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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