fri 15/10/2021

Arthur and George, ITV | reviews, news & interviews

Arthur and George, ITV

Arthur and George, ITV

Conan Doyle is a bluff, romantic Holmes in ITV's splendidly thrilling three-parter

Martin Clunes is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Arsher Ali George Edalji

“Something strident and stirring – play to us now, please!” demands Martin Clunes’ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the piano-playing vicar’s wife, on apprehending that their conversation is being eavesdropped on.

Sherlock Holmes himself could hardly have responded more adeptly to frustrate the eavesdropper, and as Conan Doyle’s pursuit of the intruder leads him to a sinister, candle-lit shrine containing the vicar’s daughter’s long-lost favourite doll, it’s clear that ITV has a new thriller both strident and stirring on its hands.

The story is based on historical events surrounding George Edalji, the son of an Indian vicar working in the Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley, wrongly imprisoned in 1903 for the mutilation of a pony (and suspected of other attacks on local livestock, and of threatening local girls). The case was brought to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shortly after Edalji’s release in 1906. Conan Doyle, who was mourning his wife (while manoeuvring long-standing flirtee Jean Leckie, played winsomely by Hattie Morahan, into replacement position), found campaigning for Edalji’s pardon an ideal distraction. This first instalment of three danced entertainingly between Conan Doyle’s personal life (something Holmes, by contrast, possesses little of) and the Great Wyrley setting, all misty Gothic and rustic backwardness.

Writer Ed Whitmore had a delicious assignment here, with more cake to have and eat than a Mary Berry prime-time show

“I infer that race prejudice rather than hard evidence drove the police to the vicar’s son,” says Sir Arthur, within moments of receiving the initial newspaper cutting about the Edalji case. We may not find out who did it until the final episode, but it’s obvious what did it from the outset: racist policing, something we can all feel good about hating. Standards are, indeed, more West Midlands Serious Crime Squad than the Agatha Christie village bobby, and Conan Doyle’s encounter in the closing credits with the local Sergeant Upton, bristling with foxy menace, suggests a juicy rivalry in the making. In the attractive array of available Brummie stereotypes, Upton falls very much into the thick and vicious category.   

Writer Ed Whitmore had a delicious assignment here, with more cake to have and eat than a Mary Berry prime-time show. He produces a juicy mystery dripping with moustachioed, crinolined nostalgia, in a period setting he can simultaneously wallow in and distance us from, as we remind ourselves how much better we are than those blinkered Edwardians. And that’s before he’s even started the games of allusion between Holmes and Conan Doyle.

Unlike spin-off series like Lewis, or the rather desperate The Green Green Grass, featuring Boycie from Only Fools and Horses, it’s difficult for a famous character’s creator to overshadow the new protagonist, yet he still offers all manner of amusing references and comparisons. In this first episode, Conan Doyle has already been warned off by the sinister Judge Atkins, who tried Edalji’s case, and believes him incapable of matching Holmes’ standards of detection. And Conan Doyle’s real-life secretary, Alfred “Woodie” Wood (Charles Edwards), is a perfect fit for the Watson role.

As Conan Doyle, Clunes is full of zestful impudence, using his literary celebrity to challenge the pompous backwoodsmen in both the London and provincial legal establishment, while Arsher Ali, the shy, naive, awkward Edalji, is his perfect foil. In a recent interview, Clunes (who owns the production company responsible for this series jointly with his wife) has suggested there might be further fictional adventures for Conan Doyle the character. Julian Barnes, on whose more qualified, subtly layered novel this series is (loosely) based, may need to avert his gaze as all manner of intertextual liberties are taken with Conan Doyle the character. If they’re as much fun as this first episode, however, all but the most fastidious critic will forgive them.

Policing standards are more West Midlands Serious Crime Squad than the Agatha Christie village bobby

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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