City of Vice, a new drama series about the Bow Street Runners, is now being shown on Channel 4 (Mondays, 9pm). Cathy Nugent interviews Clive Bradley, the writer of the most recent episode, which deals with molly houses — clubs where gay men and transwomen could meet each other.
Where did the ideas for the series come from?
The idea to base a series on Henry Fielding’s experiences as a magistrate came from the director and producer (Justin Hardy and Rob Percy) whom I worked with on Harlot’s Progress [about Hogarth, also made by Channel Four]. They asked me to write it and I wrote three of the five episodes.
The ideas for the individual episodes came from different sources. I knew something about the Molly Houses before I wrote about them, and I did all the subsequent research. The idea for episode five came from our historical advisor, Hallie Rubenhold — she is the leading authority of 18th century prostitution. That’s about an investigation into a high class brothel, the Temple of Venus.
The first episode (about a serial killer who targets prostitutes) is based on a real life case. Other episodes had to be entirely fictional, because there wasn’t enough detail in the records.
Despite the series title, not all the episodes are about vice. One is about an armed gang called the Royal Family and I especially enjoyed writing this. It’s based on a real gang and a real event. The gang break out one of their gang members from Gate House prison [in Westminster]. He’s called Tom Jones. Without giving anything away, Tom Jones, who is a radical, gets to have a political argument with Henry Fielding.
What’s special about this period in history?
I think this is a very interesting, intrinsically interesting, period. It has a reasonance with today. For instance we see here the birth of a “gay” (although it’s anachronistic to call it that) subculture.
The period also sees the beginnings of a liberal sensibility. London has been rebuilt since the fire and is now starting to grow. Trade is growing. The old pre-capitalist systems of social support are breaking down. There is a middle class inteligensia and they want to do something about the consequences of social change. John Fielding himself was involved in setting up a home for “fallen women”. The introduction of the first proper police force, the Bow Street Runners, has to be seen in this context. It is the new desire for “regulation”.
Before this time there was no police to speak off; there were people who were employed to watch out for trouble, called thief takers. But they were often thieves themselves, drunks and generally no good. There were also parish constables. The system was very chaotic.
The Bow Street Runners started with six paid police. The Fielding brothers, I don’t know why, really thought this would be effective. The Bow Street Runners worked with the parish constables and gradually extended their forces. If all else failed the state called in the army, but our series does’t depict that particular reality!
In the episode centred on a Molly House, a man servant, a proletarian, is given refuge in the club. Who were the clubs for?
The clubs were mostly for artisans, the petty bourgeoisie of London. They were clubs, not brothels by the way, as it is sometimes assumed. Later on in the century there was a growth in male prostitution, but not at this time. There is a lot of literature now about life in these clubs; we know they were set up above shops and bars, but we don’t know their exact location. The most famous, Mother Clap’s, was probably at Saffron Hill.
“Sodomy” was a hanging offence. But by this time juries did not generally find people guilty of the “crime” . The lesser offence of “attempted sodomy” was used. Why did the juries do this? Probably because they really thought other peoples’ sex lives were none of their business. There was a loosening up of sexual mores.
What did you make of the Fielding brothers?
John, who was ten years younger than Henry, seems a formidable, austere character. All we know about him is that he looked up to Henry. Everything else we show is fiction!
Henry is interesting, a libertine, a polymath. One of the great themes of detective fiction is the “detective as an artist” . Fielding of course was a real detective and a real live artist. His writing is lively and warm. I like him.
As a magistrate he really wanted to “clean up” the criminal justice system which was very corrupt. He paid his runners, so they would be impartial, less corruptible. He wanted things to be fair.
Why do you think period drama, or even period detective fiction is so popular right now?
Detective fiction has always been very popular. Every year there are very many ideas for TV cop shows being developed. The special thing about our show is that it is set in 1750! Of course anything English, and anything in costume, is popular in the US, where TV shows are sold, and Channel Four in particular does very well over there. But that doesn’t account for the popularity over here of course.
Detective fiction has always been used to discuss “issues”, it is a “way in” for the audience, or the reader. And I think there is a tendency now in the UK to make period drama, historical fiction, on TV, more contemporary and edgy, or in our case, realistic and dirty.