Houdini & Doyle S01E01: “The Maggies Redress” Review
Airing in the UK on ITV Encore, Sunday premiere, Thursday thereafter
Writer: David Hoselton
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Essential plot points:
- A young nun, Sister Winnie, discovers the body of an elderly colleague, Sister Fabian, murdered in her locked chamber – and apparently sees a ghost leaving the room. She tells police it was Lucy Althorne – who died six months ago.
- Famed American escapologist Harry Houdini, performing in London, reads of the mysterious death in a newspaper, which claims a ghost killer stalks London.
- Houdini heads to the police headquarters, where rival Arthur Conan Doyle is already offering his help to Chief Inspector Merring on the supernatural aspects of the case. Houdini bets Doyle $10,000 he can’t prove a ghost exists.
- Merring assigns WPC Adelaide Stratton as their liaison, telling her to make sure to keep them at arms length from the proper case.
- The trio visit the nuns, who operate a Magdalene Laundry that’s taking in £50 per week. Houdini believes Winnie is lying, and after distracting Fabian’s replacement Sister Mathilda, she tells him that she believed the ghost Lucy killed Sister Fabian because the elder nun had killed her first, having tortured her for arguing back by cutting her hair off and leaving her outside in the rain.
- Houdini finds the laundry takings are missing from Sister Fabian’s locked box, confirming his robbery theory.
- Adelaide admits she believes he was right, and is disappointed as she wanted the case to continue longer so she could do some real police work.
- Doyle visits a spiritualist, who says a man of soot was responsible for the murders – plural. He also asks her to contact his wife, and her information about his new acquaintance – and that he’s in danger – spooks him.
- In Whitechapel, Doyle and Stratton see a soot–covered man with lots of money, as the medium had suggested. Doyle confronts him and he flees, but Stratton knocks him out and takes him into custody as the suspect.
- At Houdini’s theatre, the illusionist doubts the suspect is the right man because of the spiritualist. He reveals someone’s been embezzling funds from the laundry, and Stratton confirms Sister Mathilda was a former pickpocket.
- A ghost swoops over them and the name Mathilda appears on the stage in what seems to be blood, but is in fact syrup – part of a trick staged by Houdini to prove how easy it would be to fake a ghost at the laundry. However, Gudgett arrives at the theatre to tell the trio that Sister Mathilda has also been murdered.
- With the sooty man still in jail, it rules him out as a suspect. Gudgett tells them to leave the investigating to the professionals now, but Doyle points out that if the police had taken the case seriously in the first place Mathilda would not have been murdered too. Stratton notices writing on the window, promising a third murder is coming.
- Winnie tells the trio that she holds three people responsible for killing Lucy – the two dead nuns and Sister Grace, who stood by and let the other two torture her.
- Doyle and Stratton go through the laundry records to find what girls had to give up their children – as Lucy had done – in a hunt for suspects. Doyle finds two daisies in a glass in Sister Fabian’s room – where previously there had only been one – and then something hidden under a loose floorboard nearby.
- Stratton goes to see Houdini, who’s throwing a celebrity–filled party for his mother’s birthday. On the blueprints for the laundry she’s found a secret passage from Fabian’s office to the courtyard where Lucy was buried; she thinks this proves the ghost theory, until Houdini points out a ghost would not need a secret passage…
- Doyle summons them back to the laundry, where he explains Lucy’s baby had been called Daisy. He also found the missing money under the floorboard – where Sister Fabian had been hiding it for herself. At which point the ghost of Lucy appears and flies round all three of them before disappearing through the wall.
- Houdini refuses to believe it was a ghost, leaving Doyle asking why, before he returns to see the spiritualist. However, she says his wife is dead, making him realise she’s been faking her powers – as his wife lies in a coma in hospital.
- Over breakfast the following morning Doyle realises Sister Grace is Lucy’s real mother after spotting she has similar medical conditions to the dead girl. She killed Fabian and Mathilda in revenge for the death of Lucy. They confront her at the laundry, but she traps them in a pit which is filling with water, and locks them in.
- Houdini tries to pick the lock as the water rises, before Adelaide – who had also worked out Grace’s guilt from analysing her handwriting and the message on the window– rescues them. They find her in Fabian’s room, ready to kill herself, but Houdini summons Lucy’s ghost, telling Grace the spirit has appeared to forgive her.
- As Grace is led away, Houdini reveals he worked out the ghost was caused by the vibrations from the underground line nearby affecting the inner ear and eyeball, making people think they were seeing the ghost.
- Merring tells Adelaide she’s being moved out the basement and into the real police force – because he’s convinced she’s having an affair with the illusionist.
- For losing the bet, Doyle sends Houdini a copy of his new book, The Great Boer War, which Houdini puts on a shelf full of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, revealing he’s secretly a fan after all – but then hears someone playing the piano in his hotel room, despite there being nobody else there…
So, what do you get if you cross the big screen Robert Downey Jr version of Sherlock Holmes with the locked room mysteries of Jonathan Creek? And then strip all the joy, charm or wit out of it?
Welcome to Houdini & Doyle. A vacuous, hollow cut-and-paste exercise that doesn’t so much play fast and loose with history as challenge it to a game of Rochambo, then run off having got its kick in first.
Okay, so let’s look for the positives first. Michael Weston, who plays Houdini, is very good, bringing a degree of subtlety to a part which needs to portray vulnerability under a mask of performance and showmanship. Hollywood director Stephen Hopkins’ direction is solid and nicely paced, drawing out a workmanlike script with some occasional moments of real style – such as when the three investigators encounter the “ghost” for the first time.
