Hypable sat down with the cast and crew of Houdini and Doyle to discuss magic, spirits, chivalry, and…elephants?
The newest team to grace our screens this Monday is all at once both familiar and foreign. You’ve probably heard of Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, and Harry Houdini, master illusionist. But did you know the two actually knew each other?
Houdini and Doyle is based on Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) and Harry Houdini’s (Michael Weston) real life friendship, following them as they investigate strange and unsolved crimes, with the help of Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), the first female police officer of New Scotland Yard.
The show takes place in 1901, at a time when there’s a lot of technological development and challenging of people’s beliefs. In fact, this lack of technological advancement contributes to characters’ contentions. Some believe these unsolved crimes are the result of supernatural forces, “In 1901, the fuel sources were still coal and gas. Electricity is a very new thing, so we still have candles and lampposts, and it was a very dark world, and…there’s a lot of scary things lurking in the shadows. There’s a lot of shadowy, unexplained moments…a lot of moments where people just aren’t quite sure what they’re seeing, and that’s where a lot of the debate comes from,” says Liddiard.
The debate between those who believe in the supernatural and those who don’t is a prominent conflict in Houdini and Doyle, as this dispute exists between Houdini and Doyle themselves. Executive producer David Shore tells us that, while Houdini and Doyle haven’t yet met when the story starts, they’re well aware of each other’s existence and beliefs, “They’ve got very different points of views. They know each other’s reputations for that point of view as well.”
But don’t assume you know who takes which side. You might think Arthur Conan Doyle would be a lot like the rational and logical Sherlock Holmes character he created, and while you wouldn’t be wrong, you also wouldn’t be entirely right. As it happens, Houdini’s experience in illusions and tricks prevents him from believing in spirits or the supernatural. In that sense, he’s much more logically minded than Doyle, who actually believes in spiritualism. According to Mangan, “I think Houdini would say that [Doyle’s] belief in spiritualism is his biggest weakness. You know, for a rational man to believe that you could talk to the dead, or that fairies exist, or that ghosts exist, Houdini just can’t understand why anyone would think that. It just seems to him incomprehensible.”
Houdini and Doyle’s disagreements help keep the show from being one-sided though, “I think the way they balance each other is kind of intellectually or philosophically,” says executive producer David Hoselton, “They come from different ends of the spectrum, and one is pushing the agenda of ‘this can’t be real,’ and the other is pushing the agenda of ‘but what if it is? And so it’s that constant yin and yang of the two sides.”
We can assume whatever quarrels they get into will work well on-camera, since both actors seem to have a great rapport off-camera. When asked what animal befits Houdini for a pet, Michael Weston said an elephant, and was quite surprised when informed that Mangan thought an elephant would be Doyle’s pet. Thus ensued a bit of a yelling match across the room:
Weston: “You wouldn’t have an elephant! I’d have an elephant!”
Mangan: “Is that what you said?”
Mangan: “That’s so weird!”
Weston: “Why? He’d have something big and showy! Why would you be on an elephant?”
Mangan: “Because he’s stately and like he’s got a…(unintelligible)”
Weston: “He’s s- Oh because he’s slow? Does he give you little peanuts? No, man!”
Stratton, on the other hand, would have a much more practical pet to match her hardworking and active personality. “At first she might seem like a cat person, but I would say some kind of really trusty dog…that can run ahead and collect a clue and bring it back. She’s a very active person so…she needs the activity and the personality of a dog, I think.”
Indeed, Adelaide Stratton is a very intelligent and diligent woman, who wants to be treated equally to Houdini and Doyle, and not discriminatorily or delicately, “They both have sort of their own flavor of chivalry, which is another kind of misogyny that she has to kind of shake out of them a little bit and just get them out of that headspace,” Liddiard explains, “She doesn’t want to be flirted with, but she also doesn’t want to be respected to the point where she has to be protected, treated as something delicate.”
To help Liddiard get into the mindset of an active 1901 woman, her costuming was as authentic and practical as possible, “[Adelaide’s costumes] are beautiful, but they’re designed so she can run around. So she’s got some secret pockets and her hemline is brought up a little bit so she can run around and get dirty.” Make no mistake though, she still had to wear a corset, “It was really fascinating because just wearing a corset, it’s kind of a metaphor for how women were perceived and literally what their place was, extremely restrictive… It really prevents them from doing a lot, so I found it really interesting to negotiate that.”
The men also had to get used to different fashion choices. As Mangan describes, “You could beat a man to death with the collars, they’re so stiff! Plus we had these collar studs at the front and the back, and the one in the front, whether I don’t know because my Adam’s apple is pronounced, but it just constantly… It’s very very uncomfortable.”
Believability is taken even further on Houdini and Doyle, as the ‘magic’ tricks are done practically, and largely by Weston himself, “I got this part, and a week later we’re shooting, and they’re like, ‘All right, so, we’re going to do this. You’re gonna make a card appear out of your hand.’ But I gotta do that, I gotta figure that out.”
As difficult as that may seem, it’s nothing compared to the other Houdini trick Weston had to enact: the Chinese water torture cell. In this trick, Houdini/Weston is lowered, upside down, into a tank full of water, handcuffed, “It was terrifying. I mean, I could bust out of the handcuffs, but I was chained around, so I couldn’t really move my arms. If something went wrong I’d give the thumbs up signal inside the tank, but the nature of the trick is so overwhelming to your senses because you’re so completely out of control.” Fortunately, Weston had a good teacher in illusionist Danny Hunt, who was on set to help with the tricks.
Houdini and Doyle may have an old-timey look from the sets and costumes, but Hoselton assures us, “It’s timeless. It really is a story about wanting to find answers to questions that don’t really have answers.” Shore agrees, adding, “We live in a world that’s very rapidly changing. And the way we do things, everything we think we know, on a fairly fundamental level, we’re constantly being forced to question what we believe. And…[Houdini and Doyle] were living in a time of just incredible change and opportunity, and fear, but also hope. And I think that’s very applicable today.”
Lastly, in the spirit of Hypable, we asked the cast what they’re hyping about lately and got some interesting answers. Rebecca Liddiard definitely has the right idea, having watched both Narcos and Game of Thrones, and even finished reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Stephen Mangan closely follows suit, recommending Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. Michael Weston, however, had a much more unique idea, “I’m really excited about this robot that I have that cleans my floor in my kitchen. It’s like- a Roomba!”
You do you, Mike.