ITV seems to be on a gothic horror tip at the moment. With Jekyll And Hyde doing the rounds on Sunday nights, it’s joined on its schedules by this – a re-imagining of the classic Frankenstein story, which has been woven into a classic procedural format. Benjamin Ross’s creation is set in pre-Victorian, 1820s London, a particularly grim era in British history, where the Georgian period was coming to an end and the scent of industrial, social and scientific revolution was in the air. It was in this grey, fetid world that this particularly grim tale was told.
We were introduced to John Marlott (Sean Bean), a granite-faced river policeman who, after a sting on some opium dealers went wrong, was combing the sludgy banks of the River Thames for the remains of the operation. He was alerted to something else one of his officers had found. There, in the mud, was the cadaver of a teenage girl, her limbs scarred with stitch marks. He (and us) jumped out of his skin when the young girl seemed to spring out a hand while he was examining her.
This grisly find provoked Marlott to call the leading physician in the land – Sir William Chester – to examine the body, who concluded that “this thing is a composite… parts of at least seven children, disarticulated and reassembled. Piecework.” Standing in what passed as a mortuary in those days was Sir Robert Peel (Tom Ward), the then home secretary and currently campaigning to outlaw the practise and industry of body-snatching, with his new Anatomy Act being pushed through parliament as they spoke. Sir Robert wanted to ensure that medicine was only practised by qualified and accredited professionals only, and thought that this sickening case had been perpetrated by someone who was against his ideas of modernisation and new legislation.
Sir Robert hired Marlott to look into the case, instructing him to only answer to him.
And so it starts. Marlott is given a sidekick, a Constable Nightingale (Richie Campbell) from the Bow Street Runners. They started investigating children who had gone missing in the city during the past month and were shocked to find that only five had been reported. This investigation led them into the filthy markets of London, where humans and animals co-existed, and where urchins and gangs run rife. They centred on one child, Alice, which eventually led them to a Dickensian-style gang; a sinister, Georgian version of a vice ring. They found evidence of Alice being there, but after escaping the gang they returned the next morning to find the house empty, except for some adornments on the mantlepiece. One of these things was a poem, ‘Lyca’, by William Blake, which depicted how the parents of a seven-year-old girl, called Lyca, were looking desperately for their young daughter who was lost in the desert. The letters, L, Y, C, A were written on the back of a likeness pendant found in Alice’s parents’ house.
Throughout the episode there was a liberal sprinkling of mythical and biblical language (‘beasts’ and ‘monsters’), and there was a sense that whoever was perpetrating these strange stitch-up jobs was indeed something more than your average murderer. A world within a world started to emerge, and Marlott (I want to type Marlow every time) had entered it, thanks partly to his own ‘condition’. He has syphilis, something he brought back from the Napoleonic wars and, as was inferred, was the cause of death of his wife and child, who he passed it on to. His doctor prescribed him mercury.
So basically Marlott was a dead man walking (as flawed detectives go, a death sentence and insurmountable levels of guilt are a pretty decent ones, because, you know, every TV detective has to have a flaw or two these days). The taking of mercury seemed to quicken his descent into a world of shifting realities and hallucinations. He was now in the underworld. Who knows who he will meet, especially as the very last scene featured another young child, murdered then reassembled, squeezing the hand of his surgeon/murderer when prompted.
“Hear my prayer oh Lord, and let my cry come unto thee,” Marlott gravely prays at his wife’s graveside earlier in the episode. “For my days are consumed by smoke and my bones are burnt.”
He’s interrupted by a his local priest, who tells him that if he returns to the parish he may find consolation. “Sleep to wake. You’ll meet again. When the dead will awake and sit at Christ’s right hand.”
“What if they already have?” asked Marlott, almost rhetorically.
It was this religious dimension, this moral and spiritual tug-of-war that these crimes precipitated that gave The Frankenstein Chronicles unexpected depth and nuance. Naturally people will compare it to Ripper Street, but this is shot through with such grimness, sadness and a tacit resignation of the fate of all humans that it definitely feels different. The language here isn’t as lyrical or as confident as Ripper Street, either, nor the procedural aspects as polished, but what The Frankenstein Chronicles does offer is a dark tale full of myth, demons and shifting realities in a time when death and fear ruled.
Throughout this series we’re promised interactions with other real-life figures from history, such as Mary Shelley and William Blake. It all adds to the intrigue of The Frankenstein Chronicles, and after this first episode I’ll be watching.