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Ripper Street: Policing the meanest streets imaginable


The journey to Ripper Street started out with a simple statement of intent – let’s make a crime show set in east London at the time of Jack the Ripper.

The dramatic potential of the idea was clear from the start – but as the show’s creator, the key moment that showed the way through those laneways and rookeries was the discovery of H Division.

It was the real life police station from which the hunt for the killer was coordinated, but it was also the headquarters for policemen who had to control the meanest streets imaginable.

Whitechapel vigilantes confront the police outside H Division

That was what the show had to be – a precinct thriller. Committed lawmen doing the best they can in the most impossible circumstances.

And so our show features not just murderers but – amongst many others - pornographers, child gangs, slum landlords, vigilantes and anarchists.

But how to factor in the man himself?

The Whitechapel Killer, the forever anonymous maniac who informs that area of London to this day: witness the thrice daily ‘Ripper Tours’ strolling from Tower Hill underground station to Christ Church Spitalfields.

Strangely, the whole series was unlocked by almost throwing him away.

We wanted to create a TV series that might run and run, a grimy, period version of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue.

But in November 1888 – once poor Mary Jane Kelly's remains had been defiled in a Dorset Street doss house – the lunatic killer disappears and all else is conjecture.

Constructing our stories to run alongside the Ripper investigation was a terrible constriction, so we dug him up, threw him out, and decided to start our stories once he’d gone.

Pretty much everything flowed out of that moment.

In truth, I’ve never been much of a Ripperologist.

What he did disgusts me and the sense you get as you read into the theories and wonderings and suspects is of an endless vortex of grim fascination.

Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Edmund Reid

The decision to discard any direct element of the manhunt in our series allowed me to pursue what I was really interested in: how did the men who were responsible for keeping the people of Whitechapel safe cope knowing that they’d failed so spectacularly?

How do you then go about bringing all the other murderers, thieves, rapists and poisoners to justice?

Would you be broken or galvanized?

The answer – in terms of our imagined drama – is both.

As soon as Matthew Macfadyen told us he was interested in taking on the part of Inspector Reid, I knew that this duality would be perfectly served.

As an actor, he has such an astonishing ability to describe both toughness and vulnerability, to entirely inhabit the role of a man who is haunted by terrible ghosts but who is still intent, every new day, on bringing the fight to the evil and corrupt.

There’s a particular moment toward the close of episode one when, the case solved, he tells his one-time boss and superior officer, (the more fictionally celebrated) Fred Abberline that no longer is he going to let Jack The Ripper dominate his every day and that from now on he’s going to look on and forward.

Reid comes out of the pub, puts on his bowler and – a private moment for the camera – he smiles.

It’s a smile of conviction and intent and, whilst it wasn’t scripted, it makes the whole character come alive.

It’s a purely instinctive moment from Matthew and one that went on to entirely inform the further development of the character.

The cast: MyAnna Buring, Adam Rothenberg, Matthew Macfadyen, Jerome Flynn and Charlene McKenna

Of course, it’s not just Matthew. Jerome Flynn and Adam Rothenberg brought, respectively, an intensity and a playfulness that then cut through every word I wrote for them.

Elsewhere MyAnna Buring, Charlene McKenna, Amanda Hale and Lucy Cohu brought such a defined sense of four very different women’s reactions to the time and its dangers that their performances through the beginning of the series actively defined how their stories were then scripted and played out through to the end.

As a writer, you have to imagine a mood – a feel and smell that you want the whole piece to take on – but it’s rare that the finished product marries so exactly with that imagined mood.

I’m so grateful to our magnificent cast and endlessly committed technical crew for that fact.

At the beginning of this new stage for Ripper Street (the one where the world at large starts to interact with our stories and characters), I hope everyone is as excited with this world, its people and their further stories as I am.

Richard Warlow is the creator and lead writer of Ripper Street.

Ripper Street continues on Sunday, 6 January at 9pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

More on Ripper Street
Den of Geek: Ripper Street episode 1 review: I Need Light
The Guardian: TV review: Ripper Street
The Scotsman: Interview with Matthew Macfadyen: Watching the detective
The Telegraph: Ripper Street review

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


This entry is now closed for comments.

