Recently, ITV Studios have been struggling to get a family adventure series out and make it successful only for it to get cancelled after just one season as seen with both Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return of the Shieldlands.
While it’s evident that those shows failed to find an audience, Houdini and Doyle stands a good strong chance at achieving that. Despite going through some fundamental bumps along the way, this is nevertheless a solid show with a lot to appreciate, particularly in the areas of both storytelling and performances. Unlike Jekyll and Hyde or Beowulf, this show didn’t feel the need to be ‘breakout television’ like those other shows tried and failed to be. In this case, it’s like as if the production team involved wanted to properly develop the series and actually put some real effort into the stories and characterisation to make it work, despite how farcical it can be sometimes.
You need to have a good, strong script and a good cast in order to bring it to life, and all that is evident here, yet that’s also helped by terrific production and costume design, which helps make everything contained within the narrative ‘pop out’ essentially. One of the aspects of the show that has been often overlooked by some people is how well-designed it, and it’s clear that the show’s creators and producers have been very respectful in capturing all of the various elements of that time-period in London, as well as being very respectful about remaining true to what we, as an audience, already know about both Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. Plus, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and at no point does it descend into gritty depth or dramatic intensity for the sake of it, otherwise we would’ve been in for a joyless ride.
True, this show doesn’t offer the ‘edge of your chair’ thrills that you would find on shows like Sherlock or Doctor Who, but it’s clear that wasn’t the intention the makers were going for. However, the downside to the show is in its format, because in each episode, if you look close enough, they almost follow the same formula: New case arises, Houdini and Doyle investigate, clash over different ideologies, practical solution wins out, case solved, the end. We do get some form of a story-arc seeded throughout involving Constable Adelaide Stratton’s mysterious past, but even that becomes part of the formula since the characters bring it up in some form in each episode.
Despite this, the show manages to thrill and be entertaining thanks to some credible performances; at the centre of the drama, we have a nice comedic friendship dynamic between Houdini and Doyle, because here, they are almost portrayed as being like the bickering couple that needs each other, despite how many times they try to contradict that. This helped by strong performances from both Michael Weston and Stephen Mangan, who both bounce off each other brilliantly, handling the comedy with pure charm, and their dramatic moments are believable. The real surprise, however, is in the third main character in Adelaide Stratton, played remarkably well with style by newcomer Rebecca Liddiard. Liddiard brings real weight and emotion to her role, and despite both Mangan and Weston going at an incredible pace, she manages to keep up to their level and all three have strong chemistry throughout. On the downside, Tim McInnerny doesn’t really get to do much, except to look grumpy whenever the three main protagonists cross paths with him, which is a shame considering that McInnerny is an actor of high calibre.
Despite some of the noticeable flaws, Houdini and Doyle manages to be a consistently entertaining adventure with charming performances, a good procedural element that everyone will be able to latch onto, exquisite set and costume design, and a tone that never takes itself seriously. True, it’s not ‘event TV’, but that was never its intention, and when you consider just how flawed both Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf were, this is the better of the crop.
HOUDINI AND DOYLE / CREATOR: DAVID N. TITCHER / STARRING: STEPHEN MANGAN, MICHAEL WESTON, REBECCA LIDDIARD, EMILY CAREY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW