Forget Batman v Superman — a much more magical standoff was on display at WonderCon 2016 this weekend with Houdini & Doyle. The new Fox/ITV series, which premieres May 2nd, is based on the real-life rivalry of magician Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes-scribe Arthur Conan Doyle, but with a much more procedural — and possibly supernatural — slant. After a screening of the pilot episode, actor Michael Weston (Harry Houdini), writer/producers David Hoselton and David Titcher, and producer David Shore discussed getting the game afoot for their historical duo.
“The essence of this series is what we believe and why,” explained Hoselton, with Houdini and Doyle representing “two men on the opposite side of this question.” Shore further discussed this divide: “Arthur Conan Doyle created the world’s greatest rationalist,” even though he himself believed in spiritualism to the point that “his character would have slapped him in the face.” Meanwhile, Shore said, “Houdini made a living doing magic but didn’t believe in anything.”
- Serving as something of a mediator between these two huge historical personalities is another figure from history about whom much less is known: Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), who was in reality the first female constable at Scotland Yard. Though there are very few real references for the woman behind the character, on the show Hoselton promised “a substantial character arc for Adelaide” to match those of her male counterparts.
- Adelaide’s inclusion also served a purpose beyond creating a buffer between the show’s squabbling titular characters. The creators wanted to be sure to find ways to make the historical drama relevant, Hoselton said, including issues of women’s rights and the nature of belief.
- The show takes place in 1901, during the period where Arthur Conan Doyle has killed off his beloved detective and is trying to promote his serious nonfiction work, The Great Boer War. Houdini has just begun to make a splash in Europe, becoming known as “The Handcuff King” and embarrassing police across the continent by breaking out of their most secure jails. All of these historical tidbits are used to amusing effect in the first episode.
The pilot also features brief cameos by W.B. Yeats, Winston Churchill, and Nikola Tesla.
- The show was shot on location with Manchester, England standing in for Edwardian London. Houdini’s performance scenes were filmed in a theater where the magician actually performed.
- Actor Stephen Mangan (Episodes), who plays Doyle, was one of the first considered for that role. “He brought that buttoned-down English quality,” said Hoselton, which serves as a great foil for the brash American Houdini.
- Early in the first episode, Houdini performs one of his famous escapes — magically emerging from a glass tank filled with water into which he is lowered, upside down and chained. Weston gleefully explained that he performed this stunt himself: well, to the extent that he was was dunked upside down into the tank — “You didn’t actually escape,” laughed Shore.
- The series marks a return to familiar and fertile ground for both Shore and Weston. Shore created the hit series House, which was of course heavily inspired by Doyle’s own creation, Sherlock Holmes. Weston, meanwhile, had a substantial guest arc on that show, as P.I. Lucas Douglas.
- The premiere episode deals with the supernatural or scientific story behind ghosts, and Hoselton promised they’ll be tackling many more spooky classics throughout the season, including vampires, aliens, and reincarnation. Titcher said they will also be taking on “historical supernatural cases,” such as Spring-heeled Jack.