Houdini & Doyle S01E07: “Bedlam” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on ITV Encore, Thursdays at 9pm
Writers: David Titcher
Director: Robert Lieberman
Essential plot points:
- A disturbed young woman taking confession begins talking in tongues and attacks the priest, before painfully contorting herself backwards and dying.
- Doyle is drinking heavily and suffering from writer’s block, troubled by an offer to purchase his childhood home.
- He attends the crime scene, and diagnoses that the woman, Molly, frightened herself to death – but also finds a strange marking of five dots on her neck. Doyle and Stratton believe she may have been possessed.
- It emerges she was a recently released patient from Bethlem Royal Hospital – better known as Bedlam. Doyle is sceptical of Doctor Pilsen’s brutal treatment methods at the hospital, but left shaken when he meets a patient who believes he’s Sherlock Holmes.
- It turns out a defrocked priest, Nathaniel, who was committed to the hospital has been stirring the imagination of some of the other inmates about being possessed. When the doctors refuse to cooperate Doyle threatens to get a court order forcing them to turn over records.
- Priests conduct an exorcism on another former Bedlam patient, Simon, who came into contact with Nathaniel, before falling into a catatonic state. He bears the same five dots on his neck as Molly. The dots make the pentagram sign of the demon Abaddon.
- Adelaide has a book about Abaddon as it also contains details of the sign of the ring her late husband had – it belongs to a Polish anarchist group whom she believes murdered him, and Nigel Pennington.
- Doyle gets his court order, and gets to see Nathaniel, who is kept chained up at Bedlam.
- He says Molly and Simon were his acolytes. Houdini thinks he hypnotised them into doing his bidding, but Nathaniel insists it was exposing their fear. He says he sees Doyle’s own fear – being condemned to Bedlam, as a prisoner of his own thirst.
- In the records room they manage to find a list of patients who were in contact with Nathaniel. Doyle also smuggles out another file he doesn’t want the others to see, before speaking to Bedlam’s other doctor, Randall, who released Molly and Simon as he thought they had been cured.
- Doyle returns to his family home where he starts drinking again and reading the file he stole from Bedlam – his own father Charles’s records. He begins remembering Charles’s committal, before finding a hidden note from his father in the records claiming Pilsen was torturing him in Abaddon’s name.
- Stratton has tracked down all but one of the inmates Nathaniel was in contact with. She also has Pennington’s coroner’s report, and tells Houdini about his friendship with her late husband, who police said gambled all her money away – which she doesn’t believe.
- Doyle returns to Bedlam and drunkenly confronts Pilsen about using the inmates – and his father as part of his worshiping of Abaddon. Pilsen has him committed.
- Stratton and Houdini can’t find Doyle anywhere, and discover he’s not been home, so begin to retrace his steps.
- Doyle has been locked up with the patient who believes he is Sherlock Holmes, who acutely observes Doyle’s alcohol abuse and deduces that Doyle killed off Holmes just three months after his father’s death. He urges Doyle to investigate from the inside, and deduces that Molly and Simon displays signs of ergot poisoning.
- Doyle and Sherlock break out of their cell and speak to Nathaniel, who talks about how his father fell victim to Abaddon, before fatally contorting himself, just as Pilsen arrives. He thinks Doyle killed Nathaniel, and knocks Doyle out before taking him away to be lobotomised.
- Doyle hallucinates that it’s Dr X, not Dr Pilson, about to lobotomise him before Sherlock rescues him. They flee through the corridors of Bedlam, but their exit leads back into Doyle’s original cell – and he realises this is all a dream he’s suffering from while dying of ergot poisoning himself.
- Houdini and Stratton discover him dying on the floor of his childhood home and rush him to hospital. Houdini guesses the ergot poisoning and they realise it was Randall, not Pilsen, who poisoned him when the two of them met without the others. Randall was looking to cure fear, through the poison, in his patients. Houdini doses Randall with ergot to force the antidote out of him, but drops it as he returns to the hospital, and is left to watch his friend die.
