FOX’s newest mystery/adventure drama Houdini & Doyle is inspired by true events and one of history’s most unlikely friendships. The series follows real-life friends Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) in fantastical (and faux) adventures as they join forces with New Scotland Yard’s first female constable (Rebecca Liddiard) to investigate supernatural cases. The premise of the duo moonlighting as superstar sleuths requires some suspension of disbelief, but it has a mix of mirth, mysticism and murder we’d liken to an old-timey X-Files.
“We’re not pretending that we’re telling the Arthur Conan Doyle/Harry Houdini story,” says Weston. “We’re using these guys as backdrops — as well as the turn of the century — to push history and smear a few lines to suit our purposes.” The actor enjoys getting to embody the famed escape artist, who in the early 1900s was one of the biggest celebrities in the world. Weston has dubbed Houdini “the Elvis of his day,” explaining that “he occupied a really special spot in our, sort of, consciousness, and also in our history. He has this sort of comparable sense of freedom about him, of having really stamped out, and actualized, the American dream.”
Weston likes to imagine the effect that Houdini must have had on his audience. “I think as they watched this guy escape from this tank, it challenged everything that they thought was real. And it gave them the sense of liberation and, I think, real empowerment.” Few of Houdini’s contemporaries could understand that pressure, except, perhaps, for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
If Houdini was his era’s Elvis, then Doyle, the creator of the beloved character Sherlock Holmes, may have been his generation’s J.K. Rowling. At first glance, their friendship seems improbable, but closer inspection into the men reveals that their differences should have made friendship impossible. Houdini tried to debunk psychics and the supernatural and Doyle, explains Mangan, saying, “The man of science, a medical doctor, and creator of probably the most famous fictional character in history — Sherlock Holmes — the most rational, intelligent, linear mind, was hooked up on the spiritual world and the afterlife.”
The irony isn’t lost on executive producer David N. Titcher. “You had Doyle, who created the most skeptical character — ever — who is a believer in everything paranormal, and Houdini, who was a magician who is the most skeptical person alive. And they were friends. It’s the irony that made me want to do the show in the first place.”
But Weston believes that the men were friends not despite their differences, but because of them. “I feel like these guys needed each other. They were sort of these huge celebrities and isolated in that. And they find each other as friends. But it’s contentious — they don’t agree on anything.” And within that contention and conflict lies the backbone of the characters’ relationship in the series, which evolves into a duel of one-upmanship. “They needed each other’s respect, and they needed each other’s friendship, and they thrive in that challenge, which is constant,” continues Weston. He also nods at the benefit of these two wildly different men working together. “Two sort of great minds going at figuring out a puzzle.”
Weston admits that, prior to the project, “I had a very thin knowledge of who [Houdini] was,” and shares that getting to know the man has been almost as fun as learning his methods. One thing that shocked Weston to learn was “he was a total mama’s boy! Here’s this guy — he could do these death-defying acts, and show himself with this meticulous nature that he had for all of the tricks that he learned, and for all of the daredevil escapes that he did,” says Weston. “And at heart, he was a super-sensitive mama’s boy.”
And with a little TV magic, Weston gets to participate in some of the death-defying stunts that made Houdini famous. “I think all of the escapes were scary. He was buried alive. He was hung upside down and put in that water tank. All of that stuff, when we did it, we did it as much as we really could do, with some very helpful stuntmen.”
Weston won’t break the magician’s code and reveal any of Houdini’s secrets, but he shares a newfound admiration for magic and magicians and credits escapologist and magic consultant Danny Hunt for helping him get into a magician’s mindset. “They have so many little tricks to distract you,” he marvels. “It’s really ingenious.” And when asked about newly learned tricks that he can demonstrate, Weston laughs. “I can hide a coin pretty fast. I can produce a card all right.”
Houdini & Doyle > FOX > Mondays beginning May 2 at 9pm, ET/PT