Ripper Street series four: behind the scenes with writer Richard Warlow
Victorian crime thriller Ripper Street has returned to BBC Two for an explosive fourth series. We spoke to the show’s writer and creator Richard Warlow about the challenges of recreating London’s 19th-century slums and why he doesn’t like the term “period drama”…
Q: At the end of the last series we saw Inspector Reid seemingly retiring from police work. When we pick up the story in series four, three years has passed. What’s changed in Whitechapel?
A: A lot has changed. Reid is no longer on the force, and Bennet Drake is now running Whitechapel’s police station. Over the three years we’ve missed, H Division has received a great deal of support from Scotland Yard, notably the new assistant commissioner of police, Augustus Dove. They've upgraded to a grand new premises, which is something that did in fact happen very close to that year – we borrowed that piece of history. It's a big gleaming new building in the filth and muck of Whitechapel, with advanced technology including a telephone system and callboxes scattered across the borough. So Drake is a simple fellow who now finds himself managing a complex technological police force.
Q: What’s in store for audiences in series four? We know that Queen Victoria is set to make an appearance…
A: Yes, we kick off with Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in the scorching hot summer of 1897, as the whole world is gathering in London to celebrate. We chose to include Queen Victoria because I wanted to really embed the historical context right into the series at the beginning.
We’ve now finished shooting series four and five back-to-back, after which we’re bringing the journey to a conclusion. The end of series five is the end of it all. So I’d encourage viewers to see tonight’s episode as the beginning of a 13-hour run. It’s one long story until series five’s finale really, which comes to a conclusion as the bells ring for the end of the 19th century.
Q: Can you tell us about the new characters we’ll be introduced to?
A: Well we thought a new police station needed new policemen. One character that’s very important to the whole of series four is Augustus Dove [played by Killian Scott], a ‘wonderkid’ who’s been dragged up by his bootlaces from the poorest of East End poor. As a Whitechapel boy himself, he’s very interested in the area’s advancement.
There’s also a new desk sergeant, Samuel Drummond [played by Matthew Lewis] and a new hard nut sergeant, Frank Thatcher [Benjamin O’Mahony]. Down on the docks, meanwhile, we meet wharfinger Abel Croker [David Threlfall], who is very much the eyes and ears of the Whitechapel docks.
H Division's new "hard nut", Sergeant Frank Thatcher, with Detective Inspector Bennet Drake. (BBC/Tiger Aspect 2016/Bernard Walsh)
Q: You’ve previously described the show as a “precinct thriller” – why did you originally choose 1890s Whitechapel as a setting for a story like this?
A: When I was conceiving the show, I talked a lot to the historian Leo Hollis. He told me that to understand what Whitechapel was like at the end of the 19th century you need to think about what the slums of Mumbai or Delhi are like today. Places in the developing world where the desperate, poor, needy, wild and destitute all gather. That’s the way you should think about Whitechapel. It was a breeding ground for crime.
The idea of the Whitechapel docks has also always been incredibly important to me and plays a big role in series four. I was fascinated by the fact that until the 20th century you didn’t require any documentation to get in and out of England. There were no passports. The Whitechapel docks were a fissure through which the world arrived in the empire’s capital. It was a dark, lawless place in the heart of the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, into which everything poured.
My next thought was “how on earth you go about policing a place like that?”, especially when you’ve got no systems in place to help you monitor people or track where they are.
Q: Why was this a particularly interesting period in the history of crime and policing?
A: The development of forensic science and technology is very important to the show. Inspector Reid is constantly thinking about how science might have helped the force to catch the Ripper, or to control this terrible, seething criminal mass that they live among. That’s also where surgeon Captain Jackson comes into it – he’s a radical maverick living on the edge of science, trying to move things forward to help uncover the truth.
