If I were to ask you to imagine a BBC period drama, what would you think of? I couldn’t say for sure, but I would imagine you’ve come up with soft, fuzzy image involving petticoats, walking canes and garden parties on the lawn. Not, I should imagine brutal murders, violent early pornography and post-mortem gore. That, however is we get from ‘I Need Light’, the first episode of the BBC’s new drama du jour, Ripper Street.
The first episode, shown last Sunday, for a reason known only to the BBC as part of their festive drama season, introduces us to the smart and serious Inspector Edmund Reid, played by the incomparable Matthew Macfadyen, along with his trusted companion, Captain Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), a rowdy, dashing American surgeon and long-time colleague Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn). Together they attempt to keep local panic on the down low, by proving that the grisly murder of a local violin player was not committed by the infamous and recently missing in action, Jack the Ripper.
Set just six months after ‘Jack’s’ original murders, the world of Ripper Street provides the perfect environment for copycat killing plotlines, as well as showing the general sense of chaos and fear at the time. Faced with disillusionment and past failures, the police have a lot of catching up to do in order to restore public trust. Sadly, the historical references are a little thin on the ground. The From Hell letter gets a casual mention, victim Mary Jane Kelley gets a name check, and Ripper investigator in chief Detective Abberline (Clive Russell) has a small role.
Realistically, though, all that has all been done before, and this series has plenty more to offer in its own right. In ‘I Need Light’, Reid’s investigation into the murder of the young Maude Thwaites takes him and colleague Detective Drake (Jerome Flynn) into a dark, violent world of prostitution, smut and pornography, with an exploration of the beginnings of photography particularly well expressed.
Be warned, some parts make extremely difficult viewing, although Macfadyen’s earnest, honest Inspector lends a comfortingly secure moral compass to the story. He’s the optimism of the story, the belief that better times lie ahead and it is his duty to make them happen. Flynn and Rothenberg play off each other brilliantly throughout, using their characters differences to full effect as part of Reid’s mismatched Victorian Scooby gang. MyAnna Buring is suitably fiery as brothel keeper Long Susan, and Charlene McKenna is compelling as Rose Erskine, one of her ‘girls’.
The set and general atmosphere are great too, really capturing the darker realities of Victorian London. A timely visit to Finchley part-way through the episode clearly underlines for us the contemporary East versus West divide, with one side force to live ‘like rats’, as Reid remarks. There are plot twists galore, too, with writer Richard Warlow seemingly on a one man mission to prevent viewers from becoming too comfortable.
All in all, this is far from the Sunday night period drama, or cosy murder mystery we’ve come to expect from the BBC. At times, it’s uneasy viewing but on the whole, good on them for that. We all need a shock over our cocoa once in a while.
Next on, tomorrow night, 9pm.