TV - Stephen Mangan, Houdini & Doyle

Stephen Mangan

With Houdini & Doyle coming on Sunday to ITV, here is an interview that ITV did with Stephen Mangan who plays Arthur Conan Doyle...

Doyle believes in the paranormal, or rather he doesn’t believe the paranormal is paranormal at all – it is simply undiscovered science - and having lost loved ones, he’s desperate to find a way of communicating with the departed. Doyle needs Houdini because he knows he has a certain amount of gullibility. The series starts with both Houdini and Doyle going through personal crises. Doyle’s killed off Sherlock to pursue more meaningful pursuits, like figuring out what happens when we die.

Stephen Mangan is an English actor, best known for his starring television roles in Episodes, Green Wing and I’m Alan Partridge. He is an acclaimed stage actor, having been nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Norman in Broadway’s The Norman Conquests. He also starred as Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, which won the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Mangan made his feature film debut in the hit movie Billy Elliot, and appeared on the big screen in director Ron Howard’s Rush.

Q: What appealed to you about the series?

A: Your first question is always, ‘Who’s involved? Who’s creatively in charge?’ because my experience has taught me that if that person is good, then something interesting and worthwhile will happen. You can never guarantee anything will be a success. But if the one person at the top of the tree knows what they’re doing then it certainly helps. So when I found out that person was David Shore, who created House, it was a very simple decision. I read a couple of scripts and agreed to do it.

Q: What is the relationship between Houdini and Doyle?

A: It’s based on a real life friendship, or acquaintanceship, the two men had. They were very famous figures of their day. Houdini the master showman, escapologist, who was very keen to debunk what he saw as the charlatans who preyed on vulnerable people: psychics, mediums, mystics. Arthur Conan Doyle was very much a believer in an afterlife, in spirits, in the ability to contact the dead for people who are sensitive enough to do that. Yes, there were a lot of charlatans, but he was keen to prove, through science, that was an afterlife existed. So they did actually meet in real life and in our story, they come together and look at crimes that have a supernatural element. For example, a nun is murdered. The other nuns think it was by a ghost. In come our heroes.

They’re both huge admirers of each other’s works - and I think they were in real life - but they won’t admit it. On an intellectual challenge, if Doyle can convince Houdini there is an afterlife, he can convince anybody. So we see the other person’s thought as the ultimate goal for our belief. If you can convince them - very smart, famous, learned men - you’ll triumph.

Also, of course, Houdini (Michael Weston) is American and Doyle is a Brit, so we have that conflict. Houdini is the brash showman who’s come over from New York. He’s very gobby, like a little Tigger bouncing around full of energy. Arthur Conan Doyle is a well respected author and a renaissance man. He played football for Portsmouth, cricket for the MCC, he was a doctor, created one of the most famous characters in the history of fiction in Sherlock Holmes. He was such a polymath. An amazing sportsman as well as a brilliant writer and a great medic. It makes you tired just thinking about it.

Q: Do they team up with anyone else?

A: Rebecca Liddiard plays Adelaide Stratton, the first female police constable at Scotland Yard. She joins Houdini and Doyle in their investigations and gives us so many more possibilities. We have two men who are really well established in their lives and careers. Big stars. And it’s great to counterpoint that with not only someone at the beginning of their career but a groundbreaking pioneer, to be the first woman police officer. We fiddled around with the timeline. No one is going to sue us, I hope. As Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini are dead, we’re probably safe. So we have someone star ting out and having to deal with these two egos. In the middle. And someone fighting her own battles to get recognition in very much a male world.

Q: What did people believe back then?

A: Obviously lots of people believe in spirits or the afterlife today. But it’s not considered now as scientific to use it as a means to crack a murder case. But in those days, what else did you have? There were no forensics, no fingerprints - unless you caught someone stabbing somebody through the heart you really didn’t have much to go on. Doyle’s views on the spirit life were quite a respectable position to take at that time. There were those famous fake photos of the girl and the fairies - the Cottingley fairies. A lot of very smart people believed those to be genuine.

Q: Are the supernatural elements always explained?

A: It’s a bit like the Edwardian X-Files. As no one on this planet has yet proven scientifically that ghosts or spirits exist, we can’t do that either. But at the same time it’s not always a case of Houdini being proved right and Conan Doyle being proved wrong. Occasionally things happen that are left unexplained and seem mysterious. Not every single crime is explained. It would be dull if that was the case. As much as I love Scooby Doo, as a crime drama it starts to get a little bit predictable after a while. And you don’t want that. What I love about this show is that every episode is written by a different person and they all have very different feelings.

Every episode has a different feel and a different flavour and tone. I think that’s really good. It’s a very fertile period. An old England that’s now long gone, but it had that very rigid structure where everyone knew their place. The class system was fully functioning.

Q: Have you ever had an experience you could not explain?

A: No, I haven’t. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle I am not a believer in the afterlife, a spirit life. I believe whenever anything spooky or weird happens there’s normally some sort of explanation. Whether we’ll ever know what it is, that’s another matter.

Q: There is a real sadness in Doyle’s life. Can you explain this please?

A: Yes, there is sadness in his life. He is struggling with the fact his wife in not very well and he has to cope with their two young children. As an actor it’s a joy to play a character who has a volcano of sadness inside him. But it comes up against what is expected of a man in those times. Men weren’t going around hugging each other or breaking down or going to therapy. You were very much expected to be brave, not to cry, stiff upper lip and all that. And that’s just a joy as an actor. To have that dam of emotion playing up against such a solid wall.

Q: Does being a husband and father in real life help play that side of Doyle?

A: It does. Very much so. Louise Delamere, who is my actual wife, is playing my wife Touie in this. So that was great and strange as well. Our children are going to have to be in their thirties before they can watch their mother in a coma and their father standing over her crying.

Q: Did either of you have any qualms about co-starring together as husband and wife?

A: Yes, we did. We were nervous that it might be difficult. And in some ways it is. Because when you’re actors you may know someone a bit but normally you’re star ting from scratch so you can build your relationship with them at the same time as you build the characters’ relationship. You can do the whole thing together. But obviously if you’ve been married for 10 years then you have a whole history of other stuff that’s harder to strip away. But I’m glad we did it. We had to kiss in one flashback scene. It felt very weird kissing in front of lots of men in the camera crew.

Q: How would you describe Doyle’s look?

A: We’ve got some amazing suits which have all been made for us. Silk waistcoats and proper two-piece collars, with collar studs - all men should rejoice at the fact we don’t have to wear those any more because they are fairly uncomfortable.

Q: And a moustache?

A: The moustache is real. I’m actually delighted