Richard Warlow on ‘Ripper Street’

The creator of BBC America's latest original series tells us about the crimes and the cops of Victorian Era London.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

“Ripper Street” began airing on BBC America earlier this year, and it’s a little different than the usual Victorian crime stories we’ve heard.

This one takes place after they’ve caught Jack the Ripper, but there are still plenty of deadly criminals out there. So the trio of Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) and American Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) team up to solve them.

During the Television Critics Association Press Tour, we caught up with "Ripper Street" creator, Richard Warlow.

CraveOnline: There are so many Jack the Ripper stories, is the post-Ripper period under reported?

Richard Warlow: I don’t know if under reported is the right word. I just think everyone’s always been looking at this great big kind of unknown monster and that’s been pretty distracting for everybody. Whereas I always started off from the principal that these were the meanest streets you could possibly imagine, Jack the Ripper or not, so there were always going to be terrible things going on. Being a policeman had to have been really one of the worst possible beats it’s possible to imagine.

CraveOnline: Are any of these episodes based on real cases of the era?

Richard Warlow: They are not actual real cases, but certainly borrowed from a few. There are stories of poisonings. There are stories of incredible depravity exacted by child gangs actually, and a lot of them being run by adult gang leaders. Slum clearances, yes, certainly that was all going on. But I think a lot of it was we’d do our research and then leap off the kind of crime stories that would connect with modern audiences.

CraveOnline: Are the three main characters based on real officers of the time?

Richard Warlow: Reid was a real officer. He was the head of H Division during the hunt for Jack the Ripper. A lot of the other Ripper stories prefer to concentrate on Frederick Abberline. Johnny Depp played him in From Hell and Michael Caine’s played him.

Abberline was actually the detective that used to be in H Division in White Chapel and then he was promoted to Scotland Yard. I think after the second murder, Scotland Yard then sends him back to White Chapel and he worked alongside Reid in the hunt for the killer, but never got him. So Abberline comes back, he’s real. We see him in the first episode and various other points in the series.

Reid was real although Reid was 5’5” and was a Druid and also champion of the balloonist. We don’t do any of those things. The character you see is really Matthew’s creation, but his name, he was the real guy who was there. Drake is sort of an amalgamation of the various sergeants who were there. There was the famous sergeant from that time who was called Sergeant Thick; which we thought the name was far too unintentionally humorous.

Then Jackson, the whole thing about the connection to America in the show is very important to us because the transatlantic conversation of the late Victorian age was as fevered as any time since. Just two years previously, it was Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897 and one of the things that she did was visit Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show that had been running in London for three months, sold millions and millions and millions of tickets. So the idea that there would be an American skulking around the docks coming to hide in White Chapel was historically apt.

We always had this idea that Reid was a technophile who would always be looking to the future and if you’re going to look to the future at that time, you’re looking to America. It is the end of the British century and then the beginning of the American century really, so we wanted to have that and have a character who would be scientifically kind of forward thinking for Reid to really connect with.

CraveOnline: I was surprised by the idea of a snuff film when cameras were hand cranked. Is there precedent for that?

Richard Warlow: No, not really. the pornography of the time is sort of eye-poppingly full on, hardcore. There’s obviously just the smutty stuff that you would expect, but we found some extraordinary, extraordinary images.

Compared to the magazines today, it would not put them to shame, but you’ve got bonnets and bustles and certain things like that. So we traced those first cameras through to that year. The idea was always that any technological media innovation, it’s always the pornography industry that latches onto it first. So it was just to try and reflect that reality on our show, so that was an imaginative leap.

CraveOnline: What other crimes will we be dealing with in upcoming episodes?

Richard Warlow: Episode seven is about corporate corruption and murder, but it’s also where we unveil the backstory of Jackson, the American character. It’s about a U.S. ship line owner comes across to complete a deal and all sorts of nefarious things go on. Finally, episode eight is about the cracking of a white slave ring. So girls being taken off the streets of East London and then trafficked to places like Buenos Aires and South Africa, which that actually was based on true research.

CraveOnline: Are there certain universal truths to crime that can apply to any era?

Richard Warlow: Yes, I think so. As I said on the panel, it wasn’t that we were searching for particular crimes or stories that would correspond to present day themes. It just always seemed to be the case that we’d go looking for these stories and think oh, that’s just like now really. Which is a happy circumstance I have to say, but certainly that last one, white slavery, that was very shocking.

We found elements of these stories that we have now about young women trafficked into London from Eastern Europe and North Africa and then you find out that at the time, people were being lifted off the streets in the slums of White Chapel and trafficked to other parts of the world.

CraveOnline: How sprawling and far reaching can the stories of “Ripper Street” get within the sets and locations you have available?

Richard Warlow: Well, we’re hoping if we go to second series, we’re hoping to extend the range of the sets further. In terms of where we have our base, which is this sort of abandoned Victorian army barracks just outside central Dublin, there’s lots of space there to exploit and build new stuff. I think it’ll be a gradual process but there’s definitely scope to go bigger.

CraveOnline: Were these sets build from scratch for “Ripper Street?

Richard Warlow: No, if you imagine, there was a literally ruined old Victorian army barracks. They were sort of built in squares and we wanted to create streets, so we’d use one side of the square and build flats on the other side to create streets that way. Then we built alleyways as well. Then we used the interiors of the old army buildings. So there is some location stuff that we go into Dublin and do some of the streets there, but we look to probably spend at least at least 50% of our time on our location at the barracks.


