The growing nastiness of period crime drama

Feature Louisa Mellor 7 Jan 2013 - 07:01

The BBC’s Ripper Street marks a growing trend in TV period crime drama, which has turned from nice to nasty…

Contains mild spoilers for episodes one and two of Ripper Street

Time was when period detective drama meant spending fifty minutes or so in the company of a shrewd OAP solving aristocratic murders in picturesque country houses by drinking Earl Grey from china cups and gently probing the scullery maid. It was sanitised, sexless, and more doilies than Deadwood

Of late however, period crime TV has evolved into something nastier. Twinsets, dastardly heirs and moustachioed Belgians are out, muckiness, dismemberment and gratuitous nudity are in. Looking ahead to new commissions from ITV and the BBC, the trend set to give Scandi-noir a run for its cosily attired money is for knobbing-and-knifing period crime drama. Forget Call The Midwife, we're talking Kill The Midwife, and leave her brutalised corpse out for the local cats.

Forming the vanguard of the assault is of course Ripper Street, the BBC’s handsome new police drama set in the months after Saucy Jack (who, on reflection, was less saucy and more utter bastard) filled the streets of 1890s Whitechapel with his evil deeds. Ripper Street arrives on our screens just as BBC America’s Copper, the channel’s first original series following a nineteenth century cop in the child prostitute and violent mob-ridden slums of New York, bows out.

Featuring only slightly less violence to the private parts of female Eastenders than channel-fellow Call The Midwife, Ripper Street’s first episode opened on the mutilated corpse of young Maude, and closed with another woman, drugged, raped, and almost being choked to death on camera. In-between was the now-obligatory nude slab sequence (admittedly, it would be tricky to carry out an internal examination with her corset still laced) and, correct me if I’m wrong, a particularly cheeky shot of the pathologist’s head hovering over dead Maude’s special area, just moments after he’d been seen with his face up the skirts of another woman. The message was clear: sex, death, and smut are what Ripper Street is selling.

Moving to the other side, ITV has not one but three historical crime dramas on the way, from WWII-set Murder on the Home Front telling the story of a pathologist on the trail of a serial killer during the Blitz, to a sequel to 2011’s  nineteenth century homicide adaptation The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and Life of Crime, a twentieth century trek through three decades of a police officer’s career which chooses the brutal murder of a fifteen year old girl as its kicking-off point. 

Across the pond, US channel Starz has just announced their pithily named new commission Crime, set in sixties Britain and written by The Departed’s William Monahan, while The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont (no stranger to corpses and gore) is seeking a slice of the Boardwalk Empire-period pie with his LA Noir adaptation, about the gangster-battling forties LAPD.

With Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife running away with the ratings most weeks, it follows that a TV audience with a thirst for period drama would drink their fill of it in another genre. Happy to relax into the chintzy, comfortable world of Earls and nuns doing the right thing, perhaps watching nefarious types and guttersnipes do very much the wrong thing is yet more escapism, another way to avoid the quotidian and drift off into bowler-hats and bustles reverie.

We’ve seen just two episodes of Ripper Street so far, but in each the divisions between good and bad are comfortingly drawn. The sadistic toff in the first episode and Joseph Gilgun’s scouse Fagin in the second were wrong’uns and no mistake, brought to fatal justice by the right-thinking men in blue. The plots may not revolve around whether the Dowager Countess wins the village flower show, but underneath all the grot, the programme is still a reminder that good will out, and whatever the viewers’ situation, we’re better off than toothless tarts and filthy urchins living in the vale of tears that is 1890s Whitechapel.

Yet, it’s difficult to deny that both kinds of period drama scratch very different itches. Part of the reason we’re attracted to on-screen and on-page atrocity is because it thrills yet reassures. Watching a fictional victim meet their grisly end and then being able to close the book, walk out of the cinema, or switch off the TV unharmed, heartbeat leaping with the metronomic message of ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine’ is life-affirming and stimulating. The likes of Cranford, Downton Abbey and Lark Rise to Candleford function more as sedative than amphetamine, the TV equivalent of a mug of Horlicks, not the slightly suspect Red Bull high of Ripper Street or Copper

Death and the darker sides of life aren’t the sole reserve of the new historical crime dramas of course. Vagrants, extreme poverty, disfigured war vets, prostitution and homelessness regularly occur in the fluffier ‘bonnets and breeches’ dramas, the difference being that their victims are like as not cleaned-up, rehabilitated, and sent gratefully on their way to a new life, rather than winding up as mutilated cadavers on a pathologist’s slab. 

