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ITV gives 'Frankenstein' a feminine makeover

In ITV's new version of 'Frankenstein', the pioneering scientist is a woman who treats the Monster like a child. Gerard Gilbert visits the set to find out more

It was less depressing than anticipated to revisit London's now-decommissioned Middlesex Hospital. The last time I was there, 15 years ago, it had been to call on a dying relative, but, in place of morbidity, I found myself thinking what a fabulous setting these echoing rooms and corridors, with their peeling, institutional green paint and extant operating-lights and stainless-steel sinks, would make for a David Cronenberg movie.

And, indeed, one corner of this vast mausoleum of suffering is now being used as a film location by Jed Mercurio, the doctor-turned-screenwriter who wrote Bodies and Cardiac Arrest.

Mercurio's latest venture is an updating of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the age of stem-cell research and human cloning. When I meet him between takes in an ancient operating theatre and remark how Cronenberg might appreciate the setting, he replies: "I would compare my Frankenstein to Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. The monster in the original Fifties version of The Fly was a crude, anatomical combination of man and insect, whereas Cronenberg's version exploited knowledge of DNA to depict him as a transgenic chimera."

In commissioning Mercurio, it's obvious that ITV are hoping for something a little more ambitious than just some Hammer rehash with post-modern bolts on, and the writer-director is keen to put his knowledge of medical science to good effect.

"When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, science had no idea how life developed. We now have a better idea of how organisms develop at the cellular level, and this is why stem-cell biology gone wrong provides such a credible and frightening basis for the creation of the Monster. The story of Frankenstein is now far closer to reality than it ever was when it was first written."

In Mercurio's version, Dr Victor Frankenstein is a woman – Victoria Frankenstein, a brilliant scientist conducting highly controversial organ-cloning experiments. Her work is driven increasingly beyond ethical limits by the fact that her young son is dying, and the remote, desperate hope that her work might somehow cure or even replicate him.

"As it was written by a woman, I wanted to honour the fact by making Victor Frankenstein female," says Mercurio. "Plus, I was excited by a maternal relationship between Frankenstein and the Monster."

Mercurio has been clever enough to have cast Helen McCrory – an actress adept at playing passionate women verging on the insane – in the title role.

I first bump into McCrory by the cavernous hospital lifts. "Thank God for the Monster," she exclaims. "I was so worried and now I've seen him I'm so relieved." I ask her to elucidate. "Well, if I'm honest, I was a bit concerned about it because it's television, it's horror, and there's a monster and you immediately think: 'Oh God, it's going to be some guy with a bucket on his head with two holes in the middle and none of us are ever going to work again!'"

McCrory was reassured by the involvement of CGI experts behind shows like Primeval and Walking with Dinosaurs. So, although the creature is played by Julian Bleach, whom I meet in his trailer at the end of a marathon session in make-up, there is some sophisticated post-production touching-up.

"One of the things I was certain about was that I wanted a real actor for the Monster," says Mercurio. "I wanted someone for the others actors to play off, not a blue light or empty space."

Naturally, ITV want to keep the Monster's look a secret. Suffice it to say, he looks nothing like Boris Karloff in James Whale's 1931 movie – the look universally identified with Mary Shelley's creation, with his flat head, big boots and enormous hands. "Shelley wrote about a Monster that had been put together piecemeal – that's why there are scars all over him," says Mercurio. "Ours is different, as it was grown from cells."

There are other differences, too. One cinematic reference involves the scene from the Whale movie where the Monster meets a little girl by the pond and comes to realise that she won't float. Whale handles this episode with great pathos, drawing out the Monster's potential for love when it is not feared. Mercurio's version culminates with a scene of sudden brutal violence.

"I wanted to show that the Monster should be feared and reviled, which is part of the story," he explains. "If that was purely based on the Monster's appearance, I don't think that would work. You'd say: 'OK, he's an ugly beast but I'm not scared of him.' The Monster had to have elements that would fight that sympathy. I didn't want it to be like ET, where the Monster is just misunderstood."

Not that his Frankenstein is unduly gory. "I think you've got to be careful with gore – in different genres it means different things. In Bodies, we had a lot of gore because it was a medical drama. The gore was authentic. But I wanted to be careful here, because there's been this movement in horror to have gore-fests – things like Saw and Hostel. I wanted to remove that thing where they're just playing on people's squeamishness."

Indeed, Mercurio seems more interested in pathos than in pure horror, although it can be a fine line between intended pathos and unintended comedy. At a recent preview, I had to suppress an astonished laugh at a scene towards the end where the Monster and its "parents" play happy families together on the beach.

I like this scene more in retrospect, just as I like the spirit and style of the production, although the narrative sometimes feels rushed and confused. As it is, the most distinctive strand is the maternal bond between Victoria Frankenstein and her creation. "In the novel, Frankenstein actually loves the creation and feels an enormous sense of responsibility for him," says McCrory. "Equally, my concern for the Monster is the concern of a mother for a child. I felt this very strongly, as I was pregnant when we were filming, and Mary Shelley had a child who died very young."

Her Frankenstein is a passionate scientist, not some bonkers inventor playing God. And, despite outward appearances, Mercurio argues that his adaptation is not anti-science.

"I share the beliefs I've instilled in Victoria," he says. "Advances in medical science save lives and ease suffering. I believe that properly regulated research in stem-cell biotechnology will lead to many valuable improvements in medical treatment, and that objections on religious or ethical grounds should be vigorously opposed. But then I wouldn't want to see ill-conceived experiments with distressing consequences."

He has a funny way of showing it, but Mercurio's might be the most optimistic version of Frankenstein yet made.

'Frankenstein' is on Wednesday 24 October on ITV1 at 9pm

The creation of a legend: Frankenstein at the movies

Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale creates the modern-day image of the monster, and the iconography that subsequent movies have found it hard to shake off. Boris Karloff (right) wears the bad haircut and the ill-fitting suit.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The extraordinary Elsa Lanchester is the initially reluctant bride in Whale's very knowing sequel – the funniest and greatest of all Frankenstein movies – driving Karloff's monster husband to despair.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The first of Hammer's five Frankenstein movies. James Whale's Monster was copyrighted, so Christopher Lee had to labour under inept make-up.

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

Paul Morrissey targets the drive-in market with his camp, deliriously sexed-up version.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Mel Brooks's loving black-and-white parody of the Whale movies provided the arch-spoofer with his greatest hit. Gene Wilder is Frankenstein and Peter Boyle the Monster.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

Kenneth Branagh goes back to Shelley's source novel but loses any scare-value en route, while Robert de Niro is buried under Elelphant Man-style make-up.

Gods and Monsters (1998)

Not a Frankenstein movie as such, but a marvellous tribute to Whale, superbly portrayed by Ian McKellen.