Having written four books set in the East End of London in the 1880s I like to think I know a trope when I see one, and Year of the Rabbit has them in spades. In fact, they come so thick and fast in the first episode of Channel 4’s new crime comedy it’s as if writers Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil (Veep) have taken a shovel to the seedy seamy streets of Victorian Limehouse and flung the cliché-crusted muck at the screen.
This is, of course, a very good thing. As is the casting of glorious Matt Berry in title role of Detective Inspector Rabbit. Imagine a beefy, bleary cross between John Thaw in The Sweeney and Bill Sikes and you’ll get the idea.
The opening scene, a violent interrogation of a ‘nonce’, turns out to be DI Rabbit concluding a ‘friendly’ school visit. (Working Together for a Safer City is the mission statement framed on the wall of his superior’s office.)
Leaving the teacher broken and bleeding at his desk, Rabbit turns to the class and asks rows of delighted smudge-faced moppets: “Now, who wants to see how we fish opium out of a sailor’s arse?”
The tone is set for a gleefully subversive first episode that manages to shoehorn the staples of Victorian crime – murdered women, swirling fog, secret societies, erotic back-street cabaret and sinister toffs to mention just a few – into 30 profanity-packed minutes of (almost) pitch perfect black comedy.
Year of the Rabbit doesn’t just skewer Victoriana. Devotees of TV crime of all eras will have spotted the well-trodden paths expertly parodied here. Initially, Rabbit is unhappy to be saddled with a new, university-educated sidekick, Wilbur Strauss, played by a delightfully dim-witted, wide-eyed Freddie Fox.
His rival and arch enemy within the department, DI Tanner – Paul Kaye ripping up the scenery with his teeth – is a corrupt copper.
Rabbit’s bluff northern boss Superintendent Wisbech, Alun Armstrong, is continually infuriated by the incompetent drunken employee he describes as “a leg of fuckwit ham”.
Wisbech’s clever, foul-mouthed daughter Mabel – the wonderfully deadpan Susan Wokoma – is determined to be accepted as the first female copper in her father’s male chauvinist team. In an ear-catching cascade of Victorian slang pastiche, Mabel suggests that she might be “a fopper, a lady filth, a bacon dolly, a femiplod, fillyfuzz, femifuzz, bobby dolly…”
One of the great joys of Year of the Rabbit, is the language. Not just the unfettered swearing that punctuates almost every line, (a warning here to those of delicate sensibilities), but also the script’s tumbling, new-minted confection of crypto-Dickensian metaphors, similes and words.
It doesn’t just sound good, it looks great too. The dingy rooms, candlelit taverns and streets of Victorian Limehouse, complete with urchins selling London fog at “tuppence a jar”, are convincing, even when something as anachronistic as a bicycle is slyly included as a bit of hipster decoration in a gin stand-up.
The writers, who include Berry himself, know their stuff and are having fun. Just occasionally I wonder if they are having more fun than the viewers, but that’s a very small criticism.
Everything you could want in a bizarre mash-up of The Sweeney, Sherlock Holmes, Ashes to Ashes and Ripper Street is here, including an outrageously theatrical outing for the Elephant Man, John Merrick, who seems to be one of Rabbit’s prime informants.
Obsessed by jam tarts and camp as Glastonbury with Kylie on the Pyramid stage, Merrick “don’t freak for free”, even though what Rabbit calls his “big head” appears to be the repository of all manner of useful leads. The consistently brilliant David Dawson – also of Ripper Street – is beneath the prosthetics, and I hope Rabbit needs his help again.
The first episode concludes with a sighting of an arch-villainess played by Keeley Hawes (remember that mention of Ashes to Ashes?) A Moriarty in moire taffeta, she’s clearly a wrong ‘un.
Hang on to your bustles, folks, this is going to be a trip down a wild rabbit hole.
Year of the Rabbit is on Channel 4 at 10pm from 10 June, 2019.
Images: all kindly supplied by Channel 4 Press
Kate Griffin’s first book, Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders (winner of the 2012 Faber and Faber /Stylist Magazine crime fiction writing competition) was published in July 2013. The sequel, Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune, was published in July 2015 and book three in the series, Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow, in July 2017.
She is currently working on a fourth Kitty Peck book.
Under the name Cate Cain, she has also published two historical mystery books for children, The Jade Boy and The Moon Child (both published by Templar).
Follow Kate on Twitter.
Read her review of the BBC TV adaptation of Les Miserables.