CraveOnline: What got you thinking about “Ripper Street” in the first place?

Richard Warlow: There’s a man called Simon Vaughan who is one of the executive producers on the show. He just had this very simple one line, let’s do a crime show at the time of Jack the Ripper. That sort of landed on my desk. I’d been thinking about the British have a very good reputation for creating great period pieces, and I’m a great fan of them, but I was thinking why can’t we do a period show that’s like a crime thriller?

Rather than just people sitting drinking tea in drawing rooms. To take all that stuff we’re really good at but  tell something a bit more modern and pacey and violent and all those cool things we like. So I’d been thinking about that and somebody said let’s do a crime show at the time of Jack the Ripper and it seemed like a perfect fit really.

So from there it was just really a matter of doing all the reading and then there was this decision that we took to discard the killer himself and just concentrate on the police. I’ve always been a great fan of shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues,” so this idea of creating a police precinct in this incredibly dangerous place, that was it.

CraveOnline: What memorable experience have you had in the British TV industry leading up to this?

Richard Warlow: I worked extensively on a show called “Mistresses.”

CraveOnline: Which ABC is remaking.

Richard Warlow: Yeah, so I was asked to come back and contribute some episodes to that, but I couldn’t because I had committed to “Ripper Street.”

CraveOnline: It’s nice of them to ask.

Richard Warlow: It’s very nice of them to ask. I had a lot of fun doing that, but it’s not really me. I was hired onto that show and then contributed the lion’s share of the episodes, but it was never really the thing that I was really interested in. I think coming off that, I then worked on a show called “Waking the Dead.”

I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. It’s a successful British forensic psychology police show. I did that and then I was thinking, “Okay, I want to do something very original now that’s me.” Having done these contemporary shows, try and mess around with period language a little bit. I think “Deadwood” was very influential there. It’s so good. I’m amazed by the use of language in that show.

It’s hard to think of defining moments. I think working on the third series of “Mistresses,” getting very bored of writing about women moaning about their men basically made me feel I don’t want to do this anymore.

CraveOnline: What are some great old words or phrases that should come back into our language?

Richard Warlow: There’s a great word for a kind of comely young woman called “bobtail” which I like. I like the word “lurk” for someone’s flat or premises. “Whose lurk is this?” I like that very much. The Victorians were such great self-recorders, so these social historians would go down to White Chapel or wherever it was and hang around the corners and listen to people speaking, write it all down and ask people what it meant. You have these anthropological studies of people’s language and the way they speak that’s still available to us now to look at. It’s an absolute treasure trove.

CraveOnline: Do you have ideas and research for stories for a second season?

Richard Warlow: Yeah, very much so. I’m writing already for the first episode and looking into the growth of London’s Chinatown. It started out in the Limehouse which is literally just down the road from the White Chapel precinct. So I’m looking at that. I want to look more at the press at the time as well and really tell some stories there.

We’re also looking at girl gangs. They were mostly robbery really and blackmail, but there’s a process they used to call badgering whereby women would get a man, a wealthy man into bed and then drug him. Then when he woke up, they’d have created the scene so it looked like the woman’s been killed or murdered, then they come in and blackmail the wealthy man and say, “We won’t tell anybody if you give us your money.” And off they’d go. It was called badgering.

CraveOnline: And the rich man didn’t think to check and make sure the woman was really dead?

Richard Warlow: I think if you wake up and find somebody butchered beside you, I think panic was the strong thing.

CraveOnline: It seems like there’s an endless source of material.

Richard Warlow: Yeah, really. As I say, the Victorians themselves loved to write things down about themselves. Of course you have printing technology moving forward all the time. You’d write stuff down and then it could be printed and turned into books really easily. It wasn’t something that was an exclusive practice. There’s lots more stories to tell.

CraveOnline: Do you have any other shows you’re working on?

Richard Warlow: I do. There’s one I probably shouldn’t talk about. I had an original idea called “The Boiling House” that’s set in Jamaica during the sugar rush, the last 17th and 18th centuries. It’s about the extraordinary wealth that was created from the sugar trade in the Caribbean. It’s about slavery as well. It’ll be like a family saga about plantation owners and slaves in Jamaica.

So I’m hoping to ride that this year. Then I’m also hoping to write an adaptation of a novelist Hilary Mantel. She’s a great English novelist. She wrote a book called "A Place of Greater Safety" which is about the French Revolution. So I’m hoping to do that as well. Then I’d like to do something that isn’t period.

CraveOnline: Were you a history buff before you got into television?

Richard Warlow: I’ve always been interested in history but I think like I say, we’re so good at making period pieces. It’s just such a gift and there’s something about period which immediately gives something scale. I’m quite interested after those just to go back and do something contemporary and intimate.

CraveOnline: Since scale and production design is so important, how directly were you involved in the production design of “Ripper Street?”

Richard Warlow: I spent a lot of time over in Dublin, had an office there. Mark Geraghty, our wonderful production designer, would come in and say, “Do you think it’ll look like this? Do you think it’ll look like that? What are you imagining here?” So yeah, it was a very symbiotic relationship. He would obviously go out and be very strong with his ideas.

That’s what you want, but I think it was certainly helpful for me to be there and say, “That doesn’t quite work” or “Can we get something a bit more like this?” But he’s a very brilliant man so most of the time he’d come down and say, “What about this?”

CraveOnline: Can these sets be used by other productions when you’re finished?

Richard Warlow: They could be. I don’t know whether they are, but they certainly could be.