Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818, when she was just 21. The novel has just celebrated its two hundredth birthday, and media interest has been widespread; amongst other commemorations, Fiona Sampson’s biography, In Search of Mary Shelley, was aired on BBC Radio 4, and London’s Science Museum hosted a number of events as part of their ‘Frankenstein Festival’ in April. Pre-empting the bicentenary by a few years, The Frankenstein Chronicles first aired on ITV Encore in 2015. The programme enjoyed modest viewing figures, leading to the commissioning of a second season, which aired in 2017, followed by the news that Netflix had struck a deal to carry the programme in the United States.
Excepting the National Theatre’s 2011 production, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Monster, adaptations of Frankenstein have often fallen flat in capturing the spirit of the novel. Far more commercially successful have been works which deploy the characters in different, novel ways. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful springs to mind as a recent example, while Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, a madcap, toe-tapping musical adaptation of his 1974 film, is currently drawing the crowds in London’s West End.
The Frankenstein Chronicles twists the viewer’s expectations once more, this time by serving up a gritty crime drama, bursting with guest appearances. We begin in 1827, on the banks of the river Thames, with the discovery of a dead body. But this is no ordinary body; it’s an amalgamation of several body parts, crudely pieced together, all taken from children. As the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act approaches, Parliament is locked in debates about the proper use of dead bodies in anatomy schools. While the legal sources of corpses for dissection came from convict hulks and gaols, bodysnatchers were running a black market, selling corpses illegally exhumed from fresh graves to the highest bidder. The provenance of the children’s bodies is in question, and the case of the ‘Frankenstein Murders’ is put in the capable—though syphilitic—hands of one Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean). Marlott’s a river police officer with a troubled past (so far, so traditional). He’s a war-veteran, mourning the loss of his wife and child to syphilis. In a nutshell, The Frankenstein Chronicles is Sharpe-meets-Wallander.
With a Sherlock-esque theme tune to accompany him, Marlott acts on his commission from Home Secretary Robert Peel, trudging the muddied streets of London in search of an answer. The key to the puzzle could be the discovery of a missing girl, Alice Evans, a butcher’s daughter. In the quest to find Alice, it’s a pleasure to see that this programme isn’t shy of mixing fictitious characters with their creators. Early on, Marlott narrowly avoids spilling the contents of a teapot across William Blake’s deathbed, with the parcel of mourners including an indignant Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell Martin). ‘Boz’ is frequently encountered in the courtroom and the gaol, eager to collect a scoop, and in Season Two we encounter Ada Lovelace, amongst others. We’re reminded that London in the nineteenth century was not as sprawling as it is today; indeed, it was a place where rich and poor lived side by side, and literary circles were close-knit.
When he isn’t knocking back mercury pills and blacking out with hallucinations, Marlott’s search for Alice Evans is helped along the way by Constable Nightingale (Richie Campbell) and Flora (Harlots’ Eloise Smyth), a young girl desperate to escape the clutches of the Fagin-esque Billy Oates (Robbie Gee). Though it feels rather unnecessary, there’s also a frission of sexual tension between Marlott and the down-on-her-luck Lady Jemima Hervey (The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby). She is the sister of Lord Daniel Hervey (Ed Stoppard), a nobleman and proprietor of a private charity hospital. The swathe of characters can feel a little overwhelming at times; there’s a lot packed into six episodes per season. However, Sean Bean’s Marlott proves a good anchor to the plot, which ranges from slow-paced and methodical to suddenly careering, exciting and downright astonishing at the close of Season One.
The Frankenstein Chronicles delivers a surprisingly addictive crime drama, steeped in contemporary parliamentary debate. Winningly, it avoids stepping on the toes of Garrow’s Law and Ripper Street by dipping a toe in the fantastical. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, crowds at the scaffold openly contested the ownership of the deceased’s body. Waiting in the wings of the scaffold to claim corpses for medical purposes, surgeons were viewed as profane, their dissections seen as acts against God. Galvanists, resurrectionists, grave-robbers and anatomists all played a hand in the furtherance of medical science and legislation. In the era after the Napoleonic Wars, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein captured some of the hysteria around the continuing scandal affecting the medical profession. The Frankenstein Chronicles sees Mary Shelley herself reflect on the legacy of her novel and her own actions. In John Marlott we find a protagonist trapped between the fight for justice and a horror story closer to home; a condemned man, battling against the changing face of Science.
Seasons One and Two of The Frankenstein Chronicles are available to view in the UK on Netflix.