Houdini & Doyle S01E04 “Spring-Heel’d Jack” REVIEW

Houdini & Doyle S01E04 “Spring-Heel’d Jack”

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stars 3.5

Airing in the UK on ITV Encore, Thursdays at 9pm
Writer: Carl Binder
Director: Daniel O’Hara

Essential plot points:

  • Transport company magnate Barrett Underhill is celebrating signing a deal to supply motorised buses to London, when he receives a threatening note under his door. Later that night he hears a noise outside the window. As he looks out, a mysterious black-cloaked figure hanging on he side of the building pounces, sending Underhill falling seven storeys to his death.
  • Stratton invites Doyle and Houdini to the crime scene after the doorman witnessed the black-robed figure leaping between the rooftops after Underhill’s fall.
  • Doyle thinks the phantom may be the legendary Spring-heel’d Jack, while Houdini thinks it was an accident.
  • Stratton receives a mysterious telegram, and takes her leave of Houdini and Doyle, leaving them to carry on the investigation themselves.

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  • They go to a horse-drawn carriage firm, whose owner Tuttle had spoken out about Underhill’s buses in the press, but as they’re not police officers Tuttle isn’t inclined to cooperate with them.
  • At Underhill’s hotel, they encounter tabloid journalist Lyman Biggs, a friend of Houdini’s and a fan of Doyle’s who is digging about the story of the death.
  • Meanwhile Stratton is spying on a mysterious man in the park, who is meeting a woman.
  • Houdini visits Doyle’s home for the first time, entertaining his two children with magic tricks before they go through the legend of Springheel’d Jack. Doyle points out each appearance of Jack came at the same time as some communal tragedy hitting the community he terrorised.
  • At the same time, Jack attacks a Russian woman across town, breathing fire before breaking the window and trying to drag her through it before fleeing over the rooftops.
  • With Stratton apparently still feeling ill, Houdini and Doyle join Gudgett in questioning the victim, who had previously been suffering from a nervous condition, adding to Doyle’s theory that Jack is feeding off fear. It turns out the woman had previously fallen out with Tuttle over a bill.
  • Doyle and Gudgett doubt a normal person could leap the walls the way the attacker did, but Houdini proves them wrong, performing the same acrobatic jump.

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  • Concerned about Adelaide, Houdini and Doyle break into her apartment and discover the telegram she received earlier was from a man, claiming she’s wrong about him. They also discover a man’s ring with a strange inscription on it, before Stratton arrives and furiously throws them out.
  • Houdini follows Tuttle, and discovers he’s been going to a brothel most nights – including the evenings when the attack happened.
  • That night a slum landlord is attacked by Jack, and found the next morning impaired on railings.
  • London becomes terrified by the stories of Jack, with mass hysteria breaking out and the streets deserted thanks to Biggs’ lurid reporting of the story. After failing to persuade Biggs’ paper to stop running the tale, the trio discover the slum landlord had recently evicted a Russian man – Vladimir Palinov – who it turns out was a former suitor of the previous victim.
  • It turns out Palinov is a circus gymnast, who has been hired by Biggs to pretend to be Jack and keep the story going to sell papers.
  • However, after being arrested, Biggs denies any involvement in Underhill’s death, claiming they only started afterwards to cash in on the story.
  • Doyle spies on Adelaide again and sees her meeting with – and arguing with – the man who sent the telegram. He confronts the man afterwards, asking what he wants with Adelaide, and he tells Doyle he’s a friend of the constable’s husband.
  • And high in the rooftops above London, a black cloaked figure watches over Doyle and Houdini…

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Review:

After last week’s generic mess of an episode, we lurch – or leap – into something a bit more substantial and, significantly, a bit more tied into the sense of place and time that’s been desperately lacking in the show.

It helps that, after three fairly generic investigations for the dynamic trio to undertake, we now have something that has genuine roots in London of the era – indeed, alongside Jack the Ripper, who also gets a brief mention in the story, Spring-heel’d Jack’s probably one of the most famous, and obvious, urban legends to try and take on.

Villain or vigilante – depending on what you read – Spring-heel’d Jack’s an easy sell. An unexplained, possibly supernatural being, with incredible dexterity, wearing a cloak and hood, it’s no wonder the depiction here bears more than a passing resemblance to Batman. Likewise, leaving the mystery over Jack’s identity at the end unsolved throws up the probability of him being a returning villain – a spectral Moriarty to Houdini and Doyle’s Holmes and Watson.

It’s also, after four episodes, the start of actually getting some kind of sense of who Harry, Arthur and Adelaide are. Obviously, in the case of the first two, who they are bears no resemblance to reality, but at least we now get an idea of what motivates them beyond the surface “he believes and he’s a sceptic” so far. In fact, it almost, with one crucial scene, manages to justify Mangan’s performance so far – Doyle’s stiff upper lip being not wooden acting, but years of trying to control the effects of fear, something the more outwardly emotional and energetic Houdini embraces rather than suppresses.

