Houdini & Doyle S01E02 “A Dish Of Adharma” REVIEW

Houdini & Doyle S01E02 “A Dish Of Adharma”

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stars 3

Airing in the UK on ITV Encore, Thursdays 9pm
Writer: David Hoselton
Director: Stephen Hopkins

 

Essential plot points:

  • A young boy shoots a leading women’s suffrage campaigner, Lydia Belworth, in the arm, telling her before firing that, “You murdered me.”
  • Conan Doyle’s daughter Mary tries to pretend to be ill to avoid going to her new school. She doesn’t want to study housewifery, thinking it unfair only girls have to, but her father tells her to grin and bare it. Then he sees a report about the shooting in the paper.

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  • Doyle and Houdini visit Chief Inspector Merring, intrigued by the reincarnation claim. Merging thinks the boy was hired to kill Bedworth by one of her enemies, but puts the pair to work in going through reports of missing kids to try and identify the child.
  • Doyle bets Houdini that the escapologist can’t get Stratton to go to dinner with him.  The pair argue about reincarnation, with Doyle seeing it as a natural belief shared by Plato and other religions, and Houdini pointing out the mathematical problem of there being more people than would have died.
  • However, the pair convince Stratton to help question the boy – and eventually he reveals his name to her, and a strange scar on his forehead where he claims he was shot by Belworth.
  • The boy says he’s Martin Upton, from Aldgate. Belworth visits the police and berates Doyle and Houdini, but is pleased to see a woman on the case. She claims the attack was staged by the Home Office to scare off her suffrage campaign, and says she’s never heard of the boy’s name.
  • Gudgett reveals Martin Upton was reported missing – as a 29 year-old, 12 years ago. Doyle, Houdini and Stratton have the boy take them to his last known address. On the way he meets his former dog, who seems to recognise him, and the minister who married him, displaying knowledge only the real Martin could have. He then points them to a patch of ground he claims is where he was murdered. When they dig up the ground they find a skull with a bullet hole in the same place as the boy’s scar.

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  • They also find his inscribed wedding ring, which Martin’s widow later confirms is his. At his former home, they find his sketches and artwork – including a nude portrait of Lydia Belworth.  Houdini thinks his widow murdered her husband for straying and hitting her, and put the boy up to killing Lydia.
  • They visit Belworth, handcuffing the boy outside to stop him running away, and confront her about Upton’s paintings.  She admits having an affair with him, but says there was another model – a heavy-set blonde – who also had a relationship with him.
  • Houdini shows the boy how to escape from cuffs, then in a game of truth and dare asks Stratton why she’s a police officer.  She says she’s trying to prove women have nothing to prove, then turns the tables and asks what Houdini’s father did to upset him.  Uncomfortable, he refuses to answer.
  • At home, an angry Doyle discovers his daughter played truant from school, while at the police station, Gudgett reveals the boy has slipped his handcuffs and escaped from custody.
  • Stratton tracks down his real name, Peter Bennett, and they visit his tearful parents who reveal he had been a happy child until a year ago, when he became distant and playing truant from school.  They search his bedroom, and discover he has Martin Upton’s journal – which is where he learned everything about him.  The journal reveals he knows about the blonde woman.
  • Houdini breaks into the safe at Lydia Belworth’s office, and discovers she was previously married to other men, who all died.  He and Stratton work out who she is in the journal – and who the blonde woman is – after another truth trade, where both reveal their greatest fear is being unloved.

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  • Someone breaks into the blonde woman’s house and shoots her in the back. But she’s actually Houdini in disguise, wearing a bulletproof vest. The shooter is Belworth, disguised as the boy. She reveals she killed Upton in jealousy, but that she had a child by him which was stillborn – until Stratton makes the connection and reveals that Peter is in fact her real son, given up for adoption by Belworth’s mother.
  • Peter had learned he was adopted and become obsessed with his real parentage. Houdini, Doyle and Stratton take him home to be reunited with his adoptive parents.
  • Doyle learns his daughter skipped school again – because the housewifery class encouraged the children to bring their mothers to school, and he apologises to his daughter for being insensitive.  Meanwhile Stratton and Houdini go for their dinner together, bonding over their shared fallen heroes and the hint of skeletons in their respective cupboards.

 

Review:

Perhaps it was being hampered by the need to set up the premise and the partnership, but the first episode of Houdini & Doyle was a clunking, tone-deaf mess that seemed set to drag the rest of the season down.

Yet for the show’s second episode, somehow it’s managed to turn that around to produce a surprisingly compelling, well-told procedural that tries to fit modern issues into a Victorian framework without the leaden foot approach of its predecessor. Given the chains binding the series in the pilot, it’s an act of escapology even Houdini would have been proud of.

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It helps that the premise is a bit more of an easy sell than last week’s “ghost caused by the rumbling of tube trains sending your eyes a bit funny” silliness. At times it almost feels a bit too straightforward, the whole reincarnation or just research stuff having been done plenty of times elsewhere. But there’s enough left tantalisingly unsaid hanging at the end to make the story feel intriguing rather than clichéd.

