Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew each other, and they had a conflict regarding the validity of spiritualism. Houdini and Doyle, the new ITV-produced miniseries, has this friendship at its core. Lest you expect any further historical accuracy than this general framework, however, let me disabuse you of the notion immediately: Houdini and Doyle is not without fun moments, but it is not a historical series in any respect.
The story wastes little time in getting to the heart of the premise, which is an antagonistically-friendly crimesolving partnership between Houdini and Doyle, who set out to solve the murder of a nun—a murder with supposedly-supernatural overtones. An (expectedly) uncooperative Scotland Yard assigns them the third member of their unit—a female officer named Adelaide Stratton. If you are a student of history, this is, well, an issue. The first female police officer was not hired until 1919, when Doyle was nearly 60. This series presents a younger Doyle, who is acutely mourning the loss of his wife Louise, who died in 1906 (without contending, at least initially, with the reality of his second wife, Jean Leckie, with whom he was already deeply in love when Louise died).
I belabored these points early to get the issue of history out of the way: This series is neither realistically accurate to its time nor is it accurate to its characters. It is both anachronistic and as violently murderous of timeline continuity as Doyle himself was in his stories.
However, and it’s a large however, that is not at all to claim that Houdini and Doyle isn’t very, very fun at times. Seen as a work of fanfiction in which characters loosely based on Houdini and Sir Arthur have been placed in a quirky AU world somewhat resembling turn-of-the-century England with equal parts Steampunk silliness, it actually somewhat works. It’s a bit like the world of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films taken to the next level of heightened reality.
Stephen Mangan and Michael Weston do a capable job as the believer Doyle and the skeptic Houdini, respectively, and Rebecca Liddiard plays an eager and self-possessed Stratton. Some of the first episode’s most enjoyable moments exist in the characters’ banter rather than in the solving of the mystery itself, which is fairly standard for a crime series.
Houdini and Doyle presents some very pretty visuals and an amusing way to spend three quarters of an hour. It’s not exactly memorable, and it’s certainly not a work of historical significance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out if you enjoy light mystery and entertaining procedurals.
Houdini and Doyle can be viewed on ITV Encore in the UK and will begin airing weekly on May 2nd on Fox in the US.