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In the early 20th century, celebrities didn’t come much bigger than Sherlock Holmes novelist Arthur Conan Doyle and magician
and escapologist Harry Houdini, whose nail-biting feats enthralled the world. The two men were actually friends, though they rarely saw eye to eye, and their wildly different approaches to everything make them the perfect crime-solving pair in the new Fox mystery series Houdini & Doyle.


Houdini

Skeptical Houdini (played by Michael Weston) and spiritualist Doyle (Stephen Mangan) “came from opposite ends of the spectrum, with different philosophies of life and world views, and they’re colliding in the middle,” says executive producer David Hoselton. “That’s what this show is about--what we believe and why. You have two incredibly eloquent spokespeople on opposite ends, solving crimes and doing it in an intelligent, humorous way.”

Doyle

“You had Doyle, who created the most skeptical character ever, but believed in the paranormal, and Houdini, a magician who was the most skeptical person alive. That irony made me want to do the show in the first place,” offers executive producer David Titcher, Adds executive producer David Shore, “We’re playing the rivalry, the deep difference of opinion and antagonism, but hopefully, with respect in there. It’s fiction, but the stories we're telling are going to be very relevant today.”

As Michael Weston sums it up, “You have two great minds figuring out a puzzle.” He had “a working knowledge of Houdini,” but as he researched, Weston learned that the escape artist, born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, “was an immigrant who pulled himself up by the bootstraps from poverty and actualized the American dream. There is a madness to him, a mischief to him and there’s this great showman persona that precedes him by a mile. But behind that is a guy with a lot of questions and a vulnerable soul, a simple man who’s looking for answers like the rest of us.”

So, in a different way, was Doyle. “He was a doctor, and he had a scientific mind, and he was looking for proof of the afterlife. He created the ultimate rationalist in the history of fiction and ultimately believed in fairies,” says David Hoselton. “But we didn't want to make Doyle gullible, the guy who believed everything.”

Constable Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard

The third key character in the series is Constable Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), the Scotland Yard policewoman that must wrangle the two large-than-life personalities. “She’s in charge, and they treat her with respect, but she has to get through to them. She really does know what she's doing, and she's just as determined as they are to solve the case,” says Liddiard. “While they're going off on these existential debates, she tries to stay very logical, practical and open-minded at all times.”

Adds Michael Weston, “These guys are so focused on each other and winning that argument in whatever trivial way that they can, that  she becomes a third point of the triangle. If we can just get her on our side, to see it our way, we win and we're constantly trying to win at everything.”

Not only does Stratton, who is based on an actual person, wrangle the two arguing rivals, she also represents the female perspective in the context of the time. “It's set in 1901, and women were not in the workplace, except for secretaries. Women didn't have the vote. We wanted to show what that’s like, and embrace the historical things that were going on,” says David Hoselton.

“In one of the episodes, the suffragette movement is touched on,” notes Liddiard. “The suffragettes were quite violent, and there's that question of, ‘How do we deal with this issue that is so extreme, but in a practical way?’ Then, of course, that is overshadowed by this crazy kid who shows up with a gun.”

Supernatural legends of the time also surface in the plots, which involve a 13th century story about the Green Children of Woolpit, a phantom menace known as Spring-heeled Jack, and the murder of a nun in the infamous Magdalene Laundries.

Over the ten episodes, real-life figures pop up including Dracula author Bram Stoker, a distant cousin of Doyle, and inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. “There was a suggestion that Edison may have invented a device for communicating with the dead,” reveals David Hoselton. “What if he actually made this thing? How would our characters respond to that? He’s in episode nine,” played by Peter Outerbridge.

Great effort was made to make the dialog, settings and clothing true to the period. “Our show takes place in 1901, and I had to change a line of dialogue because there was a word in there that didn't come into usage until 1902,” says David Titcher. “We didn’t want it to sound dated and be a distraction for the audience, but we also didn’t want to cheat, so we didn’t use phrases that weren’t around then,” adds David Hoselton.

Houdini and Doyle

Many outdoor scenes were filmed on location in the U.K. in Manchester and Liverpool, which has well-preserved Victorian architecture. Stephen Mangan recalls a scene where there were many extras, “a hundred people with some tremendous facial hair and costumes and horses going past and these beautiful old buildings. It was an absolute treat, wearing those incredible costumes. Suddenly, it’s 120 years ago. It was really magical.”

“We put gravel on the street, and we had horsedrawn carriages and all of that stuff,” adds David Hoselton. “We had to take down the pigeon netting that had been up for 50 or 60 years because that was not period-correct, and we had to promise to replace it. The buildings were gorgeous. We were able to use Manchester City Hall and the Palace Theatre that Houdini actually performed in, and Liverpool City Hall. We had the whole building. They shut down the street in front of it.”

Rebecca Liddiard didn’t mind having to wear a corset every day for the six-month shoot. “It was great. It gave me great insight into the character and how tough it was to be a woman in that era,” she says.

Michael Weston raves about the “meticulously executed” costumes and set design. “We had these old tailors in London who have made the same shoes and fabrics for 300 years, weaving these waistcoats, and our production designer was a genius. We had these moments that you so rarely get as an actor, where everything feels and looks so real, that you could lose yourself in it.”

At the time, Houdini was at the peak of his fame, the highest-paid performer in the world, and known for seemingly impossible escapes from water tanks and shackles, some of which are portrayed in the series. “We did it as much as we really could do it and with some very helpful stuntmen,” says Michael Weston, recalling his scary submersion.

“I was upside down in that water. I thought I could do it. I'm not claustrophobic. I’m a relatively good swimmer. But once you're going into it, you have these two guys holding a rope and you're all shackled up for real and you're hanging upside down. I got so nervous that I couldn't catch my breath. It was terrifying,” he recalls. “I did it for 20 seconds, and Houdini did it for three minutes plus.”

For Weston, one of the joys of the show is “these very pertinent, modern themes that we're dealing with and a great historical, real backdrop to set them in. I always like when you get a little something that is real to your life now, but you can trace it back 100 years. These guys were dealing with the same problems back then,” he observes.

Houdini and Doyle

As the series begins, Arthur Conan Doyle, not yet knighted, had killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem and hordes of black arm band-wearing fans were imploring him to bring Holmes back (which he later did). His expertise as a physician comes into play in the storylines.

“What I love about it is that each episode has a different flavor,” says Stephen Mangan. “One episode might be a gothic horror story. Another one is a psychological thriller. They really have their own individual flavor but with a through line that runs through the whole series.

"Each episode has a different take that’s really surprising and wonderful,” Mangan concludes.

                   Houdini & Doyle premieres May 2 at 9pm et/pt on FOX



www.Dishmag.com / Issue 180 - September 9451
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