Looking for the one who got away

Looking for the one who got away

I cannot recommend Ripper Street highly enough. The actors are excellent, the dialogue fine, and the English a joy to listen to. The setting is grim and nasty, the lead characters compromised and gritty, but it has none of the bitterness and cynicism that so often accompanies those traits in a TV show. It’s also, I think, the first TV show I have ever seen that might be described as sex-worker positive. It’s what Deadwood could have been, if it weren’t so deeply and overwhelmingly misogynist.

Ripper Street is a crime/mystery TV series set in the East End of London in the era of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper himself has been and gone, but the show focuses on the detective who failed to catch him, Detective Inspector Reid, his sergeant Bennett Drake (played by Bron from A Game of Thrones) and an American, Homer Jackson, who is their forensic doctor. Reid has lost a daughter, possibly to Jack the Ripper, and his personal life is on the rocks because of it; Jackson is an ex-Pinkerton on the run with his ex-girlfriend Susan, who runs a brothel (where Jackson lives); and Drake is tormented by his memories of soldiering in Egypt, where he may also have joined some satanic sect. The fifth person in the picture above (far right) is Miss Rose, one of Susan’s employees, who is in a relationship with Jackson but being wooed by Drake.

Reid is played by Matthew McFadyen, most famous for his stirring portrayal of D’Arcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and as one might expect from such impeccable credentials, he does an excellent job of portraying a detective trying to use modern, scientific methods to solve crime in a world still steeped in cruelty, superstition and bigotry. Bennett Drake is like a soft version of Bron, capable of being just as vicious but also much more vulnerable. He is Reid’s hard man: in 19th century London no one has to adhere to the human rights act, and when confessions need to be extracted it is Drake who extracts them. Jackson is probably more dangerous than either of them, and has a very dubious past, but provides the medical skills (and to a large extent the real brains of the operation). He is also a selfish, lazy and arrogant man.

So basically this TV series is like a grittier and slightly less fanciful version of From Hell if it somehow crashed into Pride and Prejudice, with Reid as a more down-to-earth version of Abberline, and a team of three putting together a modern approach to policing. In many ways the show seems to have really made a big effort to capture the reality of the times, portraying the East End of London as a far more diverse, contested, and hopeful place than perhaps we are used to seeing in Ripper-era television. I also think it deals particularly well with two classes of person: Americans and sex workers.

The Americans in Ripper Street dress differently, they talk differently, they really do seem to come from a different world. They’re usually either on the run or looking for something, and they aren’t native in London – they don’t know the town, they often hate it, and they’re usually there with a purpose, not usually a good one. They’re gaudier, more dangerous or more sinister, and they’re also more modern – they have ideas and skills and ways of looking at things that the Londoners aren’t used to. This is how I imagine they would have seemed at the time the show is set, and it might be part of the explanation for why British society has such a strange love/hate relationship with American culture. I really like this depiction of the gulf between two apparently closely-related societies, a gulf that I think a lot of people feel in their day-to-day dealings in the real world, and it’s nice to see Americans in Britain being depicted as more than just a different accent.

But where Ripper Street really excels for me is in its treatment of sex work. It’s the first TV show I think I’ve seen other than Deadwood where sex workers are major characters, but unlike Deadwood it doesn’t reduce them to weak and pathetic characters dependent upon men for approval and safety. Though they are constrained by the stupid mores of their time, the sex workers in Ripper Street aren’t weak, and they don’t wait for men to protect them or help them, nor do they seek men’s approval. They are proud, strong women trying to make their own way in a world where women have no formal power. They aren’t sluts or idiots, but ordinary women doing what needs to be done. The show also takes a narrative stance on sex work, not particularly openly, so that we can see the morality of the world in which the women work and trace its hypocrisies and cruelties; this isn’t done in a hamfisted way, generally, and it’s portrayed primarily through the efforts of Reid’s religious wife, Emily, who wishes to establish a shelter to protect homeless women without dictating morals or lifestyle. It’s really refreshing to see a TV show set in an oppressive era that doesn’t fetishize sexual violence and reduce its female characters to victims and objects. If only Deadwood had done the same …

Ripper Street only has eight episodes so far, and a new season won’t be along any time soon, but I strongly recommend viewing what there is. It’s an excellent and enjoyable show, and a welcome addition to that small genre of TV shows about the genesis of modern policing. Don’t hesitate to try it out if you get the chance.