If the economic landscape can be tracked by the rise and fall of hemlines, then our taste in crime TV must also fluctuate according to the events of the age. Between the World Wars, readers with no desire to add fictional guts and gore to their first-hand experience of it wrapped themselves up in Agatha Christie “cosies” like a warm blanket, reassuring themselves with tales that excised the dark side of death and focused on always-resolved genteel mysteries.

What explains then, the current taste for telly that reopens the history books to scribble strangled women and violent disembowelling all over the margins?

Is it a simple case of copycat productions? There’s no better proof that replication sells judging by the flurry of cheap-looking identikit bondage fantasies pumped out by publishers this summer in the smutty wake of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Make one gory period detective show, and a legion follow behind. 

Perhaps the answer lies in the conventions of contemporary crime TV, so perfectly skewered by Charlie Brooker and Daniel Maier’s spoof series, A Touch of Cloth. Gratuitous corpse photography, lingering nude slab shots, and a parade of women sliced, diced and served up for our horrible viewing pleasure are commonplace in CSI-type drama, so finding those tropes transported to centuries past is the next logical step.

The explanation doesn’t only lie at the feet of crime drama, but pans genres. Nudity, blood and swordplay in the likes of Game of Thrones and Spartacus have upped the ante in post-watershed TV, so in order to shock or – and there are so many problems with this next word it necessitates a much longer discussion – titillate these days, shows have to escalate the nastiness. All of which begs the question of what comes next? Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be more prudish.

Here’s one so-bad-it’s-probably-already in-development scenario: Marple and Poirot rebooted Nolan-style; grittier, darker, and sexier. She’s an ex-escort girl off her tits on laudanum tracking an aristocratic slicer-up of ha’penny tarts, he’s a compulsive gambler who can only rid his little grey cells of the painful memories of his dead wife and daughter by having seven shades of shit (and his curly moustache) kicked out of him in illegal street fights. Commissions anyone?

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No way am I watching Ripper Street. It contains the worst of crime fiction - stories where men are the active agents, whether of law and order or of wickedness, and women are present merely as passive onlookers or victims. A depressing return to traditional values at the BBC.

Its actually the shameless use of profanities such as 'dicker' that really make my blood boil. What an example to set to the youth of today. I was so incensed that I nearly commented on the Daily Mail website instead of DoG!

Meanwhile, why the rest of you NIMBY's are spouting ill informed bollocks, the rest of us can enjoy this excellent new drama. Well done BBC.

Haven't seen it, but IMO it sounds like its probably a more accurate representation of what those times were like, than say something like poirot. Also this is not a new thing any one watch Sharpe

I think it'll eventually cycle back round and we'll get a new Midsommer Murders-type Christie-like series, but even tamer than Midsommer Murders. After all, after Tipping the Velvet came (eventually) Downton Abbey, which may have bizarre storylines and random shocking character deaths every now and again, but in terms of gore it's as tame as you get

I had actually been looking forward to Ripper Street. Then I watched it. It was a missed opportunity to create something very classy but instead it relied on the old schlock horror and stereotypes. Unoriginal and uninspiring and as for the dialogue.... Such a shame - what could have been a thoughtful study ended up little more than a hackneyed farce.....

The perfect antidote to Downton and the like.
It's all about the balance.

But at the time women were like that, they were mostly nurses, prostitutes and chambermaids. Don't start saying that women should have more look in for these types of roles. The timeframe is depicting a certain decade, so your needs to start a row saying BBC is anti feminist is just your need to be heard.

Why are people going on about how this is wrong for the youth etc. Don't like it, don't watch it. The story is about killings, not planting flowers

Yep you are right on the money. They wont be happy until they have gone back in time and changed various public figures in History from white to black, straight to gay, women to men or men to women as they demand. I am just suprised the Ripper Streets lead characters are not black or muslim to keep the politically correct elite happy. I better watch what I say or the lefties will be after me again ....

Its ok in a way...but its very typical and safe for the BBC to do this sort of thing, rather than something different or new Sci Fi or heaven forbid a full season of Doctor Who again. I had to laugh this week as most of it was filmed in the same locations as last week, just from different angles and re dressed sets. Its all filmed in an old warehouse district, so its going to be hard to get many new locations...I am waiting for the one when they have to go out to the country to stop a martian invasion by swearing at them....

