Brit Grit Alley features news and updates on what's happening down British crime fiction's booze and blood soaked alleyways.
Geeeeeezah! Over the next few weeks, Brit Grit Alley will be hosting a fistful of guest columnists from the Brit Grit community. We have loads of top talent lined up, I can tell you: Established novelists as well as up and coming Brit Grit stars of the future. First up is the brilliant Nigel Bird. Nigel is the author of the Brit Grit crime novellas Smoke and Mr Suit, the 'teacher noir' novel In Loco Parentis and three cracking short story collections. He is also the editor- along with Chris Rhatigan- of the Pulp Ink anthologies and his blog Sea Minor is choc full of reviews, interviews and all manner of carryings on.
Here, Nigel Bird takes a gander at the new BBC television series, Ripper Street.
I was sitting with my dad during the Christmas holidays and was hoping that we might find something on the TV to share. Given the fodder that’s normally on offer, I didn’t expect there’d be anything, but a trailer for a new series caught my attention.
At first glance Ripper Street seemed a little too obvious. Take the Victorian from Sherlock, the police investigation from you-name-it and the forensic aspects of CSI et al, throw in the fascination with Jack The Ripper et voila – Ripper Street. It did seem to be trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator and that might normally have turned me off completely, yet we tuned in anyway.
I was pretty much taken in from the opening fight scene, an undercover cop participating in an illegal boxing match. What caught my attention was the way the raw power and visceral pain that was portrayed – no soft soaping here.
What followed was engaging enough, at least for me. My dad would rather leave it than take it and I could see his point of view. The show, a murder investigation as I recall, was almost really good and fell short by only a few dramatic moments.
The potential I saw related, in the main, to the dynamics of the characters involved and the way it was made clear that each of them had a shadow following them that couldn’t ever be brought fully into focus. Since that first episode, I’ve been even more convinced that this is almost great. Give it to HBO and it might well be right up there.
I think it’s the characters that keep me hooked. Favourite among them is Sergeant Drake, a hard-as-nails war hero turned copper with tattoos that keep his nightmares at bay and with a heart that’s as soft as a caramel. He’s central to the action and the emotion and he’s quick to use his fists in the interest of the greatest good for the greatest number. Captain Homer Jackson is also a fantastic creation. He’s from the States, has a murky past as an army surgeon and has turned to the bottle and to anything else he can get his hands upon to blot out his nightmares. He’s a noir man through and through. He’s also a pioneer in forensics and a fan of the brothel down the road. Best of all, he mainly helps the police because he has to. There are some great strong women characters to enjoy - the prostitutes, the Inspector’s grieving, altruistic and politically astute wife and the wonderful matron of an orphanage. Inspector Reid stands out as the central character. I do have issues with him. He’s a little too utilitarian and focused. A little too good to be true. A little flabby against the leanness of the others. Slightly wooden in the voice department. In some ways he’s the weak link while in others he’s the glue without which none of it would work. This is unusual and I’d love to hear any opinions on why this might be the case.
Put all these people together and throw them into Whitechapel and you really do get a raw and exciting mixture. There have been some very strong plot lines to develop the characters and the engage the watcher in the thrill of it all. All too frequently, however, the writers seem to have reached a little too far. They don’t seem content to have the solving of a murder as an end in itself. Here, the murder’s are attached to corrupt politicians, attempts to poison the whole of the city of London, Russian spies and arson on a huge and unrealistic scale, the taking of the Royal Mint... These things remind me of being a kid and watching The Professionals or The Avengers or James Bond where they were always saving the world. It worked when I was little, but doesn’t wash as easily now.
Does that mean Ripper Street is best suited to a younger audience? I’d suggest not.
There’s cunnilingus, torture, brain-exploding suicide, opium, hints of the sexually unusual from the upper-classes and a kind of strange use of snipped Olde-English speech. Most of which I approve of. Much of which I think makes it worthy of a slot in the Brit Grit column. Not so much I’d be happy to share with my kids until they’re in their early-teens. It’s that real sense of violence and menace that keeps it alive and interesting for me.
On the flip side, another minus, is the introduction of ridiculous melodrama. This is where the HBO production would have improved the piece. I’m sure they’d have given the piece time to breathe. Left it to sit a while and for things to build. Taken it in steps before jumping in at a shot at stealing the crown jewels (it’s not happened yet, but I’ll bet they’ve considered it). Kept the caricatures to a minimum.
Ripper Street is a soup of positives and negatives then. For me, the positives keep winning and so far have done every time. If you need an episode to check out on I-player, I’d go for number 5 where Sergeant Drake’s loyalties are split right down the middle between the police and his old military comrades and later split wider by a broken heart.
Overall verdict? Delighted they’re going to do a second series.
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