Shiny Shelf

City of Vice

By Mags L Halliday on 02 March 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Start with the sex. It’s a maxim ‘City of Vice’ shares with the most recent ‘Sense and Sensibility’ adaptation. It’s a trick that’ll get the audience’s attention. Unlike ‘Sense and Sensibility’, however, ‘City of Vice’ continues with the sex, as you might suspect given the title (and it having been broadcast on Channel 4).

The premise is simple: a police detective with a complex personal background attempts to solve murders, robberies and rapes whilst battling his own problems. The twist is that this detective is Henry Fielding, author of ‘Tom Jones’ and Westminster magistrate, and the team he heads up are the Bow Street Runners, the historical precursor of the modern police. His personal problems include a wife he had to marry after ‘degenerating’ her when she had been his servant, and gout. He’s helped by a motley team including his blind half-brother.

Based in Covent Garden in London, this is a history of policing made flesh. Lots of flesh, actually, as Covent Garden was then the centre of prostitution. The history of the area was laid down in ‘Harris’s Book of Covent Garden Ladies’ – a directory of whores which make modern adverts in the phone boxes of Soho look positively tame. The first episode centres around the murder of prostitutes, based on real cases. In the second episode, Fielding’s team investigate the death of a Soho-based homosexual priest and the world of the ‘molly houses’. The third looks at a home invasion in the newly built Mayfair, and the fourth sends the Runners into the notorious St Giles’ rookeries (lawless slums). Each case is based on a genuine crime investigated by the Runners, and the historical detail is excellent if, as in the final episode dealing with child prostitution, rather disturbing.

Perhaps the best element in the writing is the decision not to make Fielding modern in his morals. When, in the second episode, it turns out that the black Bow Street Runner is gay, our modern sensibility expects the character to be retained, his ‘vice’ accepted. Instead he is summarily dismissed. Equally, although Fielding saves one specific girl from child prostitution, he does not save others, or close down the brothel.

Iain McDiarmid and Iain Glen as the Fielding brothers excel themselves. McDiarmid suggests the foibles and frailties of Henry, who died not long after the Runners were established, whilst Glen is terrifying as the notorious ‘blind beak’ who could recognise three thousand criminals by voice alone and who has no problem using torture to obtain information. Despite the unpleasantness of both the setting and the crimes under investigation, the brothers are also surprisingly amusing, with a bleak and dark wit, and the inventive swearing is fun.

As a means of saving money, Georgian London is created using small sets and CGI modelling based on the 1749 map of the city. This gives you an idea of the scale of the city – and the scope of the area the Runners had to cover – without the need for elaborate CGI work or large sets. Despite being filmed at a single location in Hertfordshire, you get a sense of the series being embedded in the city. It’s a pity that some of the savings made on sets weren’t used to make the title sequence a little less like a cheap sensationalist documentary from one of the rather poor cable channels.

If you missed this on broadcast, pick it up on DVD, but bear in mind you’ll only be able to stomach one episode at a time.

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