I found this show on NOW TV, and it’s also available on ITV Encore (A channel that’s almost completely dedicated to British Murder Mysteries, and oddly enough has 1 of the best looking HD upscales I’ve ever seen on TV. 20-30 year old shows look like they happened in 2006! The 3:2 ratio gives it away, but still. Very impressive). Anyway, this strange pairing sounded very interesting, and with only 4 days to watch 10 episodes …Yeah, I took advantage of the situation, and the boat appeared to have set sailed by the time I was finished…until I found out it was on demand afterwards…still, it was a good marathon.
To add to the intense curiosity of this show, I found it to be inspiring for my own comic series (A detective series I’m working on at this time).
So, what’s the story of Houdini & Doyle about? Well, it’s about the unusual mystery-solving friendship between the writer of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle (played by Stephen Mangan), the world-famous Hungarian American Illusionist and Stunt Performer, Harry Houdini (Played by Michael Weston), and the fictitious first female Police Constable in Scotland Yard, Adelaide Stratton (played by Canadian actress Rebecca Libbiard). Set in 1901 in London, shortly after Doyle’s book The Great Boer War was published – Houdini and Doyle are 2 celebrities getting caught up in a string of mysterious deaths and events, ranging from the possibilities of being killed by ghosts, murder victims being reincarnated, curses, psychics, Spring-Heel Jack’s existence, being scared to death, Aliens, Vampires, Poltergeists, and so on – leading to arguments and debates between Doyle and Houdini, to the embarrassment of Adelaide (Who is effectively their Scotland Yard appointed Babysitter), and the distain of both Chief Horace Merring (Played by “Lord Percy Percy” & “Captain Darling” from Blackadder, Tim McInnermy) and Inspector George Gudgett (played by Adam Nagaitis).
Now to break down the mystery that is its building blocks:
The Acting in Houdini & Doyle is…good. It’s far from bad, but it’s also not going to win too many awards for it’s quality. At it’s best it can be very good, especially during the sadder moments, but in terms of the on-screen chemistry, I’ve seen it done better in other shows of a similar premise, where the buddy-cop formula has been done really well (Houdini & Doyle’s relationship is well presented though). Also, while Stephen Mangan is good at playing englishmen from period backgrounds, we need to keep in mind that Arthur Conan Doyle was from Edinburgh – and an audio recording of Doyle in his later years indicates that while he lived in or around London, he never lost his Scottish accent. Which already creates a distance in authenticity – especially when you consider how Scottish accents are pretty well accepted on American TV through the likes of Scotty in Star Trek and Leo Fitz in Agents Of Shield (It’s only when you show them Rab C Nesbitt that they really need the subtitles). Michael Weston’s portrayal is more on the fact that he has the right look, is american enough to pull off the role, and is a good actor -and as for Rebecca Libbiard, I think she did a very good job, considering this is the biggest role in her career so far. Especially when you consider that the character she’s playing is also doing something for the first time, seemingly.
The Characters in this program, overall, are very good. Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini are 2 of the most fascinating people of the late 19th/early 20th century, and the thought of them being their own buddy-cop duo is awesome in their own fan-fiction way, and would make for brilliant novels, comics and cartoons…but maybe..just maybe…not live action…as much. In it’s own way, it does feel a bit cartoony, especially the way Houdini and Doyle are addressed privately by Chief Merring to Inspector Gudgett, and how they themselves (Merring & Gudgett) have quite few redeeming qualities and are in need of a second season for development. One of the best aspects of the show is the discussions between Houdini and Doyle over what happened to a murder victim. It goes beyond merely “One is facts-based, the other is fantasist”, and into an area of humanity that everybody would chose a side about – the topic of faith in the form of believing whether or not the supernatural exists. Which is present is nearly every episode, with Doyle believing in every possibility within the context of religion and a world beyond our own, and Houdini (even though he’s an illusionist) believing that there is a scientific explanation for everything. It also has some good humour mixed in, making it better than some other types of detective shows that take themselves way too seriously.
The big, overall Story is very good, and sometimes seems to tackle themes that are either unexplored for the time period or too ahead of their time in general. 1 theme in particular that’s explored is women’s rights, and the stress that Adelaide goes through as the 1st female Police Constable in Scotland Yard (due to the male dominated society around at the time) to live up to the expectations of “keeping up with the boys”. After seeing such a story being done better on Agent Carter, this exploration ended up taking a bit of a back seat for me…and the fact that the first proper policewoman wasn’t appointed until 1915, makes it all seem a little out of character with the period. But it’s a risk they were willing to take, and it has some great moments in it.
The music is good, but at times seems out of place (based on the choice of instruments chosen). It’s light, quirky, and dark when it needs to be.
The Locations around Liverpool to represent the end of Victorian/Edwardian London were very well chosen and suit the outdoor scenes almost perfectly (Keeping in mind, Penny Dreadful do their “Victorian London” in Dublin).
The Production is done by the likes of Big Talk Productions (Who do a lot of movies by Edgar Wright, Black Books & Raised By Wolves) and is very good, as nothing looks cheap. Whoever were involved in the studio interior scenes, you did a great job.
The Art Direction was wonderfully stylish, and was clearly influenced by Guy Pierce’s version of Sherlock Holmes (The one with Robert Downey Jr)…and any other version of Sherlock for that matter…outside of Benedict Cumberbatch.
The CGI, especially when it came to presenting London, was both excellent and very stylish.
The Special effects had some good moments, especially when it came to some of the more monstrous looking creatures/physically ill people.
The cinematography’s really good, with some really beautiful wide angle shots.
In terms of historical accuracy, much of the show bends the facts to suit itself, and shouldn’t be taken as anything but entertainment or fuel for the fire of research. Houdini and Doyle did in fact meet in real life and become friends – but it wasn’t until 1920 when such a meeting had finally occurred, 6 years before Houdini and 10 before Doyle had both passed away (This show is set in 1901). There were also a lot of creative liberties taken when it came to the personal lives of both men – In real life, Houdini was married, had many siblings and lived with his wife. In the show he’s a bachelor who lives with his mother and his siblings live in America. Doyle’s home life had a little more accuracy to it, as he only had 2 children (out of 5) at the time, and his wife did have tuberculosis as well.
A real photo of them together
Would I recommend Houdini & Doyle? Indeed I do – But don’t set the bar too high. It’s light and it’s fun, with some nicely created mysteries that mostly try to please both sides of an argument. The cases it does may not have been explored before within the context of a Victorian/Edwardian London Murder Mystery. It has the look of Penny Dreadful, but with the light, quirkiness of shows like Castle and the “great unknown” of The X-Files (You might even say that Doyle is effectively Castle and Moulder while Houdini is Beckett and Scully). It’s also 1 that focuses primarily on Faith as a theme, which to me is a newer topic in the west, as most mysteries choose to be unbelievably bias…but this only chooses to be slightly bias. The show can be very hit or miss, but it’s very watchable and not too complicated. If you take it for what it is, it’s worth a look.
Art direction: ****3/4
Special effects: ****