Grace Dent on TV: Ripper Street, BBC1
Sperm deposits, wombs in ribbons and ripped-out Fallopian tubes... Who enjoys this?
On perusing the trailer for Ripper Street, BBC1's gruesome new Jack the Ripper-based Victorian crime drama, my inner voice mumbled, "I'm not really in the mood for backstreet ad-hoc hysterectomies". After all, it was Christmas. I was possibly wearing that pair of cheap velour novelty antlers with bells which I often don in late December, largely to annoy the cat. I wasn't in a womb-removing kind of place.
And now it's the first breaths of January and I'm still not. As a woman, for this, readers, is what I am – I can show you the paperwork – a woman brimming with ovaries, tubing, hormones, tips of where to get a good pedicure and how to make a lemon meringue pie and half a mind always on trying to avoid being a crime statistic, well, the idea of Ripper Street was a slight televisual turn off. When I'm made Director General I will look at the upcoming spaffing-money-on-projects list and say loudly: "Jesus Christ, do we have to do Jack the Ripper again?.
Will someone get their arse down the British Library and find something macabre and titillating in period costume that I've not seen 129 times already?" Having delivered this feedback, I would lie back in my Barcalounger and eat a fondant fancy – all bought with your licence fee – and continue cancelling The Archers and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, moving Keeping Up With the Kardashians to BBC1 prime-time and finally telling the BBC2 Hootenanny people that you either work on New Year's Eve and book some good acts or don't do the thing at all, because Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals on a pre-record from 12 December is NOT a party.
This isn't to say that Ripper Street is awful. If you're in the mood for Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid and many other blokes like Jerome Flynn and Adam Rothenberg, clad in the sort of Victorian costumes one may hire on Blackpool beach nowadays for a comedy sepia photo session, saying things a bit like: "Annuver tart's been ripped guv! 'Er womb's been left in ribbons and her labia is scattered across two parishes. Ooh it's a terrible do and make no mistakin'! Turns me stomach… Anyways I'm off dahn the whorehouse now to have lovingly shot cunnilingus with a brass." Meanwhile tiny coquettish female actresses dressed in modern-day Victoria's Secret empowering burlesque garb lie on clean, white linen saying things like: "Ooh sir! Being a whore is proper good fun, this oral sex you're giving me is well emancipating! Now be a love and don't cut off my clitoris as a keepsake when you go, 'cos that Jack the Ripper tyke is spoiling all our prossy fun these days!"
Well, if this sounds like televisual balm to you, you'll adore Ripper Street. Me? Well there was something holding me back. It sat festering on my preview pile for weeks then recorded yet neglected on my Sky+ planner, whispering "Graaace, come and behold the gynaecological bloodbath". But desire for it eluded me. Perhaps it's that I spend a good deal of my womanly life avoiding tales of this genre, having just passed through the cheerful season of widespread drunken domestic violence and lists of top tips for party ladies on how to get home safely, and those charming minicab ads showing a victim being enthusiastically raped behind an NCP.
Centuries may shift and fashions may change, yet raping and murdering women has really never been as popular. I fought through episode one of Ripper Street trying to float above the chat – always all-male scenes – about sperm deposits, ripped-out Fallopian tubes – thinking: "Who enjoys this? Who is this really for?"
Of course, the human conscience is messy and contradictory, so I don't have this dilemma with the sex and guts of Sky Atlantic's Game of Thrones. That said, I'm unlikely in real life to inherit dragon eggs, marry a Stallion king and forge war on five kingdoms, which aids me cheerfully to overlook some of my favourite show's dubious sexual messages. In the opening of season one of Game of Thrones, Daenerys is violently raped by her new husband, yet, after a softly lit tryst, decides to lighten up about sex and learn some new positions to tempt her attacker instead. Now, did I – accompanied by many other women with banners and a stuck-record approach to berating the patriarchy – converge upon Sky Atlantic to complain? No. Perhaps it's about balance, so when a show is littered with female warriors, detectives or war-lords, I find the woman-garrotting slightly more palatable.
Ripper Street continues for seven weeks; detectives rushing around the fake streets and canal banks of East London, greeting their latest bleak discovery with slenderly veiled glee. I live in East London, so I might spend those hours more profitably, jogging or walking alone after dusk, trying to put from my mind that bad things happen. Wish me luck getting home safely – because, without wishing to be dramatic, we women really do still need it.
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