They just copy from ITV...what ever is popular, they try to do their own version of it, and ITV copy endless talent shows, singing contests, celeb crap, crime dramas, police dramas and period dramas. Call the Midwife, Downtown Abbey and so on (yes I spelled it wrong on purpose) ITV want a Doctor Who like show so we got Primeval was the same in the 70s when ITV was jealous of Doctor Who so they gave us the Tomorrow want to see a REALLY badly acted Cheesy low budget crapfest, then try watching the Tomorrow People now...but at the time it was great because it was new and different. And that is the problem with TV now. Its all been done, and a lot of it has been done better in the past. The BBC and ITV have not got the money, will or talent to bring us shows like Game of Thrones, Spartacus, 24, Lost , Homeland, Startrek etc etc...Its just the way it is now, which is one of the reasons I hardly bother with UK Tv any more.

Well said mate,way to much bollocks is spouted in these threads --> check out the post below...

Frankly after thirty years of drama dancing around these subjects, employing catty double entendre and poor euphemism I happy to finally deal head-on with these subjects. Titillation is the art or arousal without payoff or gratification. It is how these shows deal with the subjects of sex, violence and perversion that determines whether we are being titillated or the material itself is being explored for a more thoughtful purpose. Some of these shows are indeed a tad trashy - and I enjoy them for that alone (I'm looking at you Spartacus). But Boardwalk Empire which certainly employs every device mentioned above is not a titillating show - it's an adult show in which grownups act like grownups. Good, bad and dodgy. And we get to see how these actions affect their lives for good or ill.

I'm no longer thirteen. Mrs Marple can take a lover. I'm tired of deconstructing what all those vague things they almost say actually mean in context. I'd rather know directly what is going on in that head of hers under that knit hat than watch forty minutes of sideways glances and clutching of pearls.

Nice mention of Boardwalk Empire, I watched the season 3 finale and although, if I'm completely honest the resolution to the events in the fantastic penultimate episode did seem a little too neat and easy, it is still in my opinion one of the best shows for grownups currently on TV. It's interesting what you say about dramatic titillation. The aforementioned slightly anti-climatic finale was nevertheless pretty satisfying and certainly left me wanting more. One show that comes to mind though for offering fantastic foreplay for an entire season (I'm British but I don't mind using that US term for their 'programmes') and then failing to 'seal the deal' so to speak was season 4 of Sons of Anarchy which ended up 'deus ex machina-ing' all over itself. As much as I love watching Ron Perlman, there was no way that his escaping death could not seem like a huge cop out for the writers. Luckily season 5 kind of made up for it though.

But while I enjoy the vicarious thrills of SOA and it certainly has had some spectacular highs, overall it probably does unintentionally fall into the 'trashy'/'pulpy' camp and I don't think it's in the top league of consistently stunning US drama with the likes of Deadwood, Mad Men, The Sopranaos and The Wire (I know some have since levelled the claim that it's vocal fans 'overated' it with what is probably a little too much cynical postmodern irony, but it was and still is on the whole an astounding piece of drama). One show that I do put firmly in that camp however is Breaking Bad. I don't think I can remember ever seeing such fantastically satisfying payoffs. Every season has built to such a pinnacle of thrillingly, nerve shreddingly tense expectation that you can't imagine how it can't let itself down in the final episode. Yet as Walter White crosses / falls through yet another moral and ethical barrier and the depth of his criminality increases, it somehow never has. It's also astounding how I can still feel empathy and sympathy for him, no matter what dreadful deeds he commits, first to survive and then to thrive, which is in no small part down to the magnificent job Bryan Cranston does in the role. I can't wait for the final episodes. If you haven't seen it, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Can't we just do jim'll fix it remake?

Abso-bloody-lutely! My Missus has just replaced Downton with that stupid Spanish Grand Hotel thing, and has now started watching 'Mr Selfridge'...This is a terrific series (so far) and unlike 'True Blood' I don't have to watch unfeasibly pretty people all the time.

You hold up US TV as the home of the original but much of their output is copied from other sources too: e.g. Homeland is a remake from Israeli TV and their own versions of The Killing, Life on Mars and Sherlock, to name a few. Let's not forget that the US is also adept at milking a format e.g. Star Trek's various formats and numerous versions of CSI. Crime and Police dramas are also a staple of US TV.

