It’s an unlikely sounding recipe for comedy gold - a crime-ridden, bone-cracking, expletive-strewn drama set in the dark underbelly of Victorian London.
But when Matt Berry is in something, it is probably best to expect the unexpected. Writers Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil (Veep) describe Channel 4’s new comedy drama Year of the Rabbit as an “early ‘70s cop show … the 1870s” and it was its hard edge - unusual for a TV comedy - that first attracted Berry.
“It appealed to me because it was different,” said Berry. “I’m a huge fan of the Sweeney - I’ve seen every episode a lot of times - and this is like doing the Sweeney but taking it back to Victorian times and doing it as a comedy. I’ve never seen anyone else do that.”
It’s Berry’s first Channel 4 series since Toast of London and fans expecting another Toast will be both disappointed and delighted. Disappointed because it really isn’t Toast 2; delighted because it’s something just as funny and equally out of the ordinary.
Berry is the titular Rabbit, a “hardened booze-hound who’s seen it all", part of a three-strong crime-fighting trio alongside by the books partner Wilbur Strauss (Freddie Fox) and Susan Wokoma as Mabel Wisbech, the country’s first female police officer.
Independent producer Objective Fiction, which made Toast of London, approached writers Riley and Cecil with the idea of a Victorian crime show centred around Berry.
One of the show’s executive producers, Objective Fiction’s chief creative officer Ben Farrell, showed them a picture of a some real-life undercover Victorian policemen and the tone of the show was set from there.
“They’re in disguises and they’re not very convincing disguises,” remembered Riley at a Channel 4 preview screening of the show at Bafta. “One of the policemen is pretending to be a one-armed man and you can see their arm inside their coat.”
Berry is the third writer on the show and anyone who has seen Toast will know his fondness for peculiar names. His character was originally called Inspector Bentley; Berry came up with Rabbit and he had wanted to take it one step further, said executive producer Hannah Mackay (Fresh Meat, Peep Show, Toast of London).
“Matt’s got notebooks full of names that make you cry with laughter,” says Mackay.
“He wanted the character to be called Peter Rabbit, although they’d never be put together on screen - he’d be referred to as either Peter, or Rabbit - but we couldn’t get that past the Beatrix Potter estate.”
It was, says Mackay, a “great example of Matt’s role in building on what Kevin and Andy do, and giving it a twist”.
Channel 4 commissioned a pilot episode, shot in a week in October 2017, before the broadcaster commissioned a full series, made over six weeks in Three Mills Studios in east London and the former Royal Navy dockyards in Chatham, Kent.
“Chatham Dockyards are great because you can have the whole run of the place,” remembers Mackay. Well, not quite the whole place. “We’d be on one corner and Call the Midwife would be on the next; it can be quite disorientating.”
In a comedy full of surprises, it’s hard to know which is more unexpected - Keeley Hawes turning up at the end of episode one, or a returning cameo role for the Elephant Man, John Merrick, played by David Dawson [CK] as a theatrical impresario with his ear to the ground.
“We wanted an equivalent to Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch, someone who knew what was going on and we thought wouldn’t it be fun if that was Merrick,” explained Riley.
“There’s evidence that [in real life] Merrick was rather good at cutting deals and we thought let’s run with that and make him a theatrical impresario, an Oscar Wilde character.”
Hawes, who plays the mysterious Lydia, joined the show after she was sent the pilot. She and her husband Matthew Macfadyen who stars in Ripper Street - whose occasional campness Year of the Rabbit seeks to capture - “both found it hilarious”, said co-writer Riley.
For director Ben Taylor (Catastrophe, Sex Education) Hawes “just elevated it all. She plays it straight and sinister so brilliantly”.
Taylor said the challenge was to shoot a “very silly comedy very seriously. We wanted the stakes to be real - if someone gets punched or shot in the head, you know it”. Or, as Berry put it: “Intense violence … within comedy”.
Channel 4’s head of comedy Fiona McDermott said: “We love this show a lot. It takes an amazing, suspenseful, gritty plot and wraps it in amazing filthy jokes and extraordinary characters and that is an absolute achievement in comedy writing because it is so, so difficult to do.
“It’s full of audacity, it’s brazen and it’s rude and it shocks you. You think you’re going to get something you know and it surprises you. The best telly always surprises you.”
* Year of the Rabbit airs on Channel 4 from Monday 10 June and on the IFC cable channel in the US