- Doyle hallucinates speaking to his wife Touie, who wants him to join her beyond the veil, but he sadly dismisses her as a dream. Sherlock helps Doyle realise he can spike his metabolism enough to stop the poison by inducing euphoria and expelling the dark memories which are helping kill him. He confronts the spirit of his late father, who resented Doyle’s success as a writer, in his mind and resolves the conflict between them, making him feel happy enough to come round.
- A recovering Doyle thinks he telepathically gave the suggestion of ergot poisoning to Houdini, who isn’t convinced. He finalises the sale of his childhood home, and finds one of his old stories hidden by his father before he leaves.
- Adelaide’s also found something – a note left in the case file of Pennington, warning her to drop the investigation or face the same fate.
A couple of weeks ago, we highlighted a line in the press pack ITV issued for Houdini & Doyle. It’s from the introduction by the show’s co-creator and initial writer, David Hoselton.
“We realised we would have to take some liberties with history – artistic license, we like to call it.”
Well, frankly, we’re now for revoking the artistic licence of every single person involved in this show. Starting with David Titchner, who wrote “Bedlam”, and working downwards.
One of the biggest problems with Houdini & Doyle is that it’s a show filtered through US television sensibilities. A co-production between US, Canadian and UK broadcasters, it has to contort itself to keep all the disparate parties happy. In some ways that works: the three leads are cast from those countries, despite Rebecca Liddiard’s accent, for example. In others it really doesn’t. Such as shoehorning in US TV tropes and formats into a show that claims it wants to be as English as real ale, morris dancing and failing at cricket.
I say English deliberately, by the way, dear reader, because your reviewer is Scottish. So’s Arthur Conan Doyle, by the way, but you’d never know that from the show’s treatment of him. Mangan’s accent been a bugbear before (and we actually know what Doyle sounded like; search YouTube and you’ll find video interviews of him and his Scots accent), but this episode would have us believe that the Edinburgh born and raised Doyle was actually English, and his childhood home was in London.
This isn’t me about to go on some Braveheart-style, saltire-waving nationalist rant, by the way. It’s just an indicator of the liberties the production has taken with reality… beyond the fact that Houdini & Doyle didn’t actually meet until 20 years after the series is set.
At the core of the story is Doyle working through his daddy issues, apparently feeling let down by his alcoholic, insane father’s hatred and jealousy of his creative talents. And that’s where this show stumbles. It’s been setting up daddy issues stories for Houdini over the last few episodes, and now we’ve got them being cut and pasted onto Doyle as well.
It’s true that Doyle’s father was an alcoholic, and suffered from depression. But given that Doyle’s move to medicine was actually his mother’s idea, that before his death Charles Doyle actually illustrated “A Study In Scarlet” when it was initially published, and that Arthur would go on to hold an exhibition of his father’s artistic works after Charles’ death, the idea that there’s some underlying resentment as regards artistic talent that drove a rift between the men isn’t so much a stretch as relentlessly tugging at an idea until it snaps.
Charles Doyle was committed in 1881, when Arthur was 21, not the small child seen here, and indeed some biographies have Arthur as the one signing the papers for his father’s treatment. But showing actual history wouldn’t play into the narrative being hammered home here like a lobotomy drill-bit.
Daddy issues are an increasingly tiresome bog standard trope of American TV drama. A good example is the way the US version of Sherlock Holmes, Elementary, is obsessed with Sherlock and Mycroft’s relationship with their father. You see it time and time again: fathers and sons, a template for creating emotional tension within fiction. It’s a constant, from detective shows to sci-fi. And that’s why you see it here.
The reliance of using US writers who only know how to do one thing, on a show filmed in Manchester, about a well-known and well-documented historical British figure, leads to this reheated, homogeonised dishwater being served up as drama because it’s frankly all the writers know how to do.
But even allowing for the lazy fictionalisation of the character and the setting (and a cursory bit of research on Bethlem Hospital would suggest that by 1900 it was a light year away from what we see on screen), which you can justify for dramatic purposes, there’s little of actual note going on here, producing a story shallower than a teaspoon that doesn’t give anyone in the cast outside Mangan anything, let alone anything meaty, to do.