Indeed, the look of the episode is very nice all round. It’s a cliché to say that British TV does this kind of costume drama better than anyone else, but it’s a cliché because it’s true – between visual effects and production choices, an albeit shiny and sanitised version of England fin de siècle is well-depicted on screen.
Unfortunately, that’s about as far as it goes. Because there’s not a huge amount to recommend what’s a very basic, shallow procedural that swaps character development for meaningful, artfully lit looks against backdrops of stained glass windows.
Actually, meaningful looks is stretching it when it comes to the leaden, one–note performance of Stephen Mangan. Literally the only moment he displays anything like on-screen presence is when Doyle punches out Gudgett, the show’s equivalent of Lestrade. Otherwise he’s just flat, failing to bring anything to scenes – such as when the spiritualist reveals her fakery – that desperately need some kind of emotion. It’s like watching an acting robot that’s been switched back to factory settings – a blank slate reading the lines programmed into it without any understanding of what it should be doing to sell them.
It’s not just Mangan, though. The normally reliable Tim McInnerny’s turn is so gruff and disinterested you’d have to presume it was written into the stage directions. Rebecca Liddiard tries her best with the walking cliche role that is Adelaide Stratton, but the part’s so underwritten she’s basically a cipher in a hat.
And that, at its heart, is the biggest problem with Houdini And Doyle. It’s just so slight. Let’s put aside the barely brushing with reality relationship that Houdini and Doyle has with actual history (see below for more), and take it for what it is – a Primark knock–off of better, more successful shows that unfolds like a US police procedural with such blatantly obvious beats you could set your watch by them.
The shared interest in spiritualism that brought the pair together in real life is equally something that would make for a fantastic story – indeed, it has, most recently on stage with Phill Jupitus playing Conan Doyle. Equally, the horrific abuse of young women in the Magdalene asylums is, itself, a story that needs told sympathetically and carefully – rather than the CBBC version, sanitised for prime time viewing, that we get here.
The godawful early ’90s BBC genre procedural Virtual Murder was once described as being “The Avengers re-written by someone who heard about it once but never actually saw it”. Houdini & Doyle feels like it’s been created by someone who once read a TV listing for Jonathan Creek and wondered what it would look like in a frock coat. The answer, sadly, is this mess of a programme. Here’s hoping it improves, because at the moment, watching it is absolute murder.
- The production design. Whatever else is wrong with Houdini & Doyle, it looks nice. A nice touch is the London Underground carriage – London Bridge station did indeed open six months before when this episode is set.
- Liddiard’s accent – it’s a bit Hollywood posh English but fair play, it wasn’t until afterwards that I realised she’s actually Canadian.
- Not that you’d tell from Mangan’s performance, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Scottish. Although if you go by Mangan’s performance he was actually a large man-shaped slab of wood.
- In fact, in September 1900, when the story’s set, Doyle was somewhat busy standing for parliament in the election, in his native Edinburgh. He lost, by a few hundred votes, but you’d think such a notable event might feature in a story where he’s one of the main characters. Even if just as a reference.
- The opening – a flash forward to when the pair are trapped in the water – is a terrible decision from the off. We don’t know these characters or their relationship, and when we actually get to that moment later in the episode there’s no callback to their banter, with the scene played for drama instead.
- James Jandrisch’s score is an absolute mess too – wandering from inappropriate plinky plonky comedy music to weird techno interludes. None of it seems to fit the episode though.
And the Random:
- Director Stephen Hopkins will be a familiar name. The Jamaican-born helmer is responsible for the ’90s big–screen remake of Lost In Space, Predator 2, the hysterically awful The Ghost And The Darkness, and big chunks of the first season of 24. He also made the controversial, Emmy award–winning biopic The Life And Death oOf Peter Sellars, and the forthcoming Race, about pioneering US athlete Jesse Owens.
- Magdalene Laundries were places where desperate and “fallen” women were placed. Run by Catholic nuns, they were brutal places – so much so that three years ago Ireland issued a formal apology to the thousands of women who suffered after being sent to one in the 20th century. Hunt down Peter Mullen’s film The Magdalene Sisters to get an idea of how bad things were in them, even as late as the 1960s. There were hundreds of them in England by the start of the 20th Century, when this episode is set.
- The publication of The Great Boer War dates the story as around September 1900, which would make Houdini 26 (Michael Weston is 42). He was certainly well known in the UK in 1900 and was touring his escapology act – but didn’t begin doing the water tank escape depicted in the episode until 1912.
- Conan Doyle would have been 41 (Stephen Mangan is 43) when the episode is set. His wife Mary was indeed ill, but she had TB rather than being in some mysterious coma. Conan Doyle was already in a (platonic) relationship with Jean, whom he would eventually marry a year after Mary’s death in 1906.
- Houdini and Conan Doyle were indeed friends for a few years – but they didn’t meet until 1920, over a shared interest in spiritualism. Houdini did indeed try to expose frauds, but again that wouldn’t be until the 1920s – and his doing so cost the pair their relationship.
- And if you think all that’s playing fast and loose with history… the Metropolitan didn’t appoint its first female police officers until World War 1 broke out, although the Met did employ a small number of women to attend to female convicts from the late 1800s onwards. The idea of a WPC such as Adelaide, though, is pure fantasy – as indeed is her uniform.
Review by Iain Hepburn. You can listen to his podcast at www.fromthesublime.com