My days as a Ripper Street tart

From blackened teeth to rib-crunching corset, Sarah Doran recalls her time on the cobbled streets of Dublin's Whitechapel

Did you know it can take a week to get fake dirt out from under your fingernails? And four washes to rinse fake grease out of your hair? And have you ever tried washing STIs off your face? It’s no mean feat.

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Life as an extra is far from glamorous – just ask Ricky Gervais. It’s all about long days and early starts, plus endless hours in rib-crunching corsets for Ripper Street street tarts. 

Having cut my ‘extra’ teeth in the background of Ireland’s primetime soap, Fair City, I figured it’d be a bit of fun to do period drama. “You might even get a fancy costume”, my friends chirped. And so I skipped off to my first fitting dreaming of cavorting on Dublin’s fake East London cobbles with Matthew Macfadyen and Jerome Flynn. 

Cavorting, as it happens, was most definitely on the cards – the cards that had been prepared for each of us, ready to document our measurements. “Lady” said the first. “Poor woman” said the second. “Street tart” said the third. And I, of course, was number three.

Having spent 15 minutes discussing what happens when you tick the “I’ll do nude scenes” box with a woman who loved making a living from doing just that, it was safe to say I was terrified of what might (or more importantly, might not) await me in the costume department. 

Happily, Victorian street tarts didn’t like draughts either, so I was to be fitted with a skirt, jacket and even scarf. I skipped home from the fitting. Crisis averted. Or so I thought.

There’s nothing quite like sitting in a makeup chair, listening to two women with brushes decide whether or not you look diseased enough. “Too pretty” said the first: “Add a bit more syphilis to the face… oh, and don’t forget to blacken the teeth while you’re at it.” 

Because Mathew Macfadyen was DEFINITELY going to fall head over heels at the sight of me after that, coupled with the bottled mud they’d added to my brutally backcombed and temporarily browned down hair.

Speaking of delusions – he was never going to be my Mr Darcy, was he? – you’ll find no room for them on a set. Dreams of being plucked for superstardom will be swiftly shattered when you realise you’re not on the director’s radar – unless you do something wrong, of course.

My broken heart soon perked up at the sight of the catering van and one of those double-decker buses that turn out to be restaurants on wheels. Take note: don’t go for pudding after a big dinner when you’re wearing a corset. You’ll spend the rest of the afternoon cursing that extra dollop of custard as your expanding stomach threatens to split your costume at the seams. 

It’s all in the name of fun, though, and it’s pretty exciting to be thrown into a Whitechapel jail cell, or wander the streets of Victorian London while 21st Century Dublin goes about its business just around the corner.

Stepping back into the real world is tough when you’ve been soliciting lads in top hats while bartering with street traders, treading the cobbles with cute donkeys hitched up to carts, or allowing Jerome Flynn to almost fall on top of you during a pub bust-up.

It’s even more amusing when, half-way home, you realise you’ve forgotten to brush away the tooth-decay stains. Let’s just say you’ll get interesting looks while strolling through the city at the height of summer with rogue ‘mud’ stains on your arms and neck.

You’ll learn a lot and be well looked after, though. Even when you say you’re not interested in being the stunt double for somebody’s bum, thank you very much.

And all the long days on set DEFINITELY turn out to be well worth it when you get those 0.5 seconds of out-of-focus fame in the trailer and spot a flash of your scarf near the end of episode three. 

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Ripper Street continues on BBC1 on Friday nights at 9pm.