There’s no flair, visually or textually, to anything here. It’s as though Lieberman decided the best way to depict being trapped inside one’s mind is to make it look and feel as dull as possible. Well congratulations, sir. You’ve succeeded.
The last couple of weeks, which used writers from largely outside the US telly circuit, showed Houdini & Doyle can be a creative and even watchable show when it’s given the freedom to try and be different. It’s premise requires – no, demands – that it try to be different, be creative. But this is just plodding, dull by-the-numbers writing.
Stock ideas, stock characters and stock writing being grafted in with an air of “Will this do?” It’s not even so bad it’s good. It’s a perfect example of the bare minimum of competence being shuffled off for a pay cheque.
There’s nothing in here that’s remotely creative, or original, or frankly worthy of your time. You could genuinely find more entertainment in watching a wall of grey paint drying than enduring this.
- For everything I hated about this episode, which is pretty much every single second within its 47 minutes and 31 seconds running time, I will take my hat off to Stephen Mangan. I’ve ragged on his lumpen, wooden acting a lot in doing these reviews, but here he turns in a genuinely interesting performance as Doyle appears to succumb to his mania. Shame it flattens back out again at the end.
- The only other bright spot in the episode is an extended cameo from the always reliably excellent Ewan Bremner, playing Sherlock Holmes. You’ll know him from everything from Trainspotting to Black Hawk Down, and he’s in the new Wonder Woman film. Actually, given he’s actually from Edinburgh and a brilliant actor, couldn’t they have cast him as Doyle? We wouldn’t mind seeing him playing Holmes at some point though…
- Houdini uses the word Loony Bin to describe Bethlem Hospital. Which is remarkable, as it’s a phrase that won’t be coined for another 18 years.
- So, the building they’re using as Bethlem; it’s not the real one, either its current incarnation, which the hospital moved to in 1930, or the one which was being used in 1900. That building’s not hard to find; it’s the Imperial War Museum these days. The building they use looks like part of Salford University.
And the Random:
- Writer David Titcher returns for his first episode since the pilot. He’s got a huge list of TV credits dating back 30 years, to the likes of Punky Brewster and Who’s The Boss? (the US version of old ITV sitcom The Upper Hand). He wrote the screenplay for the Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan version of Around The World in 80 Days, which also featured Ewan Bremner. He’s probably best known, though, for creating the bafflingly popular SyFy franchise The Librarian.
- Veteran director Rob Lieberman has been helming stuff since 1978, starting with commercials before becoming a safe hand for TV shows such as The X Files, Thirtysomething, Lost Girl and Dexter.
- As you may have spotted above, Charles Altamont Doyle – Arthur’s father – was indeed an alcoholic and suffered from mental health issues. He was born in England of Irish stock; his father was political cartoonist John Doyle, and his brother Richard a well-known illustrator who created the masthead for Punch. He worked as a draughtsman in Edinburgh, where the family lived, but as his issues worsened he was committed to a nursing home at Fordoun, near Montrose. He ended in the nearby asylum at Sunnyside before being committed to the the Crichton Royal Hospital in the Scottish borders, where he died from heart failure brought on by an epileptic fit. Ironically, while committed, his artistic side flourished and would later be acclaimed after his death.
- Bedlam, as Bethlem Royal Hospital was known, is the world’s longest-serving mental institution, becoming a hospital in the 1300s, although its name and origins can be traced to the Crusades. It started treating the mentally ill later that century, although treatment’s probably the wrong word and its nickname has become a byword for crazy situations. It had a brutal reputation, but these days is now a specialist in psychiatric care, including for young people from across Britain. It also now hosts a museum on the history of Bedlam and mental health.
- When Kingsley asks Doyle to play football, it’s not as daft as it sounds. The real Arthur Conan Doyle was a pretty decent sportsman, and turned out for amateur side Portsmouth AFC in goal under the pseudonym AC Smith. He also played cricket, as mentioned in last week’s episode, with one first class wicket: that of WG Grace. Well, if you’re going to take a wicket, take it from the greatest player of his generation…
Review by Iain Hepburn. You can listen to his podcast at www.fromthesublime.com