Whether you’re a fan of sumptuously recreated period pieces, of gritty detective dramas, or just of Sean Bean, you can consider Netflix’s recent acquisition The Frankenstein Chronicles highly recommended. If you’ve been enjoying our coverage of The Alienist, this is very much in the same vein – and I use the word ‘vein’ advisedly – right down to weird shit being done to corpses. However, The Frankenstein Chronicles is set at the grubbier end of the 1800s, and it shows.
Despite a strong secondary cast, the man I still don’t think anyone calls ‘the Bean’ is firmly at the centre of events. In a shamelessly appropriate reference to his star-making role in the Sharpe series – in which he was a bluff, plain-speaking Northern officer who personally defeated Napoleon – having fought in the Peninsular Campaign in his younger days, he’s now one of London’s River Police, one of the various bodies of thief-takers, nightwatchmen, and good-natured thugs who preceded formal police forces.
As befits a noirish detective protagonist, he has a tragic past, with his wife and young daughter being dead and having really not gotten past that. However, whereas most noir leading men stick to the everyday vices of drinking and smoking too much, the Bean goes above and beyond, with his character slowly dying of syphilis – and taking mercury as medication. When I said ‘the grubbier end of the 1800s’, I meant it.
After having bust a Thames-based smuggling ring wide open, the Bean and his henchmen are on the riverbanks clearing up, when he stumbles across something much worse – the body of a child, cut up and stitched back together. At least, so it first appears. While one dead kid is bad enough by anyone’s standards, the subsequent examination reveals that it’s actually a chimera-type creation, made up of parts from many dead children patched together into one coherent body.
Why? Why is the very question, why would anyone do something quite so distasteful – with the secondary questions of what they possibly hoped to accomplish, and where the hell did they even get the bodies? It’s this last question that proves to be the most pertinent. If you’ve heard anything about the historical practice of body-snatching, you’ve probably heard of Burke and Hare, the Edinburgh-based body-snatchers who ended up killing people to meet the demand. When their case came to light, it led to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, to ensure that there were enough corpses to go around – it allowed students of anatomy to use any unclaimed corpse, not just those of criminals.
The Frankenstein Chronicles takes place practically on the eve of the Anatomy Act being passed – and despite the furore over Burke and Hare, there’s just as much opposition to it, from people who resent the idea of the pointy-headed academics get to mess around with their bodies when they’re not even alive to object to it. The show delves into this idea, with the bulk of people’s resentment stemming from religious concerns, specifically the idea that if your earthly remains have been chopped up, you’ll have an awful time of it when you’re resurrected on Judgement Day. And, of course, anyone’s going to resent how something formerly reserved for the worst criminals now applies to you and me.
So, the question becomes, is the patchwork body they’ve found a roundabout way of protesting the Anatomy Act – and, perhaps, a hail-Mary play from the body-snatchers, who want the Anatomy Act to fail to protect their business? Of course, there’s another distinct possibility: is it some kind of loving tribute to Mary Shelley’s popular novel? Yeah, they didn’t namedrop Frankenstein in the title just for fun. And Shelley – as the show covers – wasn’t pulling the ideas in that out of thin air, with galvanism (now referred to as electrophysiology), the idea of using electricity to stimulate muscle tissue, being a popular area of study at the time.
Shelley isn’t the only gratuitous literary cameo, incidentally – the Bean also drops in on William Blake. And between the warts ‘n’ all historical detective action, the grisly subject matter, and this guest appearance from Blake, it all ends up with an eerie resemblance to Alan Moore’s excellent comic series From Hell, which is automatically a badge of quality.
With potentially dire consequences for the Anatomy Act if the patchwork body comes to light- or if, god forbid, another turns up – the Bean finds himself under pressure from the highest places possible to get this solved, and is drafted into the Bow Street Runners (one of the more famous proto-police forces). So, as ever, he ends up being the bluff Northerner speaking truth to power, even when they don’t want to hear it.
The show follows the Bean through both the lowest echelons of society, and the highest. He finds himself looking into the underground trade in children’s corpses, which is just as seamy as it sounds, and also the world of unregulated 1830s medicine – which was, in the words of Frank Reynolds, ‘real crude’. This manifests itself, as it very often did in those days, in a rich guy who could fund the premises and the equipment messing about with dissection and snake-oil miracle cures, although they would occasionally hit on something – like when the Bean gets recommended breadmould (or, as we call it, penicillin) for his syphilis, instead of the mercury. Naturally he’s sceptical of a pie-in-the-sky idea like that.
The question on everyone’s lips will surely be ‘right, it stars Sean Bean, does he die?’ I’m not going to give it away here – what I will say is, once again, that the show has ‘Frankenstein’ right in its name, so that’s not necessarily the question you should be asking. When the title is finally fulfilled, it does mark a fairly jarring change in tone, from gritty and realistic to full-on fantasy – but despite being grounded in realism, there’s a fanciful tinge to the show throughout, particularly whenever Shelley or Blake hove into view. Which provides a nice balance to a show which would otherwise – between the child-trafficking and the body-snatching – threaten to tip over into being unremittingly bleak.