This review contains spoilers.
1.8 I Need Light
After the turkey gluttony and epilepsy-inducing fairy light displays of Christmas, the BBC obviously thought that TV audiences would be after something less saccharine upon the approach of the New Year than the best of Downton Abbey or the Eastenders Omnibus. Flicking through the Radio Times, post-watershed telly on BBC One is a Quality Street tin full of TV – ranging from the highly sought after purple-wrapped fantastic period drama Restless starring Charlotte Rampling, Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell, followed by a less salubrious sickly strawberry cream Take That highlights tour show, to the bog-standard toffee penny with Mrs Brown’s Boys. The 9pm primetime Sunday spot this week sees the start of brand new eight-part mini-series, Ripper Street. But this is no Nestlé chocolate treat wrapped in shiny foil. This is more a Hotel Chocolat dark chocolate truffle; noir, and just a little bit naughty.
The adverts have been teasing audiences with hints of sex appeal, violence and style; something to spice up your Sunday nights a little. With the current trend of loving all things British and historical, and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher still fresh in our collective mind, what could be more iconic and on trend than a police procedural set in the heyday of Jack the Ripper? ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Whitechapel.’
The first episode introduces us to a dark and grimy East London in 1889, where, six months previously, the Ripper has just killed his fifth victim. The gentleman in question is still on the loose and London is filled with secrets and shadows, hysteria and crime. Enter the uniforms; the level-headed and morally decent Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, played by Matthew Macfadyen (Spooks, Pride and Prejudice) and Sergeant Drake, played by Jerome Flynn (Soldier, Soldier, Game of Thrones and, er, Badger – although we’ll gloss over that one).
I Need Light does the important job of introducing us to the protagonists, but only offers hints of their characters, leaving us enough to be intrigued. There’s the good cop/bad cop element, plus an American Captain (named Jackson) who comes in handy with autopsies. He also has a suspicious story to hide and a Madame in tow (or vice versa) with a plethora of young ladies of the night, or ‘tarts’ as was the preferred mot du jour. It turns out, one of the ladies has a penchant for ‘smut’, or posing in exotic photos. These pictures and the latest potential Ripper victim become more and more linked, leading the H Division officers further into a seedy underworld of wealth and crime, but also the advent of film, and perhaps the first ever snuff movie. However, there don’t seem to be any signs of our friend Jack…
The opening scene is very fast-paced – but don’t be fooled by the bowler hats and opening credits into thinking this is a rip-off of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s not. The pair is introduced to us in gritty circumstances at an illegal fight. There are fast PoV changes – admittedly, not too unlike those in Ritchie’s Sherlock – but I’m a fan of this style. These are quickly juxtaposed with shots of dark alleyways and we are shown that a brutal murder has occurred. Also, there is no bad humour here and style is not put before substance. The subject matter is adult and is dealt with seriously and unsensationally, yet also entertainingly.
Ripper Street has been trailed as being dark and intense, and this first episode does not let the audience down. It’s realistic, adult, and often bleak, but also sexy, exciting, and leaves you begging for the next one. Apparently a second series has already been commissioned without the first episode having been aired.
And the setting? The production design is fantastic. Filmed in a disused Victorian barracks in Dublin over nineteen weeks and with London Historian Leo Hollis on hand to provide authenticity, there is a real sense of place that is grimy, often claustrophobic and full of character, pulling the audience right back to a London in fear of another attack. And the excitement around the new series absolutely reflects our unwaning interest and contemporary obsession with Jack the Ripper.
With regards to the actual killings in the late nineteenth century, no one was ever found, charged or convicted. In this new drama, writer Richard Warlow says that you will never see Jack, nor will the series offer a solution to the case. This is not about the notorious killer, but three men investigating crimes in the aftermath of the brutal killings, in a side of London with its own hidden underworld, its own shadows and secrets.
The running time comes in at around fifty minutes, ideal for the Beeb to air to our American friends overseas on BBC America, where the show premieres mid-January. Middle aged women of middle England-put down your Fifty Shades of Grey – I beg of you – and put on BBC One and tune in to Ripper Street. You won’t be disappointed. Oh my. You might even drop your Quality Street.
Ripper Street continues on Sunday the 6th of January at 9pm on BBC One.
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