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Sophie Partridge reviews 'Am I Not Monstrous?' - episode 2 of the BBC One murder mystery drama Ripper Street, which features a fictionalised account of Joseph Merrick 'The Elephant Man'

My initial reaction to the previous week’s trailer for Ripper Street, featuring Joseph Merrick “aka the Elephant Man” as the tv blurb puts it, was “Oh No!  Here we go...! However by the end of that episode, I was impressed.   

I don’t do Crime Dramas and/or Nordic Jumpers generally but I do succumb to historical settings and costumes! 

Also in Ripper Street, Captain Jackson is not exactly un-attractive.  He’s a strong visual pull and at the end of the scale and of equal strength, are the freakshow characters in this episode.  Their scene is lit by fire in the dark night and we all wanna watch.  In that vein `disability issues’ were illuminated but I wondered how willingly the `average’ viewer would discover them...

The plot: `A young woman is found murdered at the London Hospital and the only clue to her identity is an unusual deformity. The hunt for her killer takes Reid .. into the shadowy netherworld .. where they must seek the help of Joseph Merrick’.  Entitled  The story starts with a shot of a pickled foetus in a jar.  

Paralleling the BBC’s Silent Witness, the writer’s must think the audience hard-core enough, to handle such images and visible impairment.  As one reviewer put it, “something a bit different for the palate”. We have been warned!  And the audience are rewarded for their valour in watching; the disabled characters are revealed to be warm, compassionate humans, worthy of the viewers investment.

Even the Good Doctor has a dodgy ear and the beautiful murdered young woman, a tail.  “Her Greatest Gift of All, She felt no shame for who she was.” At the sideshow, the troop enact a scene from The Tempest with a Bearded Lady as Prospero and John, a young man with Huntington’s Chorea, being literally scorched: “John’s gift – impervious to pain but not suffering.” 

Eugenics is at the heart of this episode and when one of Inspector Reid’s team asks the Good Detective “What of.. the deformed?”  He simply replies “They are to be breeded out...”  His reply, believably so, is met with silence. Our brave Mr. M however, will not be silenced and risks his life to reveal he’s witnessed a crime. As a viewer we are guided to receive Mr. M. With kindness and respect.  

Just as in Silent Witness where the Good Cops are always morally superior, rising above the gore on the autopsy table and not even the `least bit phased by having a disabled colleague(!), so Inspector Reid, touches Joseph’s `deformed’ hand compassionately and without flinching; the 'non-afflicted’ viewer is therefore, encouraged to do the same and identify with the upright (literally, when compared to Merrick) Inspector rather than the Victorian rabble who mock him.  

So viewers are preparing to switch off happily at 10pm, knowing they too are on that higher plane with Reid and can `understand’ disability! They would never throw stones. Perhaps not but like the rookie detective who falls asleep whilst guarding Mr. M and closes his own eyes to the impending murder – having previously chastised the rabble to “look to their own sins” – would they too fail to see the crime?  

Joseph’s bed-side bell to summon help, has been moved by his assailant. Evidence is there for those who wish to see it.  “What will they say?”  The Bad Cop taunts before he murders our hero.  “The Elephant Man lay down to rest...” and with that, he suffocates Merrick. 

Yet the good doctor, Joseph’s friend, upon arrival at the scene, remarks exactly that and our trusted Inspector Reid, like the viewing public, silently doffs his cap and looks away...

The next episode of Ripper Street is on BBC One on Monday 25th November at 9pm

Click on this link to visit the 'Ripper Street' page on the BBC's website