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Once again, though, there’s a blundering, tone-deaf approach towards women, and especially Adelaide. Houdini & Doyle is a show trying to have its cake and eat it; it wants to play up the patrician, patronising attitudes towards women of the time, with Gudgett dismissive of one victim because she’s been treated for nerves, yet wants Adelaide to be an independent, strong woman at odds with Victorian society.

So we have Houdini and Doyle breaking into Adelaide’s flat, spying on her and trying to discover her secret in a way that they wouldn’t countenance with regards to each other. It’s a disappointingly artificial way to spin out mystery about her character that, frankly, doesn’t feel needed. She’s already the first female constable in the police; why do we need to find a mysterious missing husband and dark past grated onto her too?

And while the mystery feels blatantly obvious as soon as the prototype tabloid hack (oh, how original, a sleazy bad guy journalist…) first appears, the unfolding of it is staged well, with Daniel O’Hara’s direction keeping the plot motoring, for want of a better word, and a great, fun performance by Blake Harrison as Biggs.

At it’s heart Houdini & Doyle remains a modern-day police procedural, uncomfortably squeezed into a bowler hat and a frock coat, yet it occasionally – as with here – also shows that glimmer of having something else about it.

 

The Good:

  • The scene between Harry and Arthur in Houdini’s hotel room, ruminating on the nature of fear and its effect on man. Not just good, in fact, but excellent – perhaps the standout moment of the season so far. At last we have a genuine emotional, character-led moment into what drives both men to behave the way they do. It’s also the first time Mangan’s shown anything like a performance to his interpretation of Conan Doyle.

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  • The 2011 biography of Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sanford alleges Harry liked to take a nip of opium now and again, so clearly someone on the production staff’s been reading that.

The Bad:

  • Time for my weekly complaint about James Jandrisch’s score, which has gone beyond bad and is now genuinely unlistenable. Especially in the scene where Doyle and Houdini break into Adelaide’s flat.
  • Speaking of Adelaide’s flat… it seems very well-appointed and spacious for someone who would be on a constable’s wage. Original police salaries for the Met were a guinea a week and while that had gone up by the turn of the century, as a woman it’s unlikely Adelaide would be getting equal pay. Weekly rent on a couple of rooms in a not too shabby part of London, which Adelaide’s flat would seem to be in, would be a couple of guineas a week.

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  • Houdini & Doyle makes good use of its locations in Liverpool and Manchester to depict the streets of London – albeit a clean, Disneyfied version of it – but one street in particular has now been seen in every episode as apparently depicting every Victorian road ever. Shooting it from the other end doesn’t disguise it, you know…

 

And the Random:

  • Writer Carl Binder started his career on Punky Brewster, incredibly, and has written for a host of US shows, including Stargate and the ’90s TV sequel to War Of The Worlds (currently being repeated on Horror Channel, if you want a giggle). He was also writer and executive producer on Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.

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  • After Nicholas Burns’ brief cameo dying at the start of last week’s show, this week it’s the turn of James Lance to be offed before the title sequence. He’s been in so many things over the last 20-odd years you’re bound to recognise him – including I’m Alan Partridge, Spaced, The Book Group, No Heroics, Moving Wallpaper, People Like Us… He was also the face of the moneysupermarket.com adverts for a while, back when they were just mildly irritating. Hopefully murdering a well-known British comedy actor before the titles every week’s going to become a thing for Houdini & Doyle now, like Police Squad!

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  • So, Spring-heel’d Jack then. Probably one of the most famous urban legends of the Victorian era and remarkably, given Houdini and Doyle’s barely nodding acquaintance with historical accuracy, depicted remarkably accurately in the show. The first properly recorded sightings were in the 1830s, and he was still being spotted as late as the 1900s. He wasn’t confined to London though, with reports from as far away as Liverpool and Brighton. The blue flame and red eyes came from reports of an alleged attack on Jane Alsop in 1838. The identity was never confirmed, although that didn’t stop various writers banging out plays and cheap pulp novels about him – indeed, one was famously published just a couple of years before this story is set.

houdini_&_doyle_night_of_the_demon

  • “What sort of demon feeds on fear?” says Houdini dismissively, chucking a drawing that looks suspiciously like the monster from Curse Of The Demon, aka Night Of The Demon (1957) on Doyle’s desk.
  • Buses. You’ll be surprised, nay shocked, to hear no doubt that the introduction of buses to London as depicted in Houdini & Doyle bears little resemblance to what actually happened. Motorised omnibuses were introduced by the London General Omnibus Company – which regulated horse-drawn services in the capital – in 1902. Thomas Tilling, responsible for the Times omnibuses which also ran in the city, started using motorised services two years later. Although there were independent firms operating horses for years afterwards, Tilling and LGOC had most of the trade, and pooled their resources together in 1909.

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


 

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