  • Comment number 38. Posted by Richard Warlow

    on 15 Jan 2013 16:14

    First up - thank you so much for taking the time to write and, in the most part with such lovely comments too. It really is a treat to hear that the stories are being received in the spirit with which they were made. Of course we hoped to make engrossing historical drama, but the principle objective was always to deliver a series of seat-of-the-pant thrillers so to have so many people enjoying them as such makes for very happy reading.

    There seems to be a healthy eye for historical inaccuracies. So I must first apologise to Aquarius '58 for appropriating his great great grandfather's beard for our Sergeant Artherton. It is a magnificent set of whiskers though, isn't it? The actor - David Wilmot - has long been known to our Irish co-producers; and it turned out the beard with which he had almost landed a part in the Coen Brother's True Grit was still in existence... I'm afraid the combination of magnificent actor and magnificent facial hair was too hard to resist.

    Similarly, for those who have taken issue with Joseph Gilgun's rendering of the Carmichael character in Episode 2, it was a character decision that Joe (in a breath taking performance, I thought) took to sharpen the accent and my own research has "scouse" (originally a term for a kind of stew consumed in fishing communities) and "scouser" (those who consumed said stew) from the nineteenth century. The decision to locate him from Liverpool came from the actual existence of an organised gang of boys and men called 'The High Rip' who terrorised that city for many years.

    My most sincere apologies, however, must go to Tim Smith for appropriating his ancestry. I do hope, however, that you feel our love of Edmund Reid coming through strongly. Have you read Nicholas Connell and Stewart Evans' "The Man Who Hunted Jack The Ripper"? It's a book we read very early when we decided to use Reid as our protagonist and we gave it to Matthew to read also. Obviously we made some pretty radical departures (no room, alas, for his role as a druid and a champion balloonist - although never say never), but the sense of Reid as a tough and decent and dedicated man is preserved, I hope you agree.

    Elsewhere, well - our art department perform miracles on a daily basis with resources that are not as endless as some might imagine. We made Ripper Street on a budget about a 6th of the size of a show like Copper, so I think I'm going to forgive them some of the smaller inconsistencies. It's mostly filmed in an abandoned Victorian army barracks on the outskirts of Dublin. The buildings are authentic to period, as are their interiors; although they are arranged in squares, so we built wooden flats in the middle of those squares to create the sense of claustrophobic streets and alleyways.

    As for Ressler's scratches - full marks for observation. Not a continuity error, however. I'm going to take part of the blame for that. It turns out that one of the images (outside the Swedish Bakery) got flipped during the latter stages of the cut, and we never picked it up! I think I've watched that episode more than 20 times, so I really should have caught it. Not a continuity blooper, just dopey folk in darkened cutting rooms.

    A wider point - and this goes for all period pieces, I think - is how we feel about historical verisimilitude. We do a lot of research (Lynne Coombe - if you are planning a story set at any stage in the Victorian era, you are in luck: there are endless reserves of first-hand material available in the British Library and now online; although we do have the luxury of a London historian as our researcher). But I always wanted us to wear that research lightly.

    Ripper Street is one of the very few historical dramas not to be based on any source material (novels, plays, non-fiction) and - beyond the well documented facts of the Ripper investigation - is consequently something entirely imagined. It was always intended as a response to what has become a part of London myth and folklore, so I wanted our world - whilst always keeping the danger and thrills of the stories real - to feel slightly heightened. And this had to include the language - something which seems to have drawn praise and criticism in equal measure.

    To misterashford - it's hard to say where I found the language from. I was incredibly impressed by Hilary Mantel's approach in Wolf Hall (never too florid and never anachronistic, but always rhythmic) and I suppose tried to find a similar approach to the late 19th century, via inspiration from contemporary newspaper reports (rather than novels) and, for example, the court records (available online) from the Old Bailey. I'm largely pleased with the result, although would be the first to say that I haven't always quite hit the mark. But to have Steven Nicholl compare us to Deadwood (in my opinion, the finest piece of television - and with the best use of language - of the last ten years) is a compliment that flatters me beyond measure. Thank you!

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