Blakespotting: The Frankenstein Chronicles

With The Frankenstein Chronicles available on Netflix, now is an opportunity to catch up with a series that first aired on ITV in 2015 and then followed up with a second series which was filmed in 2017. For those who haven’t seen it yet, the plot follows Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) as he seeks to discover the author of a grisly series of child murders which have resulted in an attempt to create artificial life from the sewn-together body parts. The first series received a considerable amount of critical praise and, while a little foolish in some places, is also clever enough and certainly entertaining enough to deserve a repeat viewing.

Rather than a review of the first series (the only one I’ve been able to watch so far), here I’ll concentrate on three particular ways in which The Frankenstein Chronicles weaves Blake into its story. Set in 1827, the series draws upon a number of historical figures, such as Robert Peel, Ada Byron and, of course, Mary Shelley. Blake makes an appearance in episode 2, “Seeing Things”, when Marlott visits the home of the dying engraver following the discovery of an illuminated poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Marlott has found this in the room of a young woman who has been set up as a prostitute by the hardened street criminal, Billy Oates, and sees the name of Blake on the print.

The episode with Blake is the most obvious allusion in the series, although to me the most annoying (this is where knowing too much about your subject really interferes with the willing suspension of disbelief). Steven Berkoff actually gives a fine performance as Blake on his deathbed, avoiding what I call the tendency towards “shouty Blake” which rather dominates television depictions of the poet (all loud declamations because prophets are always, well, loud). Nonetheless, while avoiding the worst excesses of presenting “mad” Blake as well, the wide-eyed staring prophet surrounded by a crowd of gloomy, chanting crowd (presumably intended as either the Shoreham Ancients or members of the millennarian Irvingite sect to which Frederick Tatham and, probably, Catherine Blake later belonged – or a combination of both) is very far from much of what I understand about Blake’s final hours. Certainly the environment at 3 Fountain Court was squalid according to a number of Blake’s friends, for the Blakes were poor, but even in declining health his spirits seem to have been buoyant. As well as working on his illustrations to Dante, he was colouring up a final impression of The Ancient of Days (for which, according to Alexander Gilchrist, Tatham had generously paid him three and a half guineas), announcing before he died: “There! That will do, I cannot mend it.”

Gilchrist records the final hours as follows:

In that plain, back room, so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him — with his serene cheerful converse, his high personal influence, so spiritual and rare — he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer as of old to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath ; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side. A humble female neighbour, her only other companion, said afterwards: “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”

Gilchrist also preserved the record of J. T. Smith:

“On the day of his death,” writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, “he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, ‘My beloved! they are not mine. No – they are not mine!’ He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her.”

The Frankenstein Chronicles, then, misses much of the real affection between Blake and Catherine (although, to be fair, Catherine’s very brief cameo bringing tea to Marlott is nicely done). I also wish that the house of the prophet could capture a little more the humour of an engraver who mocked his friend John Varley while composing visionary heads, the rumbustious laughter of An Island in the Moon, or the laid back account of dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I know that “shouty” Blake certainly existed, but too few people seem to get funny Blake, gentle Blake, which is a great shame to me.

The appearance of Mary Shelley was a laugh out loud moment (stretching Blake’s slender acquaintance with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft to the extreme) but was clearly necessary to the plot and it was pleasant enough to see Blake the man as a crucial turning point in the narrative. More significant, however, are the other ways in which Blake has influenced The Frankenstein Chronicles both within the story and in terms of other formal qualities. The appearance “The Little Girl Lost” is a wonderful addition (especially with two verses read in Sean Bean’s inestimably rich tones), while Lyca’s name serves as another influential plot element. The scene when the missing girl, Alice Evans, is superimposed on Lyca from the poem is a delightful moment of Blakean vision.

Even more fascinating, however, is the use of Blake’s fictional Book of Prometheus, both within the narrative and as a visual background to the show’s opening credits. Prometheus only appears once in all of Blake’s writings, as an annotation to Boyd’s Historical Notes on Dante in which he remarks rather inauspiciously: “the grandest Poetry is Immoral the Grandest characters Wicked. Very Satan. Capanius Othello a murderer. Prometheus. Jupiter. Jehovah, Jesus a wine bibber”. The link is, of course, to connect Blake to Mary Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus” (the subtitle of Frankenstein), and while Blake himself preferred Satan as the arch rebel (in contrast to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who rejected Satan in preference of the Titan as the hero of Prometheus Unbound), it was with absolute fascination that I observed how plates and images from works as diverse as Milton a Poem and The Ghost of a Flea were incorporated into this arcane grimoire. What is particularly fascinating is that Tatham, as Blake’s literary executor, is reputed to have destroyed a number of the engraver’s works that offended his more conventional religious sensibilities. The creators of the programme have almost certainly picked up on this and appropriated Blake’s mythical “Bible of Hell” to their Promethean ends.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is available on Netflix.

 

 

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