I cannot recommend Ripper Street highly enough. The actors are excellent, the dialogue fine, and the English a joy to listen to. The setting is grim and nasty, the lead characters compromised and gritty, but it has none of the bitterness and cynicism that so often accompanies those traits in a TV show. It’s also, I think, the first TV show I have ever seen that might be described as sex-worker positive. It’s what Deadwood could have been, if it weren’t so deeply and overwhelmingly misogynist.
Ripper Street is a crime/mystery TV series set in the East End of London in the era of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper himself has been and gone, but the show focuses on the detective who failed to catch him, Detective Inspector Reid, his sergeant Bennett Drake (played by Bron from A Game of Thrones) and an American, Homer Jackson, who is their forensic doctor. Reid has lost a daughter, possibly to Jack the Ripper, and his personal life is on the rocks because of it; Jackson is an ex-Pinkerton on the run with his ex-girlfriend Susan, who runs a brothel (where Jackson lives); and Drake is tormented by his memories of soldiering in Egypt, where he may also have joined some satanic sect. The fifth person in the picture above (far right) is Miss Rose, one of Susan’s employees, who is in a relationship with Jackson but being wooed by Drake.
Reid is played by Matthew McFadyen, most famous for his stirring portrayal of D’Arcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and as one might expect from such impeccable credentials, he does an excellent job of portraying a detective trying to use modern, scientific methods to solve crime in a world still steeped in cruelty, superstition and bigotry. Bennett Drake is like a soft version of Bron, capable of being just as vicious but also much more vulnerable. He is Reid’s hard man: in 19th century London no one has to adhere to the human rights act, and when confessions need to be extracted it is Drake who extracts them. Jackson is probably more dangerous than either of them, and has a very dubious past, but provides the medical skills (and to a large extent the real brains of the operation). He is also a selfish, lazy and arrogant man.
So basically this TV series is like a grittier and slightly less fanciful version of From Hell if it somehow crashed into Pride and Prejudice, with Reid as a more down-to-earth version of Abberline, and a team of three putting together a modern approach to policing. In many ways the show seems to have really made a big effort to capture the reality of the times, portraying the East End of London as a far more diverse, contested, and hopeful place than perhaps we are used to seeing in Ripper-era television. I also think it deals particularly well with two classes of person: Americans and sex workers.
The Americans in Ripper Street dress differently, they talk differently, they really do seem to come from a different world. They’re usually either on the run or looking for something, and they aren’t native in London – they don’t know the town, they often hate it, and they’re usually there with a purpose, not usually a good one. They’re gaudier, more dangerous or more sinister, and they’re also more modern – they have ideas and skills and ways of looking at things that the Londoners aren’t used to. This is how I imagine they would have seemed at the time the show is set, and it might be part of the explanation for why British society has such a strange love/hate relationship with American culture. I really like this depiction of the gulf between two apparently closely-related societies, a gulf that I think a lot of people feel in their day-to-day dealings in the real world, and it’s nice to see Americans in Britain being depicted as more than just a different accent.
But where Ripper Street really excels for me is in its treatment of sex work. It’s the first TV show I think I’ve seen other than Deadwood where sex workers are major characters, but unlike Deadwood it doesn’t reduce them to weak and pathetic characters dependent upon men for approval and safety. Though they are constrained by the stupid mores of their time, the sex workers in Ripper Street aren’t weak, and they don’t wait for men to protect them or help them, nor do they seek men’s approval. They are proud, strong women trying to make their own way in a world where women have no formal power. They aren’t sluts or idiots, but ordinary women doing what needs to be done. The show also takes a narrative stance on sex work, not particularly openly, so that we can see the morality of the world in which the women work and trace its hypocrisies and cruelties; this isn’t done in a hamfisted way, generally, and it’s portrayed primarily through the efforts of Reid’s religious wife, Emily, who wishes to establish a shelter to protect homeless women without dictating morals or lifestyle. It’s really refreshing to see a TV show set in an oppressive era that doesn’t fetishize sexual violence and reduce its female characters to victims and objects. If only Deadwood had done the same …
Ripper Street only has eight episodes so far, and a new season won’t be along any time soon, but I strongly recommend viewing what there is. It’s an excellent and enjoyable show, and a welcome addition to that small genre of TV shows about the genesis of modern policing. Don’t hesitate to try it out if you get the chance.