Living in the old East End, where nightly Ripper Tours flood the streets after dark, I can testify to the fact that the shadow of Jack the Ripper has continued to haunt the popular imagination well beyond the bounds of 1888 Whitechapel. And I don’t mind this, per se: despite all the wrong reasons for which he fascinates, there are also a few right reasons to be found, as demonstrated, for example, by Judith Walkowitz in her introduction to City of Dreadful Delight. Therefore, I was actually quite excited to discover Ripper Street: uniting my interest in the Victorian period and my not-always-entirely-guilty pleasure in detective series, it seemed to present quite an intelligent and original, though popular, take on the old concept.
What the show definitely succeeded in doing was proving that a good first episode is enough to hook the viewer – or it hooked me, anyway. The premise of portraying a police force scarred by the events of the autumn of 1888, and a detective doing his utmost to prevent that panic from resurfacing with every similar (copycat?) case, was novel whilst making logical, political and psychological sense. There were just enough hints at backstory to fascinate, and some of the characters were really well chosen and drawn.
However, this very interest in backstory soon got out of hand. Each of the characters had one – one filled with violence, crime and trauma. And while there was obviously a lot of all three around in late-Victorian London, some – or a great deal – of it seemed simply improbable. There could be some explanation for this, arguably, in Engels’s theory of characters and situations as ‘types’: the writers of the show were clearly very aware of the many different political and social issues besetting the East End in the late 1880s, and each episode and each character came to represent one or more. Thus, it made sense to include an episode on the 1889 Dockworkers’ Strike, and present the gun-slinging, semi-criminal, ex-Pinkerton Yankee pathologist’s experiences of the Chicago May Day massacre. Nevertheless, often this heightened awareness of historical context spilled over and became excessive, as with this very character’s false name, secret flight, unlikely residence in a brothel, and the vengeful posse pursuing him across the Atlantic. As the show reached the later episodes, the pressure to explain these various confused plot points increased, and resulted in the last two episodes desperately trying to build a story around the tying up of loose ends.
But this wasn’t what made me uncomfortable. The reason I had a recurring sense that I should not be enjoying what I was watching was related to an apparent lack of a sense of the meaning of the historical context and detail as it related to the present day. Thus, for example, the dashing and incidentally murderous antics of the inspector and his sergeant, but particularly the pathologist, eliminated the need for the writers to deal with the problem of corrupt Victorian courts, hideous punishments and execution, but as a result portrayed a primitive and immediate justice of the kind that is so off-putting in some American police series. Although vigilantism is ostensibly judged in the script, often it seemed as though the historical setting served as an excuse to fantasise about a simplistic system of instant trial and retribution which, as a society, I had hoped we had outgrown.
Another backstory issue that continually got in the way of my enjoyment was the Inspector’s relationship with his wife. The child mortality rate in Victorian London was staggering, so their being driven apart by their different ways of (not) coping with the death of their daughter made sense, as did their both throwing themselves headlong into their work. Emily’s choice of charity work was a logical one considering her class, background and education, and the clichéd addition of her attempt to replace the object of her nurturing. Even the Inspector’s double standard – he is allowed to work and rarely come home or speak to his wife about his grief, but expects her to be constantly emotionally available to him – is not unrealistic, particularly considering the lingering expectations of separate spheres. What stuck in my throat was the show’s way of supporting him in this unreasonable frame of mind by providing him with the nurturing, womanly, motherly ideal in the form of the matron of an orphanage. She, despite her awareness of his wife and her general good sense, unhesitatingly welcomes him into her bed. In terms of the backlash of post-feminism, a regime of cuts that are turning back the clock on women’s achievements and opportunities, and the Tory advocacy of Thatcherite Victorian values, this emphasis on the wife’s work outside the home, to benefit social outcasts, ruining the marriage of the pillar of society that is the Victorian police inspector, is a dangerous one.
Although Ripper Street is an excellent police drama in terms of originality of premise, topics covered and suspense maintained, I was disappointed to see such a clever idea devolve into an unexpectedly simplistic rendition of the modern perception of ‘Victorian values’. On top of that, the choice of protagonist necessarily got on my nerves: as my friend remarked, Matthew Macfadyen really only has one face – and I will never forgive his having stuck that face on Mr Darcy in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.