I think everyone is probably familiar with the idea of this novel, which is the original tale of Pride and Prejudice set in an England beset by a plague of zombies (or “unmentionables”). I’d been meaning to see how this story worked for some time now but, sadly, it was a little disappointing. The basic story is the same, except that the Bennett’s 5 daughters are all highly trained zombie killers, who spent years under the tutelage of a Shaolin Master Liu in China, and are pledged to His Majesty to devote their talents to killing zombies until they marry. Elizabeth, particularly, is a vicious and bloodthirsty killer, used to eating the hearts of her human enemies, who sees violence as the solution of every problem. Darcy is also a famous zombie slayer, the militia are in town to kill zombies, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is also (supposedly) a trained zombie killer, who maintains a personal squad of 25 ninjas and sneers at the Bennett girls’ inferior education in China. The zombie menace, and this twist on the original characters, provides for some entertaining alternative interpretations of famous scenes in the original story, but these original interpretations do not change the plot. So, for example, Lydia’s elopement with Wickham doesn’t change in essence, though some aspects of its resolution are tweaked to suit the setting.

I read the book constantly hoping that the plot would take a turn away from the original story, for example towards some kind of Victorian-era survivalism, or a revelation that Lady de Bourgh was experimenting on humans, or something… but it just folllowed the original plot, with these occasional zombie references thrown in to the original text. The zombie references – and the references to the girls’ training and combat skills – were largely well done, fitting both the style and substance of the story, but this left us with one big problem: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, at heart, Pride and Prejudice. Which means that it’s a shit boook.

Jane Austen’s work is fundamentally shallow, boring, and useless, and her books have the rare distinction of being easily improved by being set to film, because their content is itself so lacklustre and wan. Furthermore, there’s nothing in the characters of her stories to appeal to either the broad populace of their time, or to the modern reader. What about the shallow, empty lives of a bunch of silver-spoon middle class loafers can possibly be of relevance to the modern reader? These people don’t work, they have “three thousand pounds a year” and spend their days at such leisure that the only real entertainment they have is fevered imaginings as to who is going to marry. Somehow, in Sense and Sensibility, when Edward Ferrers is disowned of his fortune, we are supposed to have the utmost of sympathy for him because he will have to find a job. How is the modern reader supposed to relate to this? And looking at their lives, it is obvious that this round of marriages and inheritances and worries about position in society is nothing but a great big ponzi scheme, supported at the bottom by a huge pool of the real “unmentionables” of Victorian society – the lumpen proletariat, who slave away in the harshest conditions so that these rural “gentlemen” can have the privilege of never having to do a moment’s work. Is this the lost rural idyll that was destroyed by the first world war, and that Tolkien pined for? Good riddance to it, and the sooner the shallow ravings of the Victorian chick-lit writers (the Brontes and Austens &c) can be forgotten along with that cruel and unusual period of British history, the better. Though the dialogue in these novels can at times be charming and carefully crafted, they have nothing else to recommend them, even as historical documents. Comparing these works to those of Thomas Hardy, it is clear that the Victorian England that he saw has nothing in common with them – nor do the rare attempts at description in an Austen or Bronte novel compare in any way with the genuine literary prowess of Hardy. They are simply moral tracts, advertisements for a new image of marriage as a binding contract that wraps love and property together for the first time in British history – and in Hardy’s work, again, we see that this new model of marriage was not yet so popular with those real “unmentionables” whose face is never seen in the Austen novels.

As my reader(s) are no doubt aware, I’m fond of finding parallels between real political and social issues and the zombie threat, but in this case I sadly could not see much evidence that the “unmentionables” in the revised novel have any symbolism to be drawn from them. I think this is partly because they aren’t central to the plot, being only rarely inserted into the original story, so don’t have much power in the tale; and also the original books are so self-sufficient in their conceited dwellings on trivial Victorian romance, that the zombies just can’t stack up against the central “love” story. Certainly I don’t see the “manky dead” in this story taking on any imagery, for example, of the true British underclass. And perhaps this is why the two page “reader’s guide” at the end of the book (intended as a set of questions for the literary student) contains questions that are largely quite weak – because the zombies just aren’t that persuasive a part of the book.

So I see little reason to soldier through this romantic waffle if I don’t have to, and I had really hoped that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would give me a completely fresh take on the novel – whether it be in plot, in resolution of the key stories, in interpretation of the Victorian world, or in politics. But it just scratches the surface of the possibilities, so that what we are really left with is – Pride and Prejudice. Against which – despite my enjoyment of the films – I must, I am afraid, remain prejudiced. So, don’t read this book unless you really are capable of suffering 325 pages of Victorian chick lit, with the odd zombie thrown in.


I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, having read all the stories, including his famous meeting with Harry Flashman, VC, and seen at least part of the classic Brett[1] television series, which is generally acclaimed as the best of the lot. I think Holmes is an important character in the pre-history of both steampunk and the modern genre of Cthulhu-derivative works, and undoubtedly influenced in some subtle way movies (and comics) like From Hell and Sleepy Hollow. I’m also a fan of Guy Ritchie’s crime movies Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, even though their glorification of the English criminal classes sticks in my craw now that I have lived in London and experienced the reality of the kind of scum he depicts in those movies.

