Remember when period dramas were all bonnets and petticoats and tea on the lawn? Someone always proposed at the end, and everyone went home with a smile on their face and a song in their heart, wearing some marvellous costumes. Ahh. Well, no longer. Nowadays you’re more likely to see a bedraggled prostitute scheme to take down an arrogant industrialist, as in The Crimson Petal And The White, or a spot of murder, madness and corruption as in ITV’s newest historical bonanaza The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher. It’s almost enough to make you nostalgic for all that misty-eyed nostalgia, if it wasn’t so bloody good.
The Victorians always did have a taste for sordid scandal, and none more so than the gruesome murder of a toddler at a well-to-do country house in 1860. The boy was taken from his bed, murdered and shoved down an outside toilet. This true story forms the basis of a one-off special, starring Paddy Considine as Detective Jack Whicher, one of the first detectives at Scotland Yard. The case sent the press into a frenzy and turned readers into amatuer sleuths, while the government and the quiet Wiltshire village in question were thrown into turmoil by botched Police attempts at catching the culprit. Enter Detective Whicher.
This guy was the inspiration for a wave of Victorian detective fiction, a brooding, know-it-all, jack-the-lad type with humble beginnings who rose through the ranks to Detective at the new Scotland Yard. More interesting than the whodunnit, whydunnit and howdunnit of the plot is Whicher’s deterioration at the hands of a case he’s solved but can’t prove. With no “get forensics on it” shortcuts or CCTV to give the game up, this real-life conundrum is a satisfying piece-by-piece jigsaw, which jumps eloquently from the pages of Kate Summerscale’s book.
From Morse to Midsomer via Miss Marple and Magnum PI (this subject is a gift to alliteration), the detective genre has been through the mill and then some. But, just when you think the sound of scraping barrells might send you into a coma, ITV drama comes out of nowhere with Jack Whicher. Banished are the days of ITV’s floppy drama output – Demons, anyone? – and they’re rivalling the bastions of the Beeb’s costume department with this rock solid thriller.