The series kicks off with Detective Inspector Rabbit (Matt Berry) violently interrogating a suspect, only for it to be revealed that he’s actually demonstrating a day in the life of a policeman to a classroom of children. When the teacher gets involved in the ‘lesson’ ends up in hospital, Chief Inspector Wisbech (Alun Armstrong) decides that something needs to be done to get the loose cannon copper under control. Thus Rabbit is paired up with naive rookie Sergeant Strauss (Freddie Fox).
Fresh from coming top of his year at Cambridge (and also technically bottom – the criminology course is brand new), posh Strauss is a fish out of water in the grubby East End, but he can’t wait to start solving crimes and is, perhaps unwisely, eager to learn from Rabbit. As their partnership begins, they’re frequently joined by strong-willed Mabel (Susan Wokoma), the Chief Inspector’s adoptive daughter, who’s determined to become the first female copper or “fopper”, despite her father’s objections – when she argues “you said you wanted the best for me”, he responds “I was mainly talking about hats!”
Essentially The Sweeney in Victorian times (in fact the show’s original working title was Ye Sweeney), Year of the Rabbit proves to be a winning mix of smart but silly gags with a first-rate cast. Berry is on great form in a role that’s grittier and less flamboyant than Douglas Reynholm or Steven Toast, although we do still get a few of his trademark unusual line deliveries. He plays Rabbit’s perpetual disdain very well, whether he’s responding to cries of “Murder, horrible murder!” with “Good” or nonchalantly explaining that he lost an eyebrow because a dog chewed it off, while Fox and Wokoma make for amusing sidekicks.
Paul Kaye also appears to be having a lot of fun hamming it up as Rabbit’s dandyish rival, DI Tanner, and Angus Wright is suitably slimy as a politician who pledges to “improve the lot of every man here… and if there’s a bit of time at the end of the day I’ll improve the lot of some of the women”. Meanwhile, David Dawson dons some extensive prosthetics to play the Elephant Man himself, John Merrick. In this universe, he’s an informant who owes Rabbit since he saved him from being killed by a mob, not to mention a camp luvvie who berates the “young freaks” that serve him for putting the wrong filling in his jam squares (“Blackcurrant? What the hell have you done?”).
The writers Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil get a lot of comic mileage out of the Victorian setting, with the first episode giving us a glimpse of some erotic cabaret (“Would you like to see my other ankle?”) and featuring East End delicacies for sale including jars of fog and plates of lungs. They also experiment with language in a way that brings Julia Davis’ Hunderby to mind, as Strauss makes reference to a corpse’s “lady pantry” while “bobby dolly” and “filly fuzz” are put forward as potential terms for a female police officer.
Keeley Hawes shows up at the end of the opening episode as, we’re led to believe, the mastermind behind a secret criminal organisation, and guest stars lined up for the rest of the series include Sally Phillips, Jill Halfpenny, Craig Parkinson and Taika Waititi.
Year of the Rabbit continues Mondays at 10pm on Channel 4
The Entire Boxset is available to watch on All4