So, I was interested to see how he would handle Sherlock Holmes in this movie, there being a risk that Holmes would become a kind of rock-n-roll gangsta crime fightaaaah! But in fact it’s really really good, even though it’s not based on any one extant Holmes story. It preserves the essential characteristics of Holmes and Watson, and is set around the time that their relationship is failing, when Watson is preparing to marry. It also preserves another essential element of the Holmes milieu – a criminal case whose only possible explanation is magic, but which in the end is all soluble through the application of modern scientific methods. It also wraps in some of those other Holmes classics: secret orders, Moriarty, and nefarious plots. Some of Holmes’s best properties are depicted in a very clever way consistent with Ritchie’s style, for example:

  • In the midst of a fight, time pauses and we see Holmes deducing the steps to victory, all played out in slow motion; then action resumes at full speed and we see his plan in motion to its vicious conclusion, including a prognosis for the loser’s physical and psychological repair – very much like the flash-forwarding through the nasty fight scenes in Ritchie’s other movies
  • Some of Holmes other techniques, that receive no attention in the books, are elucidated in very cunning style. For example, we see a brief interaction between a disguised Holmes and one of his adversaries, and a little later we backtrack from the moment Holmes decides on the confrontation to the confrontation itself, seeing all the fragmented moments in which he oh-so-casually assembles a perfect disguise as if by accident – in fact this is, I think, one of the best depictions I have ever seen of either Holmes’s method or the sheer brilliance of his investigative style, easily as good as anything Conan Doyle assembled
  • We also see a few of the moments in which Holmes is out-witted or foiled from the point of view of his adversary in that same shifting, tricky style so characteristic of Ritchie movies, and we see a few moments in the past of some of the characters in the same fragmented style, but presented so as to confuse us while leaving clues for later

I think also this movie gives some roundedness to Holmes’s character that doesn’t exist in previous efforts. I was surprised that even though this is a Ritchie movie, Holmes’s characteristic cocaine addiction (so readily left out of onscreen depictions in the past) was also left out of this version; but it was admirably replaced by a preference for strong drink and illegal fighting (with Holmes the participant, and Watson betting on him). Something that I don’t like about the books and the Pertwee version is that Holmes is actually a really unlikeable character, but the narrative style of the books and his heroic status mean that he is often depicted as a near-perfect person. In fact he’s an arrogant, misogynist prick (beautifully lampooned in the Flashman novels), and this movie manages to capture some of that part of his character – the way he uses Watson without informing him, his dubious experiments, his insufferable manner and bad attitude towards women. It also reduces Watson from his stuffy near-perfect personality to a man with a gambling addiction and a weakness for his friend, and by rendering both of them a little younger and fitter than standard interpretations it also makes their physical prowess more believable, as well as giving it some context – Holmes is a prize fighter, and Watson a dab hand with a sword stick due to his military career.

Another interesting aspect of this movie is its liberation of Watson from the narrative role, done explicitly – by giving Holmes rather than Watson the voiceover parts and by setting the movie at the point in their relationship where Watson is moving out and trying to break from Holmes. It gives an implicit nod to his traditional role by noting that he has a bunch of diaries he plans to write up one day. This explicit removal of Watson from the narrative centre also gives us a better opportunity to experience both Holmes’s genius and his unpleasantness, and I think this makes him a much more interesting character.

The movie is, of course, also very amusing, with some intense combat scenes done in typical chunky, nasty Ritchie style, and some very funny interactions. Traditionally Holmes is a little stuffy, but in this he is also capable of some very entertaining repartee, as is Watson. In fact, Watson in this movie is a far superior character to the Watson of the books, and Jude Law an excellent choice to play him.

As a study of Holmes I think this movie makes an interesting contribution to the canon of works on this excellent character, and as a Victorian detective movie it is also an excellent addition to the genre. It’s also a fun movie with an interesting plot, and lots of tricks and deceptions that it takes some time to work out. The choreography is smooth and stylish, the acting excellent and the pace just right. I recommend this to any fan of Holmes who is not so stuck-in-the-mud that they can only tolerate a traditional depiction of a character whose traditional representations have been done to death and, in any case, perfected and exhausted by Brett. For those who don’t care about Holmes as a literary figure, but want to see a rollicking detective story with a hint of steampunk and Guy Ritchie’s traditional blend of humour and violence, I also recommend this movie. For those who insist on their Sherlock being stiff-necked, stuck up and straight from the books, I can only recommend a review of the Brett series, and perhaps a shot of cocaine…

fn1: I originally wrote Pertwee in some kind of strange brain-spasm