The premise of Houdini & Doyle is excellent. The legendary escapologist and the man who created the world's most famous detective knew each other in real life, and someone had the bright idea of teaming them as a sleuthing duo in a television series. Even better - potentially - the first episode of the series sees the pair investigating a locked room mystery. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, I'll answer that question in a moment. The first clue that something might be amiss came with the relegation of episode one to a rather obscure place on the schedules. Did the TV bosses know something we weren't being told? But in these days of catch-up, perhaps that meant little. However, it wasn't long before the dialogue had me cringing. A low point was the moment when Houdini used the phrase "Garbage in, garbage out". Did people really talk like that in or around 1900? (The story was set some time before the characters met in real life, but that example of artistic licence wouldn't have troubled me had history been respected in general terms)
The setting for the crime, a Magdalene laundry, was evocative, and the glimpses we were given of Houdini's stagecraft were well done. In fact, Michael Weston made a pretty good job of playing Houdini. Alas, the American producers of the show reportedly told Stephen Mangan not to play Doyle with a Scottish accent (something Nicola Sturgeon ought to complain about, surely) and he seems to have lost heart as a result, splitting his infinitives without a care. At no point did I find his portrayal of Doyle compelling. Nor did Tim McInnerny convince as the grumpy senior cop; a shame, as I still remember him fondly from Blackadder and he is very good in the new film based on Spooks.
For gender balance, we were presented with an attractive female police constable character, who contributed little to the detective work. How many women PCs were there in 1900, anyway? I don't mind when stories veer away from strict historical accuracy, or make mistakes on matters of detail. Goodness knows, I've erred myself, more than once. But there needs to be a sense that the writer is striving to get it right, even if not with complete success. Houdini & Doyle gave me the impression that those in charge didn't care enough about the history or the characters, and as a result that splendid premise seemed to me to have been wasted. A shame.