In series three we saw Jackson latch on to the new science of fingerprinting, which revolutionised the way people policed. Before that, the only tools you had at your disposal as a policeman were witness testimonies and confessions – not even the mugshot system had been introduced. So basically you just had to go round and ask people what they saw, or get them to confess. That’s it. It’s just extraordinary.
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"Radical maverick" Captain Homer Jackson. (BBC/Tiger Aspect 2016/Bernard Walsh)
Q: How did you go about researching the time period?
A: Before we got going, I read a lot of material like William J Fishman’s book East End 1888, Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago and George Bernard Shaw. But we also rely on a great team of experts who are brilliant at rooting out stories. As well as Leo Hollis, we have a crime historian called Keith Skinner, who’s totally embedded in the police history of the period, and Fern Riddell, an expert in sexuality and music halls in late Victorian culture. She’s been an incredible source of tidbits like 19th-century newspaper reports and songs. They’re the holy trinity of brains that we turn to for authenticity.
Q: Can you tell us about the process of turning your scripts into the remarkably elaborate world we see on screen? The amount of work that goes into set, costume, props, makeup and hair must be huge?
A: An extraordinary amount of work goes into it. There’s a whole army of amazing people doing everything from making authentic bill posters and newspapers to embedding cobbles by hand into the streets of the sets. It’s a huge collaborative effort.
Q: Do you draw inspiration from real life incidents from history, contemporary sources or more modern crime procedurals?
A: The first two series of Ripper Street followed more of a ‘crime of the week’ structure. Our approach then was to delve into history and find interesting historical tidbits to develop. For example, we had a poisoning based on the cholera epidemic and stories based around the building of the underground railway and the diamond industry in South Africa.
But I think the show has evolved since then. From the end of series two onwards I wanted to open it up and make it more of a character piece. So the story started to become generated more from the characters. In the last two series we’ve concentrated much more on character development than historical oddity. But it’s worth adding that we’ve also always drawn influences from big contemporary crime movies, like Heat (1995) or Point Break (1991).
Q: Many of the characters and stories are recognisable and relatable – they could transpose very easily into a contemporary crime drama. Was that something you intended?
A: Definitely. I don't really see any point in doing historical drama unless it has something to say about the modern world. A touchstone for us has been trying to tell historical stories in a contemporary way.
"Drake is a simple fellow who now finds himself managing a complex technological police force", says Richard Warlow. (BBC/Tiger Aspect 2016/Bernard Walsh)
Q: What challenges does using a historical setting for drama present for a writer?
A: You have to really love research and decide from the get-go what your approach to history is. On Ripper Street we don't necessarily have a set of rules we have to stick to. For me, it’s more about the smell of it. We have three historical advisers who we run everything by, and there has to be a complete agreement between them that they ‘buy it’.
Another thing we take very seriously on the show is dialogue – it has to ‘sound of the past’. I was very influenced by the HBO western Deadwood (2004–06), which had a real gutter-poetry feel to its dialogue. I also read lots of contemporary newspaper reports, which have a very ornate construction. The rhythm of it really got inside my head and through that a style emerged. Unique dialogue was one of the tools for making the show stand out from other pieces of British historical drama.
If you want to write historical drama, you have to be interested in building a universe. The real opportunity of period drama – or drama set in the past, as I’d rather call it – is to be able to built an entirely holistic universe which has its own rules.
Q: Why would you rather call Ripper Street ‘drama set in the past’ than ‘period drama’?
A: I think there are some TV shows that really glory in the fact they are set in the past. They just have people wandering around in frocks and don't really have anything to say about the world we live in now. I never wanted to do that.
I prefer to think about Ripper Street as contemporary drama that just happens to be set in a historical context. I think of it more like a western, or film noir. It has a contemporary pace in terms of how characters and storylines evolve, that’s really my approach to it. The label ‘period drama’ makes you think of people sitting in drawing rooms drinking tea – and that certainly never happens in Ripper Street!
The fourth series of Ripper Street begins on BBC Two tonight at 9pm. You can find out more about the show here.