Warning: contains spoilers for Ripper Street series 1-3.
“Here we go, another tortured policeman” was Matthew Macfadyen’s first thought on his role in Ripper Street, the Victorian crime drama launching its fourth series on Amazon this week. That was back in 2012, before series creator Richard Warlow’s layered scripts revealed the potential for Detective Inspector Edmund Reid to outgrow the TV cliché.
Admittedly, between his daughter being missing-presumed-dead, his wife’s unravelling sanity and his culprit-less pursuit of Jack the Ripper, Reid has spent his fair share of time tortured on Ripper Street. Series four however, sees him battle a different enemy: restlessness. Reunited with daughter Mathilda and trapped in the stultifying town of Hampton-On-Sea, Reid feels that something is missing. Work and Whitechapel, to be precise.
MyAnna Buring’s Ripper Street character, brothel madam-turned-entrepreneur Long Susan, is struggling against a more literal prison in the new episodes: Newgate. Not one to be suppressed for long, series four sees her find characteristic methods of gaining control over her situation.
We spoke to Macfadyen and Buring ahead of the series four premiere about their Ripper Street characters, the show’s cancellation and revival, and why the BBC is brilliant.
One of Reid’s lines in the series three finale really stood out as a description of your characters, when he told Susan that they were both “tragedians caught in some farce”.
MyAnna Buring: I love that scene.
And she replied saying they were “caught in the teeth of some grotesque”. Do you see your characters as being essentially trapped?
Matthew Macfadyen: I think yes, they’re fighting against the confines of where they are.
MB: Reid is such a progressive man, and such a kind man in a sense, but that’s restricted by the times he lives in and also the fact that he works with such horror on a daily basis.
MM: He has to compromise to do good. Both of them think they’re doing good. In that particular scene you mention, they come together to try and get rid of a really dreadful man—Susan’s father. That was a lovely bit of writing. I’d forgotten that!
MB: What I really appreciate with the writers is that Reid and Susan have developed this understanding. It feels like, here are two great minds who meet and understand each other in a way that a lot of other people may not and therefore there’s a certain level of appreciation between the two for the other.
Reid certainly takes it very well when he finds out Susan shot him…
MM: It is an understanding. He’s come to a sort of peace about it. But there’s a greater understanding that good people do bad things, and that you know when someone’s beyond redemption.
MB: It’s whether their action comes out of malice or whether an action comes out of desperation. What I loved about that scene, what came to the fore, was that Long Susan had never intended to kill Reid and that’s something that he understands.
Matthew, you mentioned Reid coming to a sort of peace.
MM: The peace of Edmund Reid!
Does he find peace in series four? The obituary that was read out over the closing scenes of the last series ended on a prayer for him to find just that. If one were to be read at the end of this series, would it be a different prayer for him?
MM: I think it would be a different prayer. When we find him again—how many years later is it? Four, three?—he’s been in the seaside town a while and Mathilda is growing up and getting restless and he’s getting restless. In the small-town provincial Victorian seaside, something’s missing. And then Deborah Goren comes with a request and that immediately brings him back. I think he was probably looking for something to do that.
Was Whitechapel what was missing?
MM: I think so. Or his work. It’s the work that makes you who you are.
Work has really characterised Reid, thinking back to his obsession with the archives and so on, but would you say his grief has arguably been as strong an influence on his character?
MM: Yes. You see people, and I think Reid is no exception, who are driven by anger or grief and it gives them energy I think. Perhaps that’s gone from him now, but it’s about doing his job. He’s a job-man.
There are times in this series when there’s a funny dynamic with him and Drake because Drake is now the boss. Often I thought how selfish and thoughtless Reid is with his old friend, how sort of vain he is actually. There’s a lot of vanity to Reid. There’s all sort of new stuff in the mix, stuff that was there and is now allowed to come out.
You mentioned Mathilda growing restless, what can you tell us about her in series four?
MM: She’s eighteen and like any teenager she wants to be on the train to London. She’s grown up. She’s starting to kick against him and he’s aware of that. And I think he’s feeling the provincial pettiness a bit of Hampton-on-Sea.
