A new season of “Ripper Street,” a richly drawn, sometimes brutal, historical police procedural, has returned to BBC America.
In 1890, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew MacFayden), his Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), and an American, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), face the restless tides of the British Empire washing up on the mean streets of Whitechapel soon after Jack the Ripper made the area notorious by murdering prostitutes.
“We really wanted to develop in our stories this sense of there being kind of a blowback from the empire returning to its source, which is London,” says Richard Warlow, creator and lead writer, “and that Whitechapel really is where the mess and effluence of empire gathers. Reid and his men are really forced to deal with the everyday evidence of that journey in their stories.”
He bases his scripts on reality, consulting with a police historian who “knows a lot about the history of Scotland Yard,” city expert author Leo Hollis, and “we have what you might call a coronary historian. He’s very interested in the history of medical examination.”
“We are always consulting with these guys, trying to find the odd, and perhaps sort of hidden, secrets of those times . . . and also to make sure we are getting our facts straight.”
“That said, we’re quite mischievous about our treatments of the truth,” he says with a laugh. “In my opinion, I want to know as much as I can and then make a judgment on how far I’m going to bend historical truth to my ends.”
Warlow had wanted to include London Hospital, which was “going through its most famous pioneering time at the time the series is set,” in the first season. In the second season, he was able to feature it by introducing one of its most famous inhabitants, Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man.
When Hollis discovered in his research that the real policemen of “H Division” would escort Merrick when he traveled, it triggered in Warlow’s mind the thought that Merrick “and [‘Ripper Street’s] Reid would have known each other . . . and what can we start to play with in fictional terms with that relationship?” Merrick becomes a major character in the first two episodes.
By setting the series in history, Warlow says that he gets a lot of questions from viewers, such as “ ‘Did that really happen?’ or ‘What gave you that idea?’ — all those sorts of things.” He cites Alan Moore’s graphic novel comic “From Hell” “as quite a great way of exploring the dark side of that era and that particular collection of streets in East London.” But Warlow doesn’t read about the “Ripper Street” period when he’s writing because he likes to “push my mind somewhere else when I’m trying to relax.” During the first season, he read a lot of Joseph Conrad and about “British colonialism in the Caribbean during the sugar trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.”
Including an American — Jackson, a former Pinkerton detective and U.S. Army doctor — in the series happened only after some historical vetting. Warlow wanted to involve an American from the start, so he researched whether he could authentically integrate one into the mean British streets of the period.
“I had a talk with Leo Hollis about, ‘Who are the nationalities I might find grubbing around in the East End at that time, and what about Americans?’ ” Warlow says. “He came back to me with a whole wonderful array of stories, which led me to feel that it was more than likely, in fact probably, that there would have been several disreputable Americans rubbing around in the London docks at that time.”
Enter Jackson with his girlfriend and brothel mistress, Long Susan Hart (Myanna Buring), both of whom have secrets and debts.
“Ripper Street” was canceled by BBC in early December to the horror of its loyal fan base, which responded with “lots of social media, personal e-mails coming through to my agent. . . lots of letters of criticism in to the BBC as well,” he says. “I think there’s a petition now with something like 40,000 signatures . . . to bring it back.”
There is no firm word on “Ripper Street’s” future.
“It was a real testimony to everyone’s work that so many people were so committed to the show and its characters that they were that upset when that news came through,” Warlow says. “It was a very gratifying thing to all of us here.”
(one hour) airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on BBC America.