When in 2013 the BBC axed Ripper Street after two series, it found a new home on Amazon Prime. Now the third series gets a terrestrial airing, so if you haven’t yet signed up for streaming services, this is your chance to catch up. A strange mixture of police procedural, social commentary and Gothic, almost steampunk melodrama, Ripper Street sometimes seems to be anarchically anachronistic, but in fact it’s very carefully researched, and all the technology is carefully woven into the action. In previous episodes we’ve seen plots about underground railways, electrification, modern weapons, anaesthesia, moving pictures and more. About the only advance we haven’t tackled is fingerprinting, and that, we think, is to come.
Set in London’s Whitechapel district in the Victorian era, Ripper Street takes place in the shadow of Jack The Ripper. The Leman Street police division has to deal with the turbulent influences of social unrest and the rapid advance of technology, all against a background of poverty, petty crime and brutality… lots of brutality. There’s rarely an episode that doesn’t feature someone being slashed to ribbons, kicked to bits or battered to chunks.
Leman Street’s compassionate Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) has suffered the twin agony of having lost a daughter who died in a ferry accident, and a wife who died in a madhouse; rough diamond Sergeant Drake (Jerome Flynn, giving a performance of such extraordinary depth and grit that he’s almost unrecognisable to the wise-cracking Bron in game of Thrones), has been disappointed in love; debauched Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) has fled his native America, with former colleagues from the Pinkertons on his trail; and his amour ‘Long Susan’ Hart (MyAnna Buring) has raised herself from the gutter to become a refined brothel-keeper.
However, as this series starts, it has been four years since previous events, and things have changed. Reid has buried himself in his archives, using phrenology to try to catalogue criminals, though his boss Chief Inspector Abberline begs him to leave the division for good. Drake has been in Manchester serving as a Detective Inspector, while Jackson has been fired from his job as a police consultant, and has returned to boozing, whoring and surgery; his new paramour Mimi asks pointedly whether it wasn’t suspected that The Ripper was an American.
Long Susan, having taken over the empire of slum landlord Duggan, has somehow become respectable and has founded a clinic, The Obsidian.
The four protagonists crash together again, almost literally, when a Great Train Robbery-style heist goes wrong, and two trains collide on the bridge over Leman Street, leaving dozens dead and injured. Drake, Jackson and Reid follow clues from a murdered signalman to a maimed railwayman, Enright, who took part in the raid. Enright (who has a rather too beautifully detailed model railway) leads to his employer. The criminals have what they were looking for, American bearer bonds, but aren’t happy about the deaths; the instigator of the crime turns out to be Susan Hart’s solicitor Capshaw. She’s equally unhappy that 55 people have died for the sake of thousands of dollars, though it’s dirty money she intended to put to charitable causes.
When the conspirators meet for their payment, the police lie in wait; Capshaw, knowing they cannot identify him, abandons them to arrest. Abberline regards this as a win, though the boss has not been taken; and he reveals to Reid that he is marked for promotion and transfer, with Drake to take his place. Finally, Reid meets Capshaw at a memorial service, and recognises him from the description of an informat, Cree; but Cree is dead in his cell, bumped off to make sure that Capshaw cannot be identified.
Apart from the carefully realised sets and costumes, one of the aspects of Ripper Street I love is the stylised dialogue; characters speak as they would in contemporary books, with no elision, and with a precise and literate choice of vocabulary (though we’re not sure that the phrase ‘no shit’ was in common usage). This episode kept up the standard of previous series, easily matching their levels of complexity and brutality; Amazon clearly didn’t cut any corners, though the train wreck sequence was oddly truncated.
Reassuringly, though, the standard of writing and acting remained high, and the unexpected twist of making Long Susan and her henchman the villains has injected new blood into the plot. We never know what’s coming next in Ripper Street – nuclear-powered submarines? A trip to the moon? Martian invaders? Probably not. But expect the unexpected.