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City of Vice - Series One - BBC television series DVD / comedy DVD review
Unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 4 stars
Actors: Ian McDiarmid, Iain Glen, Francis Magee, Steve Speirs, Alice O'Connell
Directors: Justin Hardy, Dan Reed Studio: BBC /
Koch Vision
DVD release: 10 June 2008 Runtime: 235 minutes
(2 discs)
Format: Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC
Features: Audio tracks (English - Dolby Digital Stereo), Five episodes (entire first season), "The Making of Vice" featurette

When I think of London during the 18th century, I always imagine people of high aristocracy in powdered wigs and elaborate apparel, behaving with nearly perfect etiquette and civility and socializing in impeccable meeting halls or lawns.

The London seen in City of Vice is anything but that idyllic image. As stated in other reviews, think Deadwood set in England (complete with sex, violence and swearing -this show is definitely not for young children). The London of 1753 is overcrowded and the streets teem with gangs, thieves and prostitutes. Though difficult to fathom nowadays, there was no police force, nor did Parliament particularly see a need for one. The nobility had the Army and their personal guards to protect them; why should they bother if the peasants killed each other off? However, when street crime begins to invade high society, a solution was given consideration.

Enter Henry Fielding (Ian McDiarmand), the celebrated author of Tom Jones, and his brother, John (Iain Glen). The brothers use their standings as magistrates to organize the Bow Street Runners, who are basically London's first police force (and, incredibly, consist of just six men).

City of Vice contains all five episodes of the first season. It follows the brothers' constant struggles to fight street crime in one of the world's largest cities, solve complex murder cases, and satisfy the powers that be in Parliament enough not to lose their funding, all at the same time.
  • Episode One on the DVD shows the brothers struggling to receive financial backing from the Lords who rule London politically. Meanwhile, a prostitute begs the brothers to rescue her seven-year-old sister. Believe it or not, this is the least grim of the episodes featured.
  • In Episode Two, the Bow Street Runners receive their first official case, and it is a nasty one as a prostitute is found in a bathhouse brutally violated by a knife. Character flaws in both brothers are revealed in this episode. The normally steadfast John makes the tragic mistake of falling for another prostitute at the bathhouse, while Henry, obsessed with identifying the odious bathhouse owner as the perpetrator, becomes surprisingly vicious toward the victim, telling the wounded woman that she will die soon from her wound and must tell him who did it to her (he even physically shakes her).
  • Episode Three is perhaps the strongest episode on the DVD. When a murdered priest (and brother of a Lord) is revealed to be a blackmail victim trying to hide his homosexuality, the Runners have to delve into the gay subculture of 18th-century London - and discover a secret concerning one of the Runners. This episode is filled with historical detail about this subculture during a time when gays were called "sodomites" or "Mollies" and homosexuality was a crime punishable by death.

    Importantly, the story probably makes the correct call of making the brothers have a generally disapproving attitude toward homosexuality as well. Fair or not, it is highly unlikely that, 250 years ago, homosexuality would receive any level of acceptance. The "Mollies" in this episode are basically a family, with no one to turn to but each other. The ending of this episode, in which their leader performs an act of mercy for a fallen comrade, is the most moving moment of the series.
  • Episode Four finds the Bow Street Runners on the brink of collapse as a string of robberies occurs in uptown London. They are frustrated by a wealthy Scottish merchant who would rather simply ransom back his belongings than see the robbers brought to justice. The tragic motive for the merchant's actions makes this the most downbeat episode on the DVD.
  • In Episode Five, the leader of the gang that robbed the merchant seen in Episode Four escapes from jail. This gang leader, given the ironic name of Tom Jones, abducts Henry and holds him for ransom, performing a mock trial of the magistrate before his hoodlums and forcing Henry to evaluate many of his previous actions (as well as his attitude toward criminals). Unlike the other episodes, this one does not involve a case and is a bit more action-packed than the other episodes.
It is clear that great effort has gone into making each episode as detailed and historically accurate as possible. The use of real historical figures (including the brothers) features in each episode. Furthermore, when the action changes location, a computer-animated 3-D map of London carries the viewer from one location to the next, effectively giving a strong sense of time and place.

The sets are also said to be as historically accurate as possible. The cobblestone streets are slick with dirty water, and scaffolding is everywhere, conveying a city that is perhaps expanding too rapidly. There is also a graying pall over everything, which not only fits the constantly gray skies of London but also the overall grim tone of series.

The series is well-cast. McDiarmid and Glen seem odd choices at first, since both seem better suited for playing villains (particularly McDiarmid, who is best known for playing the evil Emperor in the Star Wars films). However, their lack of warmth only makes the characters more interesting and enables the viewer to see them grow into the job, learning many hard lessons along the way. Initially, the brothers are clearly well-meaning but have a rigid, by-the-book sense of justice and are not entirely successful at hiding their condescension toward the lower classes. Each case presents them with horrors and dilemmas they never could have foreseen, and their sense of right and wrong is continually challenged. The last episode is particularly effective at showing Henry as a "fish out of water" who has rarely left his cocoon of aristocracy and is simply not ready yet to handle the true mean streets of London.

I can see this series appealing to both those who like historical dramas, as well as those who enjoy gritty, sordid crime mysteries, such as CSI or Dexter. It is also a fascinating account of a real historical figure's rather remarkable achievement. 1750's London was clearly not as pristine as imagined: for a good look at the "rot under the roses," see City of Vice.

Only a brief but entertaining "Making of" featurette.

One complaint: I wish subtitles had been included on the DVD. Some of the historically accurate slang terms and thick accents make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.
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reviewed by Trent Daniel
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