I have history with Ripper Street, BBC1-turned-Amazon Prime’s crime thriller.
The last time I set foot on set, I was working as an extra during my student days. I was cast as a street tart – not sure exactly what that says about me back then.
So when I walk bleary-eyed into the Dublin hotel base for the show’s fifth and final series filming at 6.45am on a mild April morning, the last thing I’m expecting the wardrobe assistant to say is, “I think we’ll make you posh!”.
Tamsin’s face is a familiar one; she’s helped me into more than one corset on this particular production. I’m not in the least bit surprised to see her, because the Irish crew who keep “Ripper” – as they refer to it – rolling have become a tight-knit team over the past five years. Series after series, they enthusiastically come back for more.
“It’s like a family,” hairdresser Maureen tells me as she pops hot curlers into my bedhead just after 7am. She’s worked on many productions during her 17 and a half years hairdressing, and been with Ripper Street since the beginning.
“I love doing the ‘up’ styles” she says. “And the hats, I just love the hats.”
Maureen twists my curls into an elaborate up-do, douses them in hairspray from a can that’s so big “it’s like a fire extinguisher”, and secures a snazzy feathery creation to the top of the pile before I can even touch my tea.
You have to work fast in this business, especially on big days like these.
It’s the second-last day of filming on Ripper Street’s final series and there are 78 extras to clothe, feed and shuttle to set in time for a pivotal scene.
Extras Coordinator Sarah Beth Moylan is keeping watch over her charges, many of whom are now sporting an assortment of hats and bonnets, fake facial hair, and perfectly filthy fingernails.
“Are you OK there, pet?” she asks an older gentleman who’s taking a moment’s rest. “Can I get you anything before you head down on the bus to set?”
Moylan is well liked among the extras who’ve come back series after series. From retired professionals to students making cash in their spare time, she’s seen all sorts pass through. There has been the odd fame hunter with “notions”, she admits, but the majority “just put the head down and get on with it”.
For Moylan the end of Ripper really is the end of an era. She’s played mother hen to more background actors than she can count, with a master list of about 400 extras to work with each series.
“People don’t realise how much time it takes to create something that’s only on screen for a second,” she says, but she’s not complaining. She’s loved working on Ripper Street and is delighted to be able to finish the story on their own terms.
This isn’t the first time the Ripper crew have dealt with ‘The End’. In 2013 Ripper Street was dropped by the BBC, but a fan campaign – backed by RadioTimes.com – succeeded in convincing Amazon to snap the show up for three more series.
“I don’t think anyone realised how big it would be,” Moylan muses as she brushes some stray hairs from the shoulder of a policeman’s uniform. “You don’t realise how many people are watching it online. It’s nice to know that the people really did care.”
After mere moments in the make-up chair (thankfully posh extras require less work than the painted-on STI-sporting street tarts) we head downstairs for breakfast. A few confused looks from hotel patrons, a bowl of cereal and cup of tea later, we’re escorted on to a bus that’s heading for a city centre location.
By 9.20am we’re greeted at an old court house down one of Dublin’s many twisting side streets, and I’m really feeling that cereal in my slightly tight corset.
“Quite please. QUIET!”. It’s Mike Hayes, the man all extras know to behave around. The no-nonsense Third Assistant Director understands what it takes to keep filming on track, and he’s not afraid to send mischief makers, incessant talkers or fame hungry scene stealers to the naughty step.
As we huddle outside the old stone building (doubling for Shoreditch Town Hall), animal print fleece blankets and cups of tea are passed around by playful crew who crack jokes. This may be the second-last day of their long residence in Dublin, but there’s no funeral atmosphere. There’s a real sense of happiness because this ending is on their terms.
They’re telling the last chapter of a story they’ve been the custodians of for the last five years, and they’re doing it their way.
“OK, you’re a journalist,” Hayes tells me.
“Yes, I’m here with the production team. I’m from Radio Times”, I reply.
“No, I mean you’re playing a journalist,” he answers, handing me a little black notebook, ushering me through the doors of the building and into a seat on a bench behind another familiar face – David Dawson’s Fred Best.
By 10am the Third AD has put everyone firmly in their place – both physically and mentally – and it’s time to start rehearsing the scene while creating atmosphere. This involves two men with a smoke machine filling the room with white mist, while everyone with a free hand grabs a paddle to make sure it blows in the right direction.
There’s a universal groan when it rises a little too high and sets off the smoke alarm. “Can we figure out how to get that turned off please?” someone roars, and several people in crew t-shirts scurry out the door.
Leading man Matthew Macfadyen watches on from the sidelines, occasionally breaking out of that trademark brooding Edmund Reid stare to laugh with the make-up and costume teams as they fiddle with his shirt buttons and add an extra layer of powder.
From time to time he pulls a smartphone from his breast pocket. His wife, Keeley Hawes, had returned to Line of Duty just the night before, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s enjoying the universal praise for her performance online.
“Are you playing a journalist too?” an oblivious extra asks Macfadyen. He could take the moment to pull a full on diva strop, but he merely smiles. “No, I’m playing a policeman”, he says, before taking his place for the first of many takes.
Two and a half hours of serious 19th century ‘journalist-ing’ (looking shocked and scribbling furiously) in the background later, a passing ambulance siren, aircraft noise and various other 21st century obstacles have slightly hampered progress.
There’s little chance we’ll be finishing within the hour, so the crew decide it’s time to break for lunch.
It’s not a moment too soon as I’m absolutely famished and feeling a tad faint thanks to the corset that’s now cutting into my hips. I’m used to doing the day job in jeans, and don’t envy my predecessors the task of covering events of the day encased in belly crushing bone.
Lunch is served on double-decker buses in a base not far from the set and there’s plenty of chatter about the upcoming glamorous Ripper Street wrap party among the extras.
“We’re having a separate one,” an older man clothed in a simple brown jacket and cap tells me. “We’ve all been doing Ripper since the start, so we want to give it a good send off.”
There’s just enough time to nip into the wardrobe van to have my corset loosened. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of costumes, many of which I recognise from previous series. From Long Susan’s elegant gowns to Rose’s slightly raggedy dresses, Jackson’s slick suits to Reid’s respectable crisp collars, the van holds as many memories as cloth creations.
There’s little time to snoop, though, as we’re due back on set, and there’s just enough room on the bus for a skirt as big as mine. By the time we resume our positions on the benches, and the actors take us through the same scene again, I feel as though I could recite everyone’s lines word for word.
But this team are seasoned professionals with a tight schedule to stick to, so before I know it we’re done and everyone’s back on the bus to the hotel. Hairdresser Maureen returns my hair to its original state, and Tamsin frees me from my corset prison in the blink of an eye.
The afternoon’s extras are already reporting for duty to Sarah Beth, who’s ready to fill the bus up and take them to a new location. There are cheerful hellos and tearful goodbyes, as some extras hug the wardrobe assistants while hanging up their caps and corsets for the last time.
They’re not sad goodbyes, though. They’re proud ones.
Four years, five series, several hundred extras and one cancellation later, H Division has found a way to make its own happily ever after.
The fifth and final series of Ripper Street is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from 12th October