Lots of unlikely partners have teamed up to solve crime on the small screen in recent years — a crime novelist and the NYPD (Castle), Ichabod Crane and the FBI (Sleepy Hollow), an LA detective and the Devil himself (Lucifer). And now you can add Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to that list.
As improbable as that pairing might sound, however, it turns out the master escape artist and renowned author were actually friends in real life. That friendship is the basis for Houdini & Doyle, the new period detective series from co-creators David Hoselton and David Titcher and House creator David Shore, which premieres Monday, May 2 on Fox at 9 pm.
Starring former House regular Michael Weston as Houdini and Episodes’ Stephen Mangan as Doyle, the show takes place in turn-of-the-century London, as the two volunteer their special skills to help solve crimes for Scotland Yard, with a hand from England’s first female constable (played by Rebecca Liddiard).
Rotten Tomatoes visited the Houdini & Doyle set when the show came to Toronto to film the season’s final two episodes, where we sat down with Weston, Mangan and Liddiard to talk about the historic partnership. Here’s what we learned.
Mangan said he was surprised to find out that Doyle and Houdini were friends, but even more shocked to learn that the prolific author was also “a fervent believer in the afterlife.”
“He obviously had a very sharp, analytical mind to be able to write a character like Sherlock,” said Mangan. “But also this very strong belief that there is something else out there…” The actor paused, laughing, “That makes it sound like a Victorian X-Files.” But when you think about it, the comparison between Fox’s newest procedural and the network’s most beloved sci-fi series actually fits. That’s because it’s similarly pitting a true believer against a skeptic as the two tackle cases with a supernatural bent (including, yes, possible ETs).
Like many people of the time, Doyle believed in the supernatural. “And Doyle was anxious to prove the existence of this scientifically,” Mangan said. “It wasn’t enough for him to have a feeling or a hunch, he wanted to show that this was all verifiable. This brings him into direct conflict with Mr. Houdini, who was the great showman, but also an enthusiastic debunker of what he saw as frauds and charlatans, pretending to be mediums and psychics and preying on vulnerable people. And that’s the heart of the show, really, the clash of those two ideologies.”
Unfortunately, it’s not much of a fair fight, at least, not as far as Mangan’s concerned. “The only annoying thing, from my point of view, is that, most weeks, what we thought might have been a supernatural event gets shown not to be,” the actor said with a laugh. “Because as far as I know, the spirit world has yet to be actually scientifically proved.” That won’t stop Doyle from searching, though. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t still some unanswered questions.”
That central conflict sets up Houdini & Doyle to be a turn-of-the-century procedural, with a new mystery to solve each week. But Mangan was pleasantly surprised just how different each of the show’s ten episodes are, going from gothic horror one week, to a psychological thriller the next. “My worry with a crime drama is always that they become ‘Scooby-Doo,’” he said. “Which is the same story, just rehashed week by week, with the same beats. What I love about this is it’s got a different feeling each week.”
Just don’t expect any slick montages featuring characters hunched over microscopes. Forensic science still had a ways to go in 1901, Mangan explained, saying, “I don’t know how they ever caught any murderers, unless they were standing over them with a knife in their hand shouting, ‘I’ve just killed him!’”
“You see a big pool of blood back then, you’d just mop it up. You wouldn’t be testing it for anything. Arthur Conan Doyle came up with a lot of techniques that were unheard of before.” Which means Mangan’s Doyle spends a lot of time with his nose to the ground — literally: “That’s become almost sort of an in-joke. I smell everything I come across.”
It’s not just the lack of DNA testing that makes crime-fighting in the 1900s difficult; the clothes don’t help either, especially when it involves chasing down the bad guys in a three-piece suit. “It’s not easy to move around in,” Mangan said of Doyle’s wardrobe. And even though he doesn’t do as much brawling as Weston’s Houdini — “he does a lot of the Action Jackson-type stuff, and I do a lot of the long words” — Doyle still gets his hands (and suits) dirty from time to time. “I punch the odd person. I’m handy when I need to be.”
