Sherlock Holmes, Ripper Street, and the new Victorian Aesthetic
A funny thing happened on the way to Ripper Street. And Baker Street too.
Period dramas seem to experience their popularity in cycles – as one generation grows into the next, our need to revisit the past flares up again as though it were entirely new. The 1980s and early ’90s had their Merchant Ivory phase; before that, post-war Hollywood had looked at history through the lens of the Bible. Now, in the 21st Century, its the Victorians who have (re)caught our interest, from the popularity of Steampunk to the proliferation of Pride and Prejudice.
The twist here is a post-modern one – rather than the subdued, more morally rigorous approach of the past, these days the Victorians are being recast as people who are as warm-blooded and human as we are. And there’s something else – a distinct aesthetic has begun to emerge, a new kind of Victoriana that exists both at home and in the cinema. It’s heavily industrial, dirty and dark, a polar opposite to the pastoral idylls of Merchant Ivory, and infused with violence, jokes, and sex in a way that might have shocked our grandparents. It brings simultaneous reality and fantasy to the past.
Pinpointing the purveyors is easy. Though the Hollywood period blockbuster made an unexpected comeback with Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003, and 2001′s From Hell gave us a taste of what might be to come, it’s television that has fanned the flames of this new, more voracious approach; the BBC in particular, with their takes on Oliver Twist, Fanny Hill, and a truly harrowing Tess of the D’Ubervilles, along with adaptations of more modern works set in the Victorian age, like Tipping The Velvet, Wide Sargasso Sea, and The Crimson Petal and the White.
No surprise then that it’s a British director, Guy Ritchie, whose take on Sherlock Holmes has done much to cement this new look. With Holmes suddenly re-entering the zeitgeist (there have been two hugely successful television adaptations and two Ritchie films in the last four years, with more faces on the way) and British drama putting the rock n’ roll back into our ancestors, the two have married up to form what is quickly becoming the Victoriana du jour. In an echo of industrialisation, the green, green grass of a A Room With A View has given way to the city’s urbanity and crime; to hints of steampunk, the Gothic, and even horror. Just look at Sherlock Holmes‘ opening titles; the dirt and grime is front and centre, the cinematography dark and frenetic, the soundtrack also:
All this has coincided with a shift away from Hollywood to the smaller screen – its directors, writers, and big-name actors are all making the pilgrimage – so it’s no surprise that the trickle-down effect has seen British drama throwing itself into the melee it helped to create. Nowhere is this more discernible than with the BBC’s Ripper Street. A detective drama focused on the fallout of the Ripper case, it embodies the industrial aesthetic of the Holmes series all the way down to music, titles, and font. Combined with the Ritchie films, it’s an expression of both how wide the audience for this new Victoriana is and how deeply they’re invested – Ripper Street is currently airing its second series, and Sherlock Holmes 3 is in the works.
But perhaps the most popular shift in the way audiences are looking at the Victorians is in their characterisation. The stiff upper lip of British period drama has been replaced by characters who, whilst retaining their 19th-century manners, are allowed a little more room to breathe. The era is no longer quite so sexless, so restrained in passion, allowing for the exploration of, amongst other things, male friendships, parenting and childhood, and the curious notion that the Victorians might actually have been able to fall in love with one another. Holmes and Watson’s friendship is the backbone of the franchise far more than the crimes; Ripper Street’s leading man, Detective Inspector Reid, is grieving for his lost child and failing marriage, whilst the other points in the protagonist triangle – Detective Sergeant Drake and Captain Jackson – are dealing with their own complex emotional relationships.
In essence, this new aesthetic isn’t really about the looks – it’s about the people. In the same way that colourising old photographs brings them to life, the 21st century’s outlook on the 19th has done just the same.