Tv review: The Escape Artist | Ripper Street

The Escape Artist starring David Tennant as Will Burton and Ashley Jensen as Kate Burton. Picture: submitted
The Escape Artist starring David Tennant as Will Burton and Ashley Jensen as Kate Burton. Picture: submitted
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David Tennant is having a good year – well, when isn’t he? But Broadchurch was such a hit he’ll repeat his performance in the American remake, he’s winning good reviews on stage, plus he is about to return briefly to his breakthrough role in the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who.

The Escape Artist

Tuesday, BBC1, 9pm

Ripper Street

Monday, BBC1, 9pm

And now here he is again in The Escape Artist. Doesn’t he ever take a holiday?

As it begins, Tennant’s character Will is also on a roll: he’s a defence barrister who’s never lost a case, he has an affectionate wife (Ashley Jensen), nice child, cute dog and two lovely houses. Obviously it can’t last.

Reviewers have been asked not to give away too much about this plot-driven drama, but initially Tennant’s performance is the main reason to keep watching, though snappy editing keeps things moving.

It raises vague questions about whether justice and the law are the same, but really it’s a thriller, in which people do thriller-ish things like go into isolated places when they know there’s someone after them, and where the villain is PURE EVIL. It delivers if it makes you want to keep watching; it probably will.

Like the recently-finished Peaky Blinders (ultimately rather dull beneath its style and soundtrack), Ripper Street is a BBC period drama drawing heavily on American cable shows, most obviously Deadwood.

But it has learned their lessons better: its aim is primarily to entertain and to that end it will happily incorporate a homage to martial arts movies or a policeman with a ridiculous beard, all wrapped up in weekly cases drawn from the newspaper headlines of 1890.

Quickly recommissioned after the first series was a hit earlier this year, there’s been a slight time-jump which is confusing at first, but eventually made clear.

Fundamentally it is a formula cop show in fancy dress, but it works because it seems to know it.

The actors too understand that they are there to play more ‘types’ than real characters: Matthew Macfadyen is the dedicated and sincere inspector; Jerome Flynn as the tough-guy-with-a-soft-spot-for-fallen-women; Adam Rothenberg as the hard-bitten Yank.

Joseph Mawle (currently playing a very different role in The Tunnel) joins them and appears to be modelling his performance on Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, for some reason.

As before, the setting is interesting and well-researched. So much was going on in London at that time that it’s not too much of a stretch to bring in both the burgeoning heroin trade and, poignantly, John Merrick, the Elephant Man – who genuinely was guarded by H Division officers.

It still has problems with its female characters; the last series had some gratuitous violence, perhaps due to the initial concept that the action followed on from the Jack the Ripper case.

Hopefully that’s been left behind now, but a better storyline for MyAnna Buring’s madam would be welcome as would – dare we say it – perhaps even a few female characters who aren’t prostitutes.

Still, quibbles aside, Ripper Street has hit its stride as a thoroughly enjoyable piece of hokum.