SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

RIPPER STREET: SERIES 2 (EPISODE 1: 'PURE AS THE DRIVEN') ~ a celebration of the return of The Elephant Man to a starring role at the BBC!

*Plot spoilers lurk in the shadows wearing a top hat and cape below  ~ watch before reading!*

The Elephant Man (Joseph Merrick) now appears as a guest star in BBC Victorian crime drama RIPPER STREET! It's the first time he's appeared in anything like a major role since David Lynch's 1980 movie made the man a household name.

Director Ken Russell ignited a return of sorts for Merrick in his  wild short reimagining: 'Revenge of the Elephant Man' (2004/ 27mins) starring his wife (and creative partner on the project) - actress Lisi Tribble, himself, and Barry Lowe as the Elephant Man.

Russell's film concentrated on the imagined elephantine sexual prowess of Merrick (as you may expect it would!) with an illustration of the man's less often talked about, but in this film - significant,  physical attribute (and drawn by Tribble herself as a silhouette for Ken to explain to us all on screen). Lisi Tribble sums up Ken Russell's vision of the 'Elephant Man' as:
"No arms!  An out-of-control libido! Coming soon to a DVD near you." 

I hope this rare film does get a release, we need Russell's later-period short films to be available to us; they were shot with huge passion on low budgets and with the great man's customary flamboyant and increasingly wild imagination  in full flight. There's something of a wicked smile in all of Russell's most off-kilter films (even, one hopes, a definite sneer at the establishment) while contemporaries of his were content to rest on their past successes - not Ken. He had to work. Wanted to. It was his life blood. So he did. Even though the big budgets were no longer available, he gathered together his friends and made something perhaps few other industry-lauded directors would dare. Punk poetry comes in all kinds of crazily-wrapped parcels!

Barry Lowe IS 'The Elephant Man'! (pic: Lisi Tribble) 

 Not the David Lynch version!

Other than occasional other glimpses though, the Elephant Man had - until the return of Ripper Street - all but disappeared from the screen. I was reminded that he'd had a brief cameo in the Johnny Depp-starring Ripper-set; FROM HELL in 2001 and David Bowie once played the role on stage in Chicago in the late 70s, in the play by Bernard Pomerance.

David Bowie IS 'The Elephant Man'

There was another memorable musical connection from British pop poets SUEDE at the height of lead singer Brett Anderson's treading of water a little too long in drug dependency before nearly sinking for good (but subsequently freeing himself from addiction in the years before the band's next album) with the cracked-up track 'ELEPHANT MAN' off their feverish trip of a 4th album: HEAD MUSIC (1999).

To be fair, this most demented of SUEDE tracks wasn't even written by Anderson (the only track on the album that doesn't bear his name) and was dreamt up instead by the band's broody, kooky keyboardist Neil Codling.  The title is a cultural reference to Merrick, but the song is more about fighting personal inner demons, greed and corruption and life on the road (probably!) and includes such lyrics as:

'We'll be all over your town like a rash. We'll steal your children and smoke all your hash...'


'I am, I am, the Elephant Man ..'


David Lynch's 'THE ELEPHANT MAN' (1980) 


I like the way that Merrick is becoming an unofficial assistant to the police in RIPPER STREET while staying at the London Hospital in Whitechapel Road where he really was visited by the upper rich creamery of London society. Frederick Treaves, Merrick's surgeon friend, also appeared in this first episode of SERIES 2: 'PURE AS THE DRIVEN'. I can see a spin-off: 'The Elephant Man Investigates. . . '!

There was a REAR WINDOW feel to this pretty bloody (spiked leg on a street metal fence after a fall and subsequent surgery that dragged on in close-up for a good ten minutes) series opener, with Merrick watching a crime being committed across the road from his hospital bed. When police pathologist Jackson tests the drug being slowly drip-fed to his East End patch (everyone's at it, even the Coppers), there's a whiff of Jeremy Brett's hallucinogenic trip in what for me was the best adventure of Sherlock Holmes ever shown on TV or film; the gorgeous and sublime, THE DEVIL'S FOOT.


"A trip to the coast will do you good Holmes," he said.

Opium dens, Triads, especially dangerous martial arts techniques. . . RIPPER STREET is back feeling new and refreshed; the streets of London effectively more dangerous (and I've never seen a more realistic threat of a broken neck in a TV drama before - you almost feel the muscles starting to actually tear on Jerome Flynn's neck; a real understanding of such a moment before death) and there's not a man named Jack in sight.


Words: Mark Gordon Palmer/ Seat at the Back Magazine

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