Although that’s nothing compared to Liddiard, whose period-appropriate police uniform comes complete with a corset. According to the actress, wearing that under her costume was fun for “about a week,” and then? Not so much. That’s because, as the pair’s Scotland Yard-appointed “babysitter,” Liddiard’s Adelaide Stratton is expected to keep up with Houdini and Doyle, and more importantly, to keep them out of trouble. “There’s a lot of running around in this show and digging in the dirt and chasing people, and yeah, that’s not easy,” she said. “I’ve ripped a few costumes.” (Someone might want to tell Leo what suffering for a role really looks like…)
Being two of the biggest celebrities of their time doesn’t just help Houdini and Doyle’s name recognition with audiences, it also helps the two solve cases. “It gives them a certain entrance into things where other guys wouldn’t have access,” said Weston. But they won’t be the only famous historical figures on the show. The episode they were filming while we were on set involved Thomas Edison and his “spirit phone,” a telephone that supposedly placed calls to the dead. Meanwhile, Mangan teased an episode involving Bram Stoker and — what else? — vampires. “It’s a very rich time, because there were some really interesting characters around,” he promised.
Weston was quick to caution that the show shouldn’t be confused for a history lesson, though, saying that the writers take a lot of poetic license, using Houdini and Doyle and this time period as more of “a blueprint” to jump off from. Which is exactly what they did to create Liddiard’s police constable, one of the few characters who isn’t a real figure. “If you Google her, nothing comes up. I’ve tried,” Liddiard said. “I believe there was an Adelaide Stratton somewhere in history, but the character that I play is pretty fictionalized.” In reality, England’s first female constable wasn’t appointed until 1915 (you can Google it).
While the famous cameos and whodunits of the week are designed to draw in viewers, it’s the relationship between Houdini and Doyle that they hope will keep people watching. “They’re such opposites in so many ways. I’m the stiff upper lip Brit from the Old World, he’s the brash American showman from the New World,” said Mangan. “These are the kinds of guys, if they’re walking down the block together, they’ll race to see who gets to the end first,” added Weston. That competitive streak fuels their rivalry, with both sides looking to prove to the other that they’re right about the existence of the spirit world (or lack thereof).
Houdini “has a deep respect and admiration for Doyle, and I think he’s sort of befuddled that this man that he holds in such high regard could actually be duped by this bulls–t,” Weston explained. “Like, ‘C’mon! You’re smarter than this!’” Yet despite their opposing worldviews, the two end up forming a good team. They balance each other out, he said: “It’s a little bit of a bromance where we discover that we actually need and care about each other.” Even though neither would ever admit it. The partnership “helps them evolve as men.”
As does the third member of their team. Despite Constable Stratton initially being assigned to the pair as a “punishment,” Houdini and Doyle end up becoming “major cheerleaders” for her character, said Liddiard, helping balance out the misogyny of the male-dominated Metropolitan Police. “We all end up needing each other more than we ever could have imagined, and I think that’s what makes this a very tight little triangle,” said Weston. Both on-screen and off.
There was one co-star Mangan had no problem forging a strong relationship with: Doyle’s wife was played by his real-life wife, actress Louise Delamere. It was the first time the two had acted together, an experience he described as “really good fun” and “really strange,” probably because she was in a coma for most of her screen time. “I was spending a lot of time standing over her bed in tears. So, very much like our real-life marriage,” he joked. “Then we had to do a kissing scene, which was very peculiar. With your real wife, in front of essentially 20 blokes.”
He drew the line at including the couple’s son as one of Doyle’s two children, though. “I said absolutely not, we’re not the Redgraves,” he laughed. “Two of us from the family is enough.”
Still, Mangan’s willing to acknowledge that his co-star Weston had the slightly tougher job of the two, saying, “Houdini spends a lot of time being suspended upside down into tanks of water while being straight-jacketed. I spend a lot of time at a typewriter.”
To learn how to emulate those iconic escapes, Weston turned to Manchester illusionist/escapologist Danny Hunt, who’s been called a modern-day Houdini in his own right. But despite the professional tutoring, Weston admitted that when it came time to actually film the underwater stunts, it proved more difficult than he expected. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this. I can swim. I’m not afraid of water. I’m not claustrophobic.’ And yet, when they hung me upside down and they dipped me in, I was freaking out,” he recalled. And despite being terrified on the inside, “I had to put on this face of calm. He has to be confident.”
Weston also practiced sleight of hand, so he’d be able to pull off playing the master magician on stage without needing a hand double. “I pulled off a couple fun tricks, but it’s definitely something that I would need to really work on,” he said. “I have a deep respect for people who do that well, because it takes years to really get it down.” But don’t worry, Weston thinks he’ll have it down by season two. “I need the next six months to really practice up. If season two comes along, I’ll be ready.”
Rick Mele is a Toronto-based entertainment writer who covers all things TV, movie, and pop culture-related, and doesn’t normally refer to himself in the third person.
Follow Rick on Twitter: @rickmele