How Ripper Street was saved from the axe

As the third series of the Victorian detective drama returns to BBC1 after a successful premiere on Amazon Prime Instant Video, Ben Dowell gets the inside story on how it was rescued by some nimble negotiating

When BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore decided in December 2013 that she didn’t want a third series of the Matthew Macfadyen, MyAnna Buring and Jerome Flynn drama Ripper Street, the producers were understandably crestfallen.

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This was a show that was loved by millions and had the full support of the cast, crew and writers who had been busy outlining the plot of the next series. What were they to do?

Fortunately, the co-producers of the period police drama, Tiger Aspect, had already been considering what to do with the third series should the BBC not recommission it (producers tend to have a sixth sense about these things). They were already engaged in unofficial talks with Amazon Prime Instant Video (and, it is believed, some other platforms, although they won’t say who) about co-producing it in the event of a no from the Corporation.

“We did a bit of sniffing around”, Ripper Street executive producer, and Tiger Aspect’s head of drama, Will Gould tells RadioTimes.com.

When the axe fell, the BBC made it clear that the decision hadn’t come about because they were unhappy with the series. There were financial constraints and the schedule needed to be cleared to make way for more new drama. But they still loved Ripper Street.

“It was a tricky decision for the BBC – it wasn’t a slam dunk [not to commission it] so that left the door open for us,” chips in Frith Tiplady, Tiger’s director of production.

Adds Gould: “There was a sense before they told us that they weren’t going to pick it up. But we very much had stories left to tell. We had left series two on a cliffhanger. As soon as we knew [it wasn’t getting another BBC1 series] we were ready to go out and have some proper conversations. It was quite quick.”

And so within a week – “when we had picked ourselves off the floor” as Gould puts it – talks began with Amazon. Two months later a deal was struck, a first in UK television. It made Amazon the majority funder, receiving an exclusive first window for the show, with the BBC a part-investor, meaning it would be repeated on BBC1 some months later (the series kicks off on BBC1 on Friday 31st July but has been available to UK Amazon Prime customers since last November).

Gould admits that the support of fans was a huge boost. Thousands called for the show to be saved and an overwhelming proportion of RadioTimes.com viewers also voiced their feelings

“The outcry was fantastic,” says the exec, who also points out that, while a fair bit of anti-BBC sentiment was expressed by fans, “they were still amenable to hearing about a deal.

“If they didn’t like the drama we wouldn’t have been having these conversations.”

Amazon, it seems, were on the same page.

“The way we approached it, the show wasn’t finished,” says the company’s head of content acquisitions, Chris Bird. “The writers and directors still wanted to tell the story, the fans still wanted to watch the next instalment, and the talent wanted to come back and be on screen. For us it was very simple. We had to do the really easy part, which was to find a way to finance and distribute the show. We just said ‘make the best show possible’.

“That emotional outcry is important for a business like Amazon.”

For Bird, the normal rules did not apply to the negotiations because it was new territory – a deal of this kind had never been done.

“It was important to leave an old way of thinking at the door and think: could we do this differently?”

The rulebook was also cast aside when it came to actually making the series (which received a slight budget increase on what it had enjoyed under the BBC, although neither party will go into specifics). 

“We don’t have restrictions on what we can and can’t do. When it premiered last November, Amazon showed the opening episode as a ‘director’s cut’ lasting 70 minutes – something the BBC, with the constraints of it schedule, needed to edit down to 60 minutes.

“That extended cut will remain the property of Amazon. It’s not a requirement of ours to fit a TV hour. We can allow the writers and directors to be a little bit more creative and deliver the cut of the work they want to rather than editing it down.”

It sounds like a win-win situation. But is there a flipside? For example, has the BBC taken a reputational hit because its flagship channel is now showing a drama in primetime that has already been seen by Amazon customers?

“I really hope it’s not seen that way,” says Gould. “When they cancelled the show, the outcry at that point was incredibly galvanising for us – people really liked the show and that helped us get on our feet. A lot of that outcry was anti-BBC. But now the BBC have come back on board, I hope the feeling is we have found a way to keep making the show.” 

And Gould is hopeful that this collaboration could be a template for future TV. Both Amazon and Tiger say they’re open to developing other projects.

“We are in the world of co-production [deals] now, especially with this kind of ambitious storytelling,” says Tiplady, and Gould agrees.

“If we have another show that’s about to get cancelled then who knows,” he says. “We learned a lot from this process, talking to a company like Amazon. Hopefully we will get some more things away with them.

“No one wants to get their show cancelled but it’s a happy day when you can bring it back from the dead.”

Still, it’s not just dead shows that Amazon can bring back. The company’s deal with Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – also unprecedented but not involving the BBC this time – means they now have the chance to breathe new life back into a sacked Top Gear presenter and his two mates as well….

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Ripper Street series three will be shown on BBC1 from Friday 31st July at 9pm