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Ripper Street Cut

Laura Ludtke

Ripper Street, Series 2
BBC One
From 28th October 2013

Last Wednesday, the actor Jerome Flynn revealed that the well-regarded period crime drama Ripper Street, in which he plays Detective Sergeant Drake, had not been renewed for a third series (BBC London 94.9). Ripper Street, which airs on Mondays at the same time as I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here (ITV), draws roughly a third of the viewers as its competing program. The first series drew criticism for being excessively gruesome and often gratuitous in its violence. The second series offered a direct response to those criticisms, moving away from the aftermath of its eponymous serial killings and choosing to tackle serious social issues in late-Victorian London.

From its very first episode, Ripper Street offered viewers an uncanny take on the period crime drama. Lauded as CSI Victorian London, its luxe attention to historical detail and to emerging technologies and scientific innovations were what distinguished it from its contemporaries in historical crime drama. The autopsy room, which serves as a locus for the solving of crimes as well as a visual metonym for all the science and technology explored, is omnipresent throughout the series. In the first episode of the first series (broadcast on 30 December 2012), the autopsy room signified the progressive approach to detection taken by Detective Inspector Reid (Matthew Macfayden) and his roguish and often reluctant colleague, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). Jackson, a former army surgeon and Pinkerton agent with an eye for modern medical innovation, and the autopsy room are what distinguish Reid and the Leman Street police station in Whitechapel from the other divisions of Scotland Yard. Together, they allow Reid and his colleagues to operate at the forefront of forensics.

The autopsy room, like many of the other ‘technologies’ or ‘contemporary events’ featured in the first series—telegraphy, the Underground, photography, moving pictures, Paris Green, psychosurgery, transatlantic steamships, the development of heroine—is disarmingly uncanny. Not only does it border on the anachronistic, but it plays into the 21st century television trope of unimpeachable physical, forensic evidence. Accuracy and precision, however, are important to the production of the show, as Vanessa Heggie’s article “The science of Ripper Street” in The Guardian (3 February 2013) suggests. Such representations of technological innovations also serve to advance the plot in what is a detective procedural that tries to appear historically prescient.

At the same time, these representations capture the tensions between culture and ideology that mark the late 19th century, which, in the most recent episode “A Stronger Loving World,” manifest in a struggle between science and religion played out in a Jonestown-style attempted massacre of an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—a magical sect which at one point counted W. B. Yeats among its members. As Isaac Bloom (Justin Avoth) explains to Reid, “with its every triumph of discovery the age takes hammer and chisel to man’s pillars. Is it so surprising there are those in need of new pillars?” This is what Ripper Street does well: it approaches the intersection of culture and technology without simplifying the relationship or distorting it. In this, it can be contrasted with its counterpart historical drama, Downton Abbey (ITV), which makes the intersection of science and technology often little more than material for a punchline. One need look no further than Lady Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), the stalwart dowager and symbol of the Victorian age, making the overly-contrived exclamation ‘First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel.’ Yes, we get it: new technology is often first perceived as being futuristic.

This brings us back to the second series of Ripper Street, which features in its five episodes: a Limehouse opium den and the development of heroin; freak shows and contemporary theories of degeneration; the aftermath of the London matchgirls’ strike and the emergence of the London County Council; a faux-Fenian dynamite plot around the battle of the currents (AC vs. DC) in the electrification of London; the Baring crisis; and the dangers and ‘immorality’ of homosexuality. Each episode is meticulously researched, weaving together the narrative strands of social, cultural, and scientific or technological history. Working within a ‘crime of the week’ format, the murders in Ripper Street can be as sensational and as topical as those ‘ripped from the headlines’ for the American series Law and Order. Indeed, the plots of Ripper Street give the impression of having come from the periodicals, popular press articles, ledger books, diaries, and packets of papers that are preserved in the bowels of the London Metropolitan Archives or any of the parish council libraries.

Ripper Street and, to a certain extent, Downton Abbey participate in an ongoing narrative about rediscovering the intersection between modernity and technology in the (recent) historical past. Part of this narrative includes being ‘accurate’ in the representation of what things were like ‘back then.’ But does this make good drama? Are the historical details and facts behind each episode (which, although available for anyone to discover, would otherwise remain unearthed and unconsidered) productive? Do they simply enrich the story of the solving of the crime or do tell us something about what we find important, interesting, and relevant? Do they resonate with the 21st century viewer? Well, you will have to watch next week’s ultimate episode to find out, as Ripper Street has been cancelled and the full drama of the intersection between culture and technology that resonates far beyond the late-Victorian period has only begun to play out.

Laura Ludtke is reading for an D.Phil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.