My usual barometer for choosing programmes, the ‘if it’s got a Spooks actor in it then it’ll probably be quite good’ method, was thrown out of kilter by the first episode of Ripper Street.
Opening with the aftermath of a brutal murder and leading Matthew Macfadyen and his band of gritty policemen chums to a violent pornography den, it lacks any real character and relies too heavily on its shocking contents.
Everything is really grimy, but in quite a nice, shiny way. Almost as if it’s been made for television. This is forgivable in, say, Doctor Who, where the period and setting are just vehicles serving a larger concept. But in this world of late-Victorian London, setting is everything. It’s the place that conceives the action; the dark and treacherous streets breed the crime that terrorises their denizens.
It’s in the name, for goodness sake: Ripper Street. And yet the programme’s setting lacks real atmosphere, real fear. It’s all a bit too carefully placed. This has a huge knock-on effect upon the character of the piece as a whole. It’s quite difficult to really care about the crimes, because, at least before the explicitness gets going, so little is at stake. We aren’t afraid of Jack the Ripper, because it’s so patently obvious that he’s got nothing to do with the crime. And no amount of worried looks and mentions of the dark past will convince us.
Ripper Street struggles throughout against association with Sherlock Holmes. There’s not a great deal of room for detective dramas set in a late Victorian London underworld, and this attempt lacks any of the charm and character of Conan Doyle’s work and its adaptations. The writers have gone for gritty and serious, and have sacrificed soul and feeling. It’s all just a bit dull and flat; Macfadyen is fine as the slightly bland lynchpin, but he needs more dynamic characters around him. There’s none of the necessary flair here.
This first episode sets a gruesome and explicit standard, taking the exploitation of women and the first violent pornographic films as its subject matter. But these shock tactics don’t resonate or chill as much as they should because the production values never let us quite feel the humans being hurt behind them.
It might mature across its eight-episode run, and with any luck a good cross-episode plotline will develop to give it the sense of intrigue it really needs. But unless Jack comes back sharpish, it’ll just stay horribly flat.