"Unhand the lady and **** off back to Clerkenwell!"
City of Vice has a great true-life pitch - the efforts of brothers Henry and John Fielding (the author of Tom Jones and a celebrated blind magistrate, played by Ian McDiarmid and Iain Glen respectively) to form England's first police force amid the squalor and near-apocalyptic lawlessness of a London already bursting at the seams in 1753. With the massive growth of cities (especially London) and a nationwide addiction to gin that makes modern problems with drugs look almost quaint, the 17-18th century was perhaps the most violent era in British history (though, despite dealing with murder, child prostitution, rape and sundry perversions, the series is not nearly so violent), yet the brothers still faced hostility from an aristocracy who could afford private protection to what they saw as an instrument of tyranny more suited to foreigners than free Englishmen. While the show sometimes downplays the casual violence, the brothers' morality, though seen from a 20th century perspective, is distinctly 18th century - they are not above ruining the odd reputation or contriving a robbery on a recalcitrant would-be patron to secure the Bow Street Runners' future. Nor does it turn them into glowing examples of police work. They're an almost fumbling band of detectives - as the first in their field, they're unsure even of how to investigate a murder ("How is it done?" "Ask questions?") - and often they uphold the principle of the law with disastrous consequences to the victims of crimes.
The series too feels like it's still feeling its way along and doesn't always have the full confidence of its backers at Channel 4 - the metropolis a little underpopulated at times, the budgetary limitations apparent in the less-than-bustling streets and the nighttime hangings that fail to hide the lack of crowds. Yet often it manages to paper over the cracks with surprising style, using animated street maps of London to link scenes and adding scaffolding to sets they can't afford to build in their entirety to give an impression of a city at once sprouting up and falling down (literally in one scene of a slum collapsing, tenants and all). It's convincingly foul mouthed ("The Devil **** you, Mr Fielding!" is one of the more minor terms of abuse), with McDiarmid deserving special praise for his tireless efforts to restore the word '****ster' to the common modern-day vocabulary. Despite the grim material it's not without moments of wit - Henry's wife, a former maid, cannot help herself from doing the housework - and if it's at times overly reliant on narration to fill the audience in on details, at least it's genuinely informative. The formidable John Fielding's abilities sometimes tend to get short shrift - he tends to get typed as the stern, unyielding one - and some of the guest stars are surprisingly awkward - Juliet Aubrey's strange inflection and Gary Lewis' often inaudible insular distemperate delivery make the lack of subtitles particularly problematic, but despite its problems the six episodes are compelling and intriguing enough to leave you hoping for a more fully realised second series.
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