriate name evokes a man whose life has been a complicated journey, a traveller who has bobbed on the ocean between the coastlines of damnation and redemption. Captain Jackson, the American pathologist and Miss Susan, the brothel owner, have a complicated relationship. In the early episodes they merely had the ‘hots’ for each other. Now they have discovered love, a commodity that in Ripper Street is complicated. Their affinity and conflict serve as a metaphor for the brutal early capitalism that the show relishes, the promise and the burden of appetite. Captain Jackson and Miss Susan have identities that, like their wilful characters, challenge traditional gender. No Mr and Mrs for those two.
Symbolism requires substance, and all the leading characters have psychological girth. The men, though, dominate the show. All the men are engaged in a chest beating struggle to conquer their weaknesses and somehow transcend failure. Reid is obsessive and narcissistic, too vain and self-important to live amongst flawed men and women. He is tempted by a retreat where he can listen to the ocean. In American movies the tortured visit lakes and gaze up at tall trees. In Britain we ponder the horizon. Drake lives in fear of his violence and his own considerable demons. The American emotions of hard drinking Captain Jackson are as combustible as the chemicals that he uses in his laboratory. Underneath the hedonism Jackson is a capable pathologist. The scenes from the Victorian laboratory and his performance are a highlight of the show and they explain how a gifted sensitive man is drawn to the brutal.
The women affect the plot but they are occupied in surviving and picking up the pieces left by self-destructive men. As some of those pieces fall from the women, they do share the drama. Miss Susan may love Captain Jackson, and ex-whore Rose is fond of Drake, but both need independent status and unencumbered space. Love exists in Ripper Street but it is peculiar. The men have emotional attachments that add little of benefit to their lives. They are like addicts who wonder what it would be like to have clean spirits. The women balance survival against commitment and the obligatory economic dependency. If the men are occupied with triumph, the women have secret plans. They have schemes for the future that are intended to inhibit the worst in their men.
In four series of the show no one has yet appeared who has made someone else happy. Series three ended with a glorious reunion between a father and daughter. In the first episode of series four that relationship is already frayed. The beautiful daughter, who was welcomed Dickens style into the middle class family, is now a difficult daughter curious about oral sex.
The latest BBC adaptation of War And Peace has cost the BBC £8,000 for every minute of the show. Ripper Street is less expensive but enough money was borrowed for fine production values. Gothic excess has always been well served by cinematic technology. Ripper Street has stylised CGI and a loud soundtrack but it avoids the brutal rock and roll bohemia of the appalling Peaky Blinders. In Blinders exaggerated characters created an artificial environment that accommodated adolescent fantasy. In Ripper Street strong characters are frustrated and reduced by the events and challenges of a bigger world. Malevolent villains exhaust the best of us but indifferent capitalism is also capable of horror. The victims of early industry suffer extreme hardship; the faces of the female matchmakers are eaten away by industrial pollution. The victims, though, are not romanticised. They are ignorant and, because they are powerless, obliged to be pathetic and harsh to each other. Compromised by corruption and surrounded by exploitation and degradation the men and women of Ripper Street are inadequate, their morals as shabby as their circumstances. Agents of change and protest do exist but, because they scramble to survive, they are selfish and narrow. This is how the history and progress required by the powerful tramples us all prior to extinction or, as the Fagin substitute says to a union leader, ‘The future times will roll over you.’ Despite the social conscience of Ripper Street the profit makers are the visionaries. The exploited are crude and ignorant. The imagination operates best when money is being counted.
The title of the series may be an example of crass commercialism but its debt to the East End legacy is paid by Ripper Street. London incubated industrial capitalism before anywhere else, and the horror of Whitechapel was as unexpected as the wealth gained by some. The plots, like the times, are rooted in greed and opportunity. Reid is assailed by opportunists in commerce, the press, the police and even the reform movement. Neither does he trust women. Modern themes and conflicts mix with Victorian dynamism and ambition. All familiar travails are evident, gender, class, money, status, imperialism, racism and the alienation from work. It makes sense. This is where the problems began.
A walk around Whitechapel for the daughter of Reid reveals the exotic and forbidden but those who work there like her father understand what happens to the losers in a society based on aspiration and individualism. Isolated Whitechapel is the savage consequence of a contest needed by those desperate to combine profit with a clear but myopic conscience. Ripper Street has this political sensibility. This may deter the apolitical but without it the programme would be nothing more than bad taste Gothic. Because it is political, sometimes grudgingly like its characters, Ripper Street is more than the Victorian equivalent of the self-absorbed grotesquery in True Blood. The accusations of Dickens have been added to the Gothic mix and are essential. We observe the powerful and the powerless, the ruined and the deluded victors. Ripper Street is also restrained. It condemns violent protest. The policemen try to save lives and are willing to ignore fundamental grievances, compassion for the encountered rather than sympathy for a cause is what is important.
‘Save one life, you save the world entire,’ quotes Reid.
The existentialism may be dodgy and the syntax fake Latin but the sentence does explain the impulse to charity.
Relief from the contest is important to the characters of Ripper Street and usually it happens when they acknowledge their lovers. But there is nothing romantic about this acknowledgement. It is need and dependency not benevolence. Reid, Drake. Captain Jackson and Miss Susan are as destructive and as contrary as those in a Bergman movie. Even heart of gold Rose is fond of protest and is more than willing to come between Drake and his pipe and evening newspaper. Where will it end? Well, if the zombie hunters of The Walking Dead can follow a railway track for a whole series, the tortured souls of Whitechapel should be able to wander its twisted lanes for some time yet.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.