Ripper Street Episode One Review: Matthew Macfadyen, Jerome Flynn & Adam Rothenberg shine but this Victorian crime drama lacks in substance

by Matt D

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In television terms the festive period is often dominated by both specials and one-off dramas however there are some exceptions to this rule. Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda have both already offered up Christmas specials to kick off their new seasons and tonight the BBC are starting a very different new series with the graphic Ripper Street.

Ripper Street takes us to Whitechapel in 1889 and inside H Division who have been busy trying to track down Jack the Ripper however have ultimately been unsuccessful. Matthew MacFayden’s Edmund Reid is now busying himself bringing other unsavoury types to justice, namely a dodgy bookie who is making boxers throw fights to make money, and is using his DS Bennett Drake to pose as a fighter in order to do this. However six months after the last Ripper killing another woman, Maud Thwaites, is found killed in the same style that Jack used to slay his victims. As the public outcry to the death begins, Reid realises he has to get the hysteria under control as soon as possible which isn’t helped by local journalist Fred Best claiming that H Division is trying to cover up another death. Reid’s former boss Fred Aberline, who has always regretted not catching the Ripper himself, is also on his case and wants to take over investigating Maud’s murder however he is overruled by Reid.

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Reid then recruits former US military surgeon Homer Jackson to perform an autopsy on Maud and hopefully confirm his theory that she wasn’t murdered by the Ripper. Homer’s investigation concludes that Maud wasn’t a prostitute but rather a violin player and when they later discover she lived in an upper class area of London they realise that the Ripper couldn’t have a hand in it. When Reid and Drake question Maud’s husband they find out that she went behind his back and had some saucy photos taken of himself which leads the police to in the unsavoury world of smut. Meanwhile Homer uses his relationship with brothel madam Long Susan to discover who took the pictures and sends Rose, one of her girls, to go undercover and try to find out who it was the murdered Maud. However with Reid and Drake caught up apprehending the bookie, and trying to use his contacts to track down the perpetrator, will they be too late to save Rose from the same fate that befell Maud and will Reid be able to prove that the Ripper is no longer a threat to the people of Whitechapel?

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The first thing that strikes me about Ripper Street is how racy it is for BBC1 on a Sunday night considering that it contains both plenty of nudity and violence. Indeed I would say Ripper Street’s main strength is in its production design which paints a very colourful picture of a seedy London borough in the late 19th century. From the dirty streets to the seedy brothels by way of the more upper class houses where Maud lived I would say that those behind the creation of Ripper Street have spent most of the time worrying about what it looks like. The costumes are also an important part of the show with MyAnna Buring’s Long Sally in particular wearing a number of extravagant outfits while the men all sport a variety of interesting facial hair with my favourite having to be the beard worn by H Division’s desk sergeant. With most of the concentration being on the style of the piece I found the script suffered and for me I found that Ripper Street took itself far too seriously meaning that I ended up finding several parts of it unintentionally hilarious. A case in point are the final scenes, in which our trio finally find their killer, which involves both a stabbing scene and one of the characters setting themselves on fire. An obvious comparison to Ripper Street has to be Whitechapel and even though the latter was set in the present day both to deal with a similar subject matter however my preference has to be with the ITV show which I found a little more compelling. The theme of Ripper Street that is most interesting, and indeed one that I hope they keep up, is the changing face of London with the ongoing construction of the underground and the arrival of the film camera.

As far as the performances go I found it hard to warm to Matthew Macfayden whose Reid was quite a cold and alienating figure although he was one who was meant to be the hero of the piece. As Drake, Jerome Flynn seems to be playing a similar role to the one he did in Game of Thrones as both rely on their violence as a way of communicating even though Drake doesn’t have the same sense of humour that Bronn does. While mentioning Game of Thrones I have to say that the BBC do seem to be attempting to make Ripper Street as appealing to the Americans as possible with its stylised opening credits and HBO-like focus on sex and violence both particularly prominent and I have to say I wasn’t shocked to learn that this is indeed a co-production with BBC America. Obviously there is also an American lead character in Homer Jackson who I found the most interesting of the central trio thanks in part to Adam Rothenberg’s lively performance. Indeed Homer’s military past and relationship with Long Sally makes him the most intriguing character and the one that I’d be most interested in learning more about if indeed I do continue watching the programme.

Overall I wasn’t really taken with Ripper Street which prominently focuses on how it looks rather than the in its scripting or its central performances. While I was taken by the serious nature of the show or the abiding focus on sex and violence I can appreciate that some people will find it refreshing not to have yet another costume drama dominating the Sunday schedules. I don’t think that Ripper Street is without promise and indeed if the rest of the series isn’t as formulaic as this opening episode then I may be encouraged to watch a few more instalments but ultimately I wasn’t impressed with what I saw here.

Did you watch Ripper Street? Was your opinion different to mine? Leave Your Comments Below.

2 Comments

  1. caroline smith on December 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Not really impressed with Ripper Street. Where shall I start? Trying to impose forensic CSI style investigation techniques onto the
    Victorian Ripperesque Setting just does not work.
    A somewhat misogynistic subtext seemed to permeate the whole episode. Dead females, prostitutes and the wonderful scientific advances from Victorian Pornography to the first ever possible snuff movie…not my cup of tea.
    The ideology behind the series seemed to have potential; The fear of The Ripper lurking behind every dark Victorian alleyway.Hopefully the following episodes wil focus more on that than the sensationalism of female degredation.

  2. Josie on January 2, 2013 at 7:05 am

    I thought it was a bit of a ‘fantasy’ programme than a true period piece. Kind of like the movie ‘Aliens and the Cowboys.’ But I could be mistaken.

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