Ripper Street – 1.01 – I Need Light

Matthew Madfadyen returns with the BBC’s new Ripper-free Ripper drama! We take a look at the first episode.

A couple of years ago now, the BBC lost adult action-drama flagship Spooks. In 2012, they tried to replace it with Hunted, which shared content and style with its predecessor, but none of the characters or actors. That didn’t entirely work out, so now we have Ripper Street – nothing like Spooks in content or setting, but does feature original star Matthew Macfadyen.

This one focuses on detectives in Victorian London, trying to solve crimes in the aftermath of Jack The Ripper’s reign of terror, and the first episode aired a few nights back. I’m just back from my Christmas break, and need new fodder for weekly reviews. This will do nicely. Onward, my good people!

Rippper-Dee-Doo-Dah, Ripper-Dee-Dum-Dee-Dum

Watching Ripper Street is an odd experience – you get the feeling it should be much better than it is. Period detective drama is the kind of thing the Beeb do well, Macfadyen is a great lead actor who I’ve sorely missed on weekly shows and Jack The Ripper is an evocative subject matter. Hell, ITV squeezed success out of him with Whitechapel, which also starred a former Spooks section chief. Coincidence?

Well, let’s not speculate. The debut episode of Ripper Street, anyway, suffers badly from a slow, drifting plot. It clearly wants to introduce its characters whilst leaving room for dark revelations in later episodes, but that means all we get are the briefest of intros to each, and the mystery that gives the episode its story is quite thin as well. Macfadyen as Detective Reid is good enough to make “reticient detective” interesting, and Jerome Flynn (of Game of Thrones and Robson & Jerome fame) isn’t bad either as the amusingly brutal sidekick, but still. Watching those two characters stomp around Victoriana for an hour shouting at people only goes so far – things really start to plod mid-way.

It wasn’t all awful, the ending finally pulled some tension together. and the inevitable knowing nods to modern technology were mostly fun, too. Detective Reid’s reaction to the movie camera during the climax works well, as does the amusing Victorian-era tabloid journo – I don’t know if they could push it much further without slipping into smugness though.

The dialogue is relishing the chance to hit flowery olde English, and I’m in two minds about it. The speech grounds it in the period and helps it stand out from all the other terse, smartypants cop shows out there. Still, it also takes you out of the action when they push the “How many words can we use to make our point?” game too far. And while I’m talking about dialogue – did anyone else struggle to understand Adam Rothenberg’s American Captain Jackson character? Everyone else was fine, but I had to glean much of his speech from inference.

“All The Men Are Cops, All The Women Are Prostitutes, We Can Close The School Careers Office!”

There was annoyance on Twitter about the not-great gender politics at play, and I can see some of their point. Yes, we get the shots of sliced-up women that are inevitable in Ripper stories, but they’re fairly brief and at least the ending establishes we won’t be going there every week. The stark division of all male characters being policemen and the female ones all prostitutes is more irritating, and also symbolises one of the wider problems here: it’s not yet doing much interesting or new with its concept. You could see from a mile off that this particular killing would be a non-Ripper death, as otherwise the premise of the series is disproven, and that inevitable climax robs the episode of tension.

Many shows get around the predictability of pilot episodes by having one of the seeming main characters end up dying or being the villain, but Ripper Street doesn’t even do that – the bad guy really is just some dude.

In short, then: I’m on board for a few episodes more, because I like the idea of a Victorian era detective show starring Matthew Macfadyen, but this first episode suffers from major first-week problems: predictable ending, endless exposition and a feeling that they’re saving all the interesting stories for later. The acting is good enough that it isn’t completely unwatchable, but the stretch in the middles does get rather dull. Hopefully it picks up in future weeks.

So, did you watch Ripper Street? Am I miles off base with my critical appraisal? Thoughts welcome.

Ripper Street airs on Sundays at 9PM on BBC One. More info on the BBC Official site, check out the first episode on iPlayer here. Beware the Gruffalo.

Nick Bryan

Updated: Jan 02, 2013

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