HOUDINI & DOYLE
The old, all- new dynamic duo!
The idea that history’s most famous escapologist, Harry Houdini, and the literary legend who created Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not only met but became friends may seem a rum conceit. A fanciful notion, conceived by peddlers of absurd adventures. And yet it happened, for real.
Don’t, however, expect ITV Encore’s new series Houdini & Doyle to be a docudrama. The fact that in real life the two chaps didn’t meet until 1920 whereas the series is set in 1901 is evidence enough that historical accuracy isn’t much of a concern here. Instead it runs with the idea of Houdini and Doyle as a
kind of Edwardian Mulder and Scully, assisting Scotland Yard with its more curious cases.
“It’s not really a biopic,” laughs Michael Weston ( Houdini). “It’s not about Houdini or Doyle. It’s about them as celebrity sleuths.”
Weston, star of such US shows as House and Six Feet Under, appears alongside Stephen Mangan ( Dirk Gently, Episodes) as Doyle. The House connections don’t stop with Weston. It’s executive produced by House creator David Shore, and written and created by his long- time collaborator David Hoselton along with Canadian screenwriter David Titcher. It’s a lavish British/ Canadian co- production filming in Manchester and Toronto.
The two stars are clearly having a blast bringing these larger- than- life historical personalities to the screen. When Red Alert chats with them on the set in Manchester, Weston is wearing a patterned waistcoat that, we point out, reflects the ornate furnishings in the set for his London apartment.
“Yeah, I hadn’t noticed that, but yeah,” he admits. “Aren’t the sets great though?”
“It’s like time travel,” chips in Mangan. “I was driving round in a 1904 Wolseley the other day. I was like Toad of Toad Hall.”
Both actors agree with the X- Files parallel, especially as – reflecting the views of the real- life Houdini and Doyle – the escapologist is a supernatural sceptic and the author is the believer. This makes for perfect in- built conflict.
“There’s a lot of back and forward repartee as we have disagreements about spiritualism and stuff,” says Weston. “The arguments they have are fraught but they’re smart. It’s a period piece but I think it’s very relevant to our time. What is real? What is magic?”
“Plus you’re a confident and brash American and I’m an emotionally constipated Brit,” adds Mangan with a grin.
As Mangan points out, Doyle’s desire “to believe” partly stems from the fact that, “He’s got some really heavy duty things going on in his life. But stiff upper lip and all that. His wife is in a coma and dying. He’s desperate to know he’ll be able to talk to her when she goes.”
This doesn’t mean, though, that Mangan’s Doyle is a credulous character. “Doyle believes in the spiritual, but he wants to prove it scientifically. He wants evidence.”
Doyle has other issues to contend with too.
“He’s got writer’s block,” says Mangan. “This is after he retired Holmes. A lot of people are upset that I killed Holmes off. The police can’t bear the books because they make them look like idiots.”
The real Houdini, meanwhile, went from being a medium to going on a crusade to out them as fakes. He knew the tricks of the trade because he used them himself. “I want to make sure that Doyle’s not going to propagate this nonsense and take advantage of people that are naive enough to believe in all this stuff. I am the most recognisable figure of the time saying, ‘ This stuff isn’t real! Don’t fall for it.’”
“They see each other as a nut to crack,” says Mangan. “For Houdini it’s like trying to turn Putin gay.”
The two are tight- lipped about how they come together in the series and how their involvement – official or otherwise – with Scotland Yard works out but Mangan does reveal, “We’ve already met before the show starts. We know of each other and we have met before but we haven’t really got to know each other. The conceit is that there’s a case with a supernatural element. A ghost is accused of killing nuns in a convent. So I’ve gone along to speak to the police – because this is right up my street – to see if I can maybe be a part of this investigation.”
“And Houdini comes storming in as well,” adds Weston.
So, is there a supernatural element to the show or is it all smoke and mirrors?
“Most of the time the supernatural element is disproved,” teases Mangan. “But some things are then left open.”
“We’re off to Derbyshire to meet aliens next week,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
The truth is bally well out there, what ho!
It’s not a biopic about Houdini or Doyle. It’s about them as celebrity sleuths
Houdini & Doyle starts transmitting on ITV Encore in the spring.
Or is our photo upside down and Houdini’s the right way up…?
Stephen Mangan is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Michael Weston is Houdini.