The behaviour that you accuse ITV and the BBC of is pretty much what every single television channel in the world is probably up to at some point; buying others' formats, copying ideas and re-churning what is popular.

What crossed my mind, while watching Ripper Street, is that there are no contemporary action/adventure Police or crime series in the UK. Back in the seventies it was quite commonplace for the protagonist to have fisticuffs with the baddies: Reagan in The Sweeney, Hackett in Target and a punch-up was compulsory in any ITC series.

Nowadays, as with contemporary times, TV Detectives don't do that sort of thing - unless of course the scene is of a historical or period setting such as Reid/Drake in Ripper Street or Gene Hunt in Life on Mars.

What you say crossed my mind but actually that's not *entirely* true of Ripper Street. The Brothel owner is coming across as a strong woman and I suspect the re-occurring prostitutes may play a large part in future proceedings. Also in episode two, (spolier) the original murder was ordered by the victim's wife.

But ultimately there is the irony that these male-dominated times, which they were, are named after a woman called Victoria.

I think I did not come across with what I wanted to say very well in that post. What I mean is most tv has all been done, we have seen it all before in one form or another and coming up with a new original idea is very hard, so they dont bother, because if no one watches it, they are wasting their time and afraid to take the risk. US TV is not the home of original stuff you are right, but they have more money to try and try again and seem willing to do the big projects and try other things, even if most of it is crap, or does not get to a second season. Can you imagine the BBC or ITV ever making anything like Spartacus? They would never do it. When you look at it in the terms of brass tacks, Ripper Street is another crime drama, just set in the Victorian age...Sherlock is a crime drama, just a Victorian one set in the modern age and so on and so on, I am not complaining about Sherlock as its brilliant, but at the end of the day its a crime drama thriller no matter how you try to dress it up...I know Crime and Police dramas are a staple..I am old enough to remember Starsky and Hutch, Kojack and seems like a lifetime ago...well it was, I was only about 5 or 6 years old at the time. Dont even get me started on reality Tv and Talent shows...Whoever thought SPLASH was a good idea should be booted off a thirty foot high diving board into a pool with no water....

I just would like to see some more SCI FI on the BBC or something else new instead of the same safe stuff. Blakes 7 ran at the same time as Tom Bakers Doctor Who and was very very popular, but each time the BBC decide to do something new, they just seem to pick bad show ideas / scripts etc like Outcasts...that could have been amazing, but it was not. Shame...oh well...back to the box sets of Game of Thrones etc....Cheers!

Yes, that's a much clearer made point; I did take your original post as an unfair attack on UK television in general. I used to hold the exact same opinion about UKTV in the 90s but that all changed in the early 2000s when the BBC made The Lost World on the back of Walking With Dinosaurs. The mere fact that they had the audacity to make a classical science fiction adventure for Christmas and it was quite good to boot. The trouble was, more people watched Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

But despite that, they have still endeavoured to make science fiction/fantasy. It wasn't always good, it wasn't always expensive but the will *was* there and sometimes they *did* get it right: the criminally unfinished Strange was a particular favourite, I never miss Doctor Who and look forward to the 50th celebrations (although it only seems like a couple of years ago it was the 30th), loved Merlin, adored Life on Mars and quite liked Primeval's Professor Cutter years.

Outcasts was probably on the cusp of cult status but the Beeb lost faith in it. It just started too slowly. Some more time could've been given to Paradox too.

My holy grail of TV adaptations is for the Beeb to do a proper Victorian version of The War of the Worlds but that, especially with the BBC budget cuts, is highly unlikely.

But back to Ripper Street. Of the two episodes so far, I have found them more like a Victorian version of Spooks. Yes it's is a police based story but underneath it's a team who go out and engage the enemy first hand in an action/adventure series. Most contemporary crime dramas haven't featured regular fight scenes since the 70s.

Bottom line is that I have liked Ripper Street so far but, for what it's worth, I'm completely with you on the reality stuff :o)

They did, with Shane Ritchie, for Christmas 2011.

Ripper street already errs on the side of making women far too modern. At least its a relief not to have women doing things they could not possibly do in real life. Like beat up men. There is a reason that the very few top female athletes that have tried to play on mens teams have failed miserably. Even in golf. Women are simply not as athletic. Not as strong, not as fast, slower reflexes. And yes, i am female. I practice Aikido and have sparred with guys, sen others do it too. I know how strong men are.

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