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City of Vice

(Channel 4; US DVD: 10 Jun 2008)

Imagine a sort of CSI:18th Century London spliced with a History Channel documentary on the life and times of Georgian England, and you might end up with something like BBC4‘s unique program City of Vice. Amidst the backdrop of squalor and lawlessness much like the American west as depicted in HBO’s Deadwood, the program dramatizes the tremendous difficulties involved in the formation of Great Britain’s first organized police force.


It’s hard to conceive of a society existing without one, but in 1753 England, the very idea of an organized law enforcement agency was controversial at best. Parliament and the “wellborns” who made up that body saw a police force as an unnecessary, expensive and impractical concept with the potential to become despotic. Besides, why would anyone of honorable birth care if one peasant killed another?


As always, it was only when violent crime began to flow over into “civilized” society that a petition to form such a organized police force would be taken seriously. This petition was written by the brothers Fielding, Tom Jones author Henry and his brother John, blind since his youth. Both were magistrates who were finally given the funding to form the “Bow Street Runners”, a less than overwhelming six-man force given the mission to fight a city-wide network of criminals with organizations much larger that their own. Besides the inequity of the mission itself, there was also the problem of developing methods never before used in order to investigate and prosecute these crimes. It was a tall order, indeed.


The description of City of Vice as some kind of splice between documentary and cop show doesn’t really do justice to its uniqueness. Henry Fielding acts as our narrator and travel guide as the camera swoops over John Rocque’s famous map of London to establish the various locales before “entering” the map, which then becomes a 3D animation of a particular street, finally morphing into the actual filmed location.


As a transitional device it’s fun to watch, but geographically it adds much to our understanding of what London 1753 may have been like. So, if I wanted to go from the Magistrate’s Court on Bow Street to catch a pint at a pub on Drury Lane, I could turn left at Russell Street and be there for the happy hour.


Beyond creating the sense of a wider world, it acts as a budget saving device as the program limits it’s attention to tight shots of specific buildings and just a handful of extras. The interiors are often very sparsely dressed and sometimes just a step away from a black box theater production of Our Town. But it all works anyway, recreating the era more through props and costumes than elaborate set design. With the minimalist design, however, emphasis is placed on the characters and dialogue which, fortunately, do deliver. 


In the role of Henry Fielding is actor Ian McDiarmid, best known for playing the sinister Emperor in the recent trilogy of Star Wars films. McDiarmid is interesting casting for the role, as is Iain Glenn as John Fielding, since neither one can be said to be particularly likable. McDiarmid, in particular, has spent much of his screen career playing villains due to his moody visage and sly tone of voice.  But this is to the series’ advantage.


The characterization of the Fielding brothers is intended to represent a kind of evolution of moral thinking. They are initially seen as educated men with an intellectual sense of outrage regarding crime on the streets and are often faced with situations in which they themselves do not fully comprehend the true moral horror. This first series of five hour-long episodes presents a kind of coming of age, or awareness at least, for the brothers Fielding. For the first time in their sheltered lives they must experience not only the crimes that they must prevent, but also the socio-economic environment that acts as a catalyst.


Koch Vision has released all five episodes onto DVD in a two disc edition uncut but in a different order than the original broadcast. The fifth episode is now presented as the first since it most effectively lays out the dramatic situation of how the Bow Street Runners received the support of Parliament. The episodes are as follows:


Episode One
As the Fieldings fight an uphill political battle to fund their police force, a prostitute begs them to rescue her seven-year-old sister from a brothel.


A very good introduction to the political and cultural backdrop for the series that does not lose sight of the characters and their own flaws.


Episode Two
The Bow Street Runners’ first official case involves a prostitute found raped and mutilated in a bath house.


This episode gets the credit for giving the series the label “gritty”.  It presents a London filled with squalor, disease, and random brutality. The crime is certainly horrific enough—the prostitute is raped with a knife—but Henry Fielding’s methods are also frighteningly brutal. He informs the dying and disoriented victim that she is not going to make it and demands with great vehemence that she name her killer, trying to physically shake it out of her.


Iain Glenn has some strong moments in this episode as he seems to develop a genuine affection for a prostitute played very effectively by Sara Smart. 


Episode Three
When a murdered priest turns out to have been the victim of blackmail, The Runners are forced to investigate the homosexual subculture.


This is probably the best episode of the first series. Effective all around with a strong story that allows for fascinating period slang and historical detail. It presents a society where homosexuals are treated as lepers, labeled as “sodomites”, and the act itself as a crime punishable by hanging. The writers push the Fieldings to express a genuine disapproval of the act but complicate matters by revealing one of their own “runners” as a homosexual. 


Episode Four
The Fieldings have a hard time justifying their force when a string of robberies moves uptown. They meet open lawlessness head on while investigating the robbery of a Scottish merchant who would rather pay for the return of his belongings than see the robbers hanged.


Episode Five
Tom Jones, leader of a notorious Irish gang, escapes from jail, and Henry decides to follow him into his own territory.


Episodes four and five are interrelated as the criminal in both is the wittily named “Tom Jones” and represents a strata of society that the Fieldings think they understand: the poor. In episode four, Henry tries to bond with the tortured merchant by explaining that he understands loss himself, having lost a wife and child, as well. The merchant explains that he cannot understand his situation because he does not have the same problems: Fielding is a “wellborn” while the merchant and his family have had to work hard just to survive. This is another tough episode that ends in terrible tragedy. Which seems par for the course for this series.


The final episode has Fielding kidnapped by Jones and his gang and forced to re-evaluate his thoughts about criminals and their actions.


The series was quite effective and really the only thing I can criticize is the very Speed Racer-like repetition of exposition at the beginning of every episode. Instead of being informed that “Racer X” was really secretly Speed’s older brother, we have to listen to Henry Fielding tell us over and over that his brother John was blind since youth—even though it couldn’t be more apparent since Iain Glenn is seen feeling for the walls and wearing the “official” blind man’s shades throughout.


There is a single DVD extra which is a brief “Making of” featurette. It’s nothing more than a promo piece without much detail, but for a minor British TV series with only a single season it’s to be expected. Hopefully there will be a second series since there is certainly a lot of story that could be explored here. Maybe they’ll decide to re-title the show as well, since I can’t see how anyone could’ve preferred the very bland City of Vice over the obviously perfect The Bow Street Runners, anyway.

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