REJOICE! Ripper Street returns to BBC1 on Friday after an 18-month absence, renewed, refreshed and richer in detail than ever before.
That we’re talking in terms of a comeback rather than a continuation is testament to the BBC’s short-sighted failure to understand the massive changes in viewing habits.
In December 2013, when the second season of the Victorian crime drama was still on air, the BBC suddenly announced — to the dismay of the cast, fans and large production crew in Dublin where the series is shot — that there wouldn’t be a third, due to a significant dip in audience figures. Ripper Street was being beaten in the ratings by ITV’s I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!
It seems more British viewers preferred washed-up celebrity no-accounts chowing down on kangaroo anus in a fake jungle to one of the most stylish, gripping and inventive drama series the BBC had made in years. There truly is no accounting for taste — especially when the taste is marsupial arse.
But, like Pip in Great Expectations, Ripper Street discovered it had a rich benefactor. Internet behemoth Amazon cannily cut a deal with the BBC and the production company behind the series, Tiger Aspect, to make a third season. It was shown, to universal acclaim, in the UK on the Amazon Prime streaming site last year, and two more seasons have been ordered.
Amazon increased the budget beyond what the BBC could have afforded, resulting in a considerably more lavish production. Unfettered by the strict constraints of mainstream TV, it also gave the series’ creator, Richard Warlow, the freedom to write longer episodes (70 to 75 minutes) featuring even more explicit adult-themed material than before — although Ripper Street was hardly what you’d call family-friendly entertainment anyway.
Alas, we won’t be seeing the ‘Amazon cut’. The version BBC1 is showing has been edited slightly to fit a one-hour timeslot, and presumably to tone down some of the more risqué elements (conspicuously, naked female characters still guard their modesty with a bedsheet, even when they’re alone).
Even in this slightly bowdlerised form, however, this is still a much bigger, bolder and more ambitious Ripper Street.
The extra money that was spent on it is evident in Friday’s riveting opening episode. We’ve moved on to 1894. Four years have passed since the events of the last season and the main players in the drama have been scattered.
The emotionally broken DI Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) has retreated to a desk job in the archives. Surgeon and ex-Pinkerton man Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) has backslid into his favourite old habits: booze, broads and bitterness at the world around him.
Sergeant Drake (Jerome Flynn) is now DI Drake, having risen through the ranks in the Manchester force. He’s summoned back to Whitechapel by DCI Abberline (Clive Russell), who wants him to replace Reid when Reid takes over his own job.
Fomer brothel madam ‘Long Susan’ Hart (MyAnna Buring) has become a rich philanthropist (the murky source of her wealth is crucial to the plot), while ex-prostitute Rose Erskine (Charlene McKenna) is now a music hall star. The rancour between Reid, Jackson and Drake still simmers, but they’re forced into their old alliance after a horrific locomotive crash leaves 55 people dead.
It’s great to have Ripper Street back. It will be greater still if the BBC learns something from its embarrassing folly.