MB: It’s interesting that she feels very much like her father’s daughter. I love that they’ve explored an eighteen-year-old character in that way, that they haven’t fallen into that trap of making every young Victorian girl very prim. Because that’s just not a true reflection of us as human beings.
MM: And she’s had this crazy life. I mean, she was imprisoned for most of her life and lost her father and came out and realised her mother had gone mad and died… so she has this terrible worry about her mother’s madness, yet she sort of has no fear. Not that she has no fear but Mathilda is wonderfully present. Anna [Burnett], the actress who plays her, has that quality. It’s a brilliantly drawn character.
MB: She’s extraordinary. It could be very easy to write as something else, but I love the fact that they’ve gone there with her. It’s interesting that she feels very much like her father’s daughter. It’s very hard to fight against somebody who you fundamentally understand quite well.
Catching up with Susan at the start of series four, her struggle seems to have been one of control. She’s been trying to wrest control over her own life, and started to achieve that, but then at the start of series four finds herself at her majesty’s pleasure in Newgate Prison, which presumably signifies a total lack of agency and control for her?
MB: Absolutely. We meet her as a woman who’s trying to take control and realises that there’s a need in Whitechapel that she can fill by being a brothel madam, she feels like she’s running a business which then gets taken away from her. It’s at the end of series two when she’s suffered at the hands of Silas Duggan and she comes to the realisation that unless she has complete and utter financial control over things, she will never be taken seriously, she will never be able to have any authority in her life or indeed over anyone else, they will always have that over her.
In series three, we find her having wrestled that authority and power into her own hands and then of course it all goes horribly wrong! As in any good writing, you have a character starting in one place and ending up in the complete opposite. That’s what’s wonderful in writing like this is that it is very layered, characters are allowed to be not only one or two or three things but many, many things, somebody who is stubborn can be very compassionate, somebody who is very troubled can also find moments of joy…That’s what I love about Susan. I think there’s always going to be an element of her trying to control her world.
Is that possible for her in Newgate Prison?
MB: She tries to control her world as best she can in Newgate Prison, and there’s definitely evidence that she has done that. She knows all the prison wardens, she knows how they work, some of them are in her pocket, some of them are not! She will always have plans and schemes but I think she is a different woman in the sense that her priorities have altered, as opposed to trying to change the world to make it better for herself, her main priority is to make it better for her son.
You’ve both praised the writing on Ripper Street. I wondered how far its formal syntax and cadence helps to build that sense of your characters’ Victorian restraint, the idea that it’s all going on under the surface but stifled by the times?
MM: It does help, very much. I think actually, certainly from my point of view, Reid’s much more touchy-feely than he would be really. Everything’s heightened, so anything that makes him more buttoned-up the better. But Richard’s writing’s brilliant, and Toby Finlay’s as well, just brilliant, so clever. It’s a real skill, because it’s so beautifully constructed and it doesn’t feel mannered. Or, it feels mannered in the right way!
But not alienating.
MM: No, no.
I don’t know if you watched Deadwood, which was brilliantly written, but the stylised dialogue had a tendency to shut people out.
MM: Yes, you’re sort of marvelling at the technical achievement of it but not necessarily feeling it…
This might be a question for the writers, but would you say that the series four and five renewals arriving at the same time affected the way you went in to series four? Does it make a difference going into a series knowing it won’t be the end?
MM: No, we just play what we’ve got.
MB: It’s definitely a writers’ thing.
MM: You can’t play anything hence. You’ve got to just play…
MB: …what’s there in the moment. You can’t play the end-game because then it makes no sense. Things change so quickly from one moment to the next, new bits of information arrive.
MM: And the characters don’t know, so you shouldn’t.
So you’re not playing an endgame, not looking at an end-of-series arc?
MM: No, and the writers keep things very close to their chest. We keep trying to pump them for information but…
Richard [Warlow, creator] said he has plans to take it up to the end of the Victorian era, which gives you about four more years of timeline to play with?
Could you see it going further? An Edwardian Susan and Reid?
MM: Downton Stabby!
MB: Yes, but also no. I think this is a sort of story that belongs in the Victorian era. That’s where it started and it’s where it should end. Then on the other hand, it’s such great fun, so yeah, sure! Long Susan could live for two hundred years, carry on!
MM: She’s a vampire!
MB: Absolutely. You’ve hit on something here [laughs].
Ripper Street is embedded in the politics of its time, whether as background context or actually engaging with what was going on – the strikes and Irish politics and so on. MyAnna, you did Jimmy McGovern’s Banished recently, would you say you’re drawn to dramas with a political conscience?
MB: Not necessarily consciously. For me, first and foremost it’s always the character, who’s involved, the story—is it an interesting story—and most great stories hinge on a kind of tension and that often springs out of that kind of context. It’s not necessarily being drawn to that but it’s being drawn to something that’s good and going to be interesting to play. Every now and again I come across something that has a political message or something I feel very strongly about, but usually it’s about the story.
MM: Really good writing is political anyway. You know, Finding Nemo has a political narrative. I really do believe that. Stories exist to tell us how to live. That’s why the arts are important. And that’s politics, how we live and how society operates and all the rest of it. But if you only did…
MM: Tub-thumping, yes, it would be so boring.
Talking of activism, petitions to save cancelled shows are now an inevitability, why do you think the campaign to save Ripper Street was one that worked?
MM: I think there was a genuine fan base that we weren’t really aware of. I think it probably just had a bit more to run, and people thought ‘No!’. I don’t know.
MB: I think also it was picked up a bit more by some media. It’s about what certain press decide to pick up on as well and it seemed to be one that a lot of people came behind.
MM: Because as actors, really, the truth of it is you go, ‘oh well!’ because our whole life is like that. You do a job and you don’t know whether it’s going to go again, so it was really lovely to be aware of this swell of support. My agent was saying ‘there’s this big petition’, which was a really lovely thing.
We spoke to Will Gould [Tiger Aspect] at the time the new deal was announced and he said that the contact from fans, the petition and the comments were important as a kind of moral support for them, that they were so cheering, it really inspired the team to keep fighting for a deal.
MB: I think that’s exactly right. A lot of people were fighting to make this show happen. What’s not to be forgotten is the passion that Tiger Aspect put into looking for ways to create a deal that would allow the show to carry on. The passion that they brought to that was really exemplary and the fact that they created one of the first deals of its kind in the UK, that’s exciting. It’s true, the fact that they felt there was support from an audience for that meant they went on and I think it spurred us on as well.
MM: And it’s not necessarily the Beeb’s fault. You have to commission shows, it wasn’t like the BBC is the baddie. The BBC is brilliant!
MB: And the fact that they came on board once there was a deal that they could get on board with… like you say, there’s often a tendency to criticise them but that’s not the feeling at all or indeed the reality.
You’ve now filmed two series after Amazon stepped in, what have been the differences filming those compared to the two you did solely with the BBC? Is there anything that feels different for you on set?
MM: Being on set? No.
MB: No. I think we’re just grateful that it has carried on and allowed the writers to come up with new stories.
MM: We felt very looked after on both. But the Beeb are still involved. I think probably for the production side of life the creatives have perhaps a bit more freedom as to what they do, they can have a bit more blood and guts. And also, because it’s streaming you don’t have to cut it to a particular length so that’s quite freeing I suppose.
Speaking of the BBC, this January, you’re going to be up against another Victorian detective. The Sherlock Christmas special is going back to the original era.
Do you think Sherlock Holmes would fit in in Whitechapel?
MM: Edmund would be bamboozled by Sherlock. He’s quite bright, but not that bright. I think he’d just grab his lapels and throw him up against a wall and shout at him, “STOP TALKING SO MUCH!” [laughs]
MB: I think she’d be intrigued by them. I think we should make that happen. A crossover!
Matthew Macfadyen and MyAnna Buring, thank you very much!
With thanks to Becky Lea.
Ripper Street Series 4 will be available exclusively for Prime Members in the UK from 15th January 2016