That said, there’s still a sense, as per the first episode, of a show written by people with a Hollywood view of what Victorian London was, and imprinting modern attitudes onto that. It feels notable that the writer of the first two episodes is from the US, and with a background of working on contemporary procedurals such as CSI and House. It means the police behave and are apparently structured like a police department in New York rather than Newham, and to some crunching tone-deaf moments –Houdini loudly asking Stratton in the street if she’s a virgin, for instance – would have been absolutely beyond the pale in the society and mores of the time. It feels like the London of someone who’s knowledge of the times comes from watching Upstairs Downstairs and Masterpiece Theatre, or the Guy Ritchie version of Holmes and Watson.

Still, put that aside and there’s a lot to like in episode two, not least some strong performances all round. The always-reliable Laura Fraser, last seen on Breaking Bad, is great and a special mention must go to young Samuel Joslin, who plays the troubled, possibly reincarnated Peter with a creepy stillness that’s unsettling, particularly the scene where he meets his supposed widow and tries to comfort her.

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Sadly, Houdini & Doyle’s biggest problem remains Doyle. Or more specifically Stephen Mangan, whose inability to convey more than one facial expression or emotion hampers what should have been an actually very good episode and drags it back to being just okay.
The scenes where Doyle’s learning about the boy’s emotional problems and his truancy are clearly supposed to resonate with him because of his domestic problems, yet there’s nothing there. Likewise the moment he connects with his daughter at the end over her struggles with school. Either this is the single greatest performance of Victorian stoicism ever portrayed on screen, or he’s a performer with the emotional acting range of a teapot.

It’s a shame, too, because Michael Weston and Rebecca Lilliard bring much more life to the show. Still, if this, rather than the opener, is the template, then they may yet have salvaged something surprisingly watchable from the format. Here’s hoping.

 

The Good:

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  • Houdini complaining about the traffic in the streets of London is a lovely gag. As, to be fair, is Mangan’s delivery of the line about why young Kingsley doesn’t have to study housewifery.
  • For all the historical inaccuracies in Houdini & Doyle – and god knows there’s loads – the one thing they get right is not using the word suffragette, which wouldn’t be coined for another few years.
  • Houdini was indeed an expert at escaping from police handcuffs – indeed, doing so at Scotland Yard was one of the things that made his name in the UK and landed him his big escapology bookings around the country.

 

The Bad:

  • If you thought James Jandrisch’s score to the episode was bad last week then this week it’s borderline unlistenable. It’s one of the most idiosyncratically bad soundtracks we’ve ever heard. Apparently unable to decide on a style or theme for the show, he seems to throw everything at it, including – we kid you not – something akin to ska at one point.  Nobody’s expecting wall to wall chamber music, or harpsichords and lutes, but just pick a style and stick to it, will you?

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  • They don’t use the word suffragette, but the purple, white and green worn by Belworth – the colours of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union organisation – wouldn’t be adopted until 1908.
  • Oh come on.  Doyle describing how he worked out where the boy was hiding as “elementary” is pretty on the nose, even for this show.
  • A very clever fake-out by the producers, or sloppy production?  The camera’s height for the point of view stuff as Lydia breaks into Margery Maguire’s house is far too high for what the boy would be seeing. We’ll presume the latter, since crediting the producers with that level of creativity would be a stretch. If they prove us wrong, we’re happy to apologise!

 

And the Random:

  • Adharma is a sanskrit word. It basically means the opposite of lawful or against the right way of living.
  • Series writer David Hoselton trained as a lawyer before penning the scripts for digimation films Over The Hedge and Brother Bear. He went to university with David Shore – who’s one of Houdini & Doyle’s executive producers, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes-inspired medical procedural House MD. Hoselton also worked as a writer and producer on House.
  • So we learn here that Mrs Doyle is indeed suffering from tuberculosis, although apparently at such a stage she’s comatose and unresponsive from it. This is casting a great shadow of sadness over Doyle in the show. In actual fact, by 1900 he was already carrying on a scandalous relationship with Jean Leckie. Touie, as Louisa Conan Doyle was known, was ill but she certainly wasn’t comatose and in hospital; she was largely at home, or travelling to the continent to recover.

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  • By 1900 Harry had been happily married for six years, with his wife Beth working as his stage assistant and prop manager.  Given how famous he was, his flirting and having dinner with WPC Stratton would have been as much of a scandal as Conan Doyle’s unusual love life.
  • The story of Houdini being disappointed by his hero is true, though; he actually published a book in 1908 about Jean Robert–Houdin, the French magician who had inspired him, claiming he had taken credit for other people’s tricks and inventions.

Review by Iain Hepburn. You can listen to his podcast at www.fromthesublime.com


 

Read our other Houdini & Doyle reviews

 

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