It starts with a sexy young woman, horribly murdered. Not just strangled, but molested and mutilated, not just by the killer but also in the autopsy scene where we gaze at her lying on a slab, nude, brightly lit and tastefully butchered. Then it turns out that this single racy killing is just the beginning, and there’s some sort of underground criminal syndicate organising terrifying drug-encrusted parties where glassy-eyed people are filmed being raped, murdered or both.
This is a standard plot for that strange sub-genre of TV drama that’s fixated on sexist, titillating serial-killing, the more outlandishly depraved the better. Such shows have been around for years and are comically passé now, as well as offensive. They’re the stuff of spoofs: Wednesday at 9 on ITV1, Robson Nesbitt is DCI Gristle, a troubled maverick on the trail of a nutter putting prostitutes’ heads on spikes, then releasing clips of it on YouTube, etc. So it was disheartening to see BBC1 draw a curly historical moustache on this format and call it top-class drama.
Ripper Street (Sundays) followed the battered, sticky textbook, starting with a woman found dead in the street and building up through the discovery of unsavoury pics of the victim to a film of another woman dying in an evil aristocrat’s snuff-porn movie. The climax: a woman we’d met and sympathised with, about to suffer the same fate but saved at the last second by the law.
The law was DI Edmund Reid, a cop haunted by failing to catch Jack the Ripper the previous year – because this was, of course, London in 1889. I love a good Ripper drama, don’t you? Great vibe. Brothels, bare-knuckle boxing, big hats, horses, pickpockets, sex pox, missing teeth, urchins, whiskers, disembowelments in gloomy alleys round the back of East End boozers.
Whitechapel reminded us that the Ripper dollar is a big dollar only four years ago – and the dynamics here were all very 2009. Reid was a caring moderniser, railing against a crotchety results-oriented superior (Clive Russell) and sensationalist media coverage. Matthew Macfadyen, a skilled heavyweight actor but one with a tendency to deliver lines as if he’s just this second stopped crying, was a good fit for the role. Reid insisted sensitively on doing police work the right way, while chewing manfully through another cliché: that period dramas must be loaded with hindsighty hat-tips at the new developments of the time. Reid was a big fan of telegraphs, proper autopsies, underground railways and even the motion-picture camera the bad guys had apparently invented – 1889 handily being about when film first hit the UK.
DI Reid was kitted out with more standard-issue modern apparel that made Ripper Street smell more like a new car than a 19th-century slum: a long-suffering wife (Amanda Hale, who presumably won’t be quite as long-suffering as she was in The Crimson Petal and the White) and two sidekicks. Jerome Flynn was a brawny enforcer, Adam Rothenberg a cocky American surgeon.
This triangle of chalk, cheese and a third thing that differs from both chalk and cheese slotted together efficiently enough, in a Guy Ritchie sort of way. Ripper Street – even the title has an air of buzzwords being circled on a whiteboard – was seen by a squillion people and has probably already been commissioned for series two, three and four. This would seem to be the sole aim: so far, it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s heart and soul is in it.
Comparing a fiction created by a single human with the drama in Africa (Wednesdays BBC1) would be unfair. Mother Nature has had aeons to write the horror movie about the hideous giant crickets attacking quelea birds’ nests to try to eat newborn chicks, but first devouring one of their own number who got hurt when he was pecked back onto the ground. She’s had plenty of time to set up the sports drama of an old Namib desert giraffe fighting a young challenger to his territory, taking a hit and falling to his knees, only to feint past the knockout blow and deliver a conclusive headbutt to the undercarriage. The bawdy watering-hole comedy about the rhino seeing off a larger mating rival by picking up and wearing some stray antelope horns, then failing to perform sexually and suffering the indignity of his darling pretending to be asleep, is unbeatable.
Someone had to capture it all, though, and astounding, unseen sights like the giraffe and rhino behaviours in the first part of David Attenborough’s new series were the result of four years’ work by the crew: difficult, dangerous, numbingly long-winded work, after which it must have been so hard not to crush it all with overblown presentation. But Attenborough and friends are too witty and wise to do that. His twinkle was brighter than ever as the programme, without losing sight of the incredible scale of the setting, deftly displayed the tiniest, prettiest jewels plucked from millions of acres of sand. Africa was epic and awesomely well made but above all, it was simply, happily wonderful.