ITV has finally given those of us missing the gritty mean streets of Victorian London made so vivid in Ripper Street , a real treat.
The Frankenstein Chronicles.
The ever -weathered Sean Bean's newest costume Drama begins in clever Dickensian homage. A misty Thames, a Midnight assignation with suspected smuggler. Things turn a bit dicey when his cover is blown and His moral fibre firmly established whilst earnestly trying to save the villain from the bog.
Whilst berating his staff for playing both sides; no code of honour in the force then it seems, Marlott is interrupted by the discovery of a girl's body on the shore. Mutilated beyond belief, a big scare for him (and me, I scared my fellow commuters when I jumped out of my skin on the train this morning, further compounded by the hysterical laughter that always follows an embarrassing incident) when the dead child grasps his hand in a kind of spasm (Aha! Clues already)
Marlott is no fool. He knows this is no ordinary murder and so calls in some big guns. The Home Secretary and renowned Surgeon Sir William Chester. The former is less of than pleased to be present, the latter at no pains to conclude the poor unfortunate creature was never alive and a composite of seven separate children.
Called to attend the Home Secretary at Church, Marlott is informed These good upstanding gentlemen are attempting to rid the medical profession of charlatans and butchers who practice medicine without any legitimacy and feel this child is a demonstration of someone trying to thwart them in this endeavour. He is instructed to extricate himself from Wapping River Police and join Bow Street Magistrates forthwith, he is not even allowed stay in his home!
A dead body is not property by law it seems so body snatching is big business to supply anatomy classes. The demand far outweighs the number supplied from the Gallows and at Five Guineas for a child as they are so hard to pilfer from under grieving family's noses whoever perpetrated this crime would need to be rich or exceptionally ruthless.
On attending Chester's Post Mortem, we discover the body constitutes parts of eight different individuals, rudiment butchered rather than with any surgical finesse and had been dead for between one and two weeks and in the water for only a few hours, although Marlott is not so sure. Chester categorically refutes that a residual energy might exist in the corpse as each element was dead on construction of the whole making his experience on the shore ( and in my train!) even more frightening.
Marlott is uneasy in the spotlight and asking the magistrates to compile a list of missing children is embarrassing for him, but he is polite and takes it upon himself to do a little tidal experiment after watching the urchin beachcombers. Throwing a whole pig into the ebb and flow of the river should tell him when the "creature" went in.
Saddled in the investigation with well meaning but youthfully naïve Constable Nightingale,he sends him to stake out the Greenwich docks and after going through the meagre list of actually reported missing children, he is left only with a little girl, Alyc lost on the way to Smithfield market where her Butcher Father works.
Meanwhile one of the urchins that Marlott has bribed to supply information reports a monster comes at night, told to bring more tiny informants the following evening it seems unlikely as he chased by older teens into a outhouse where a looming figure is seem over the cowering child.
Some fun has been had by the writers by having the theme tune from one of Bean's most longstanding character "Sharpe" by the body snatchers under surveillance. What is worse it is one of those rousing tunes that become an ear worm and I found myself humming it for days after the show sired.
The levity does not last long when Marlott follows a girl wearing a dress that looks like Alyc into a house where he is taken hostage by two children who rather too easily best him and he is taken before a nasty pimp who burns children with glowing pokers for not finding an unsuspecting punter's loot in their boots and is an all round nasty piece of work. Marlott is parted with both his coin and his pistol and gets very few answers from the young girl in the rose coloured dress which so obviously belonged to the missing butcher's girl. Having to fight his way out, and return with Nightingale as back up, they find the place is deserted, but he finds a clue in the shape of a poem by Blake with the name LYCA.
The fate of his little urchin informer is revealed in the final moments o the episode as his little( now mutilated ) hands clasp their maker in a spasm of the fingers....
The back story of Marlott and his recurring syphillis infection is new and exciting, where drink and opium are generally the poisons giving main characters a bit of colour. It is inferred that an outbreak infected his wife and possibly baby daughter and forced her to drown herself, but that might just be the Mercury cure he is administering to cure the skin lesions he currently has making him have hallucinations.
The parliamentary objections to the act would also seem to be important as the opposition parties are vying to speak to Marlott and sway his opinion in their favour so that poorhouse deceased might get Christian burial rather than butchery at the hand of student surgeons or scientists. I have to admit their arguments hold weight.
This was a solid start for what promises to be an interesting series, many real life folk from popular Victorian Culture look set to appear and the atmosphere is dark enough to be thrilling without the violence being overtly graphic, which is something that Ripper Street was likely to do particularly towards the end of its last run. Sean Bean makes it through the episode without losing his head and is a likeable Everyman. Hard enough to be authentic as an early London policeman where rules were a little more elastic, but faceted enough to be sympathetic and believable as a clever and talented detective held down by circumstance not lack of wits.
Support is also strong and the set design is brilliant. The scene from the Thames with St Pauls in the background is clever CGI or matte painting as the scene is utterly different today. Likewise the market scenes that are almost pastoral in their simplicity.
Yes definitely a show for these cold autumnal nights where a tankard of porter and a hot meat pie seem like" topping" ideas!
Oh and incidentally if you want to read more about the Victorian River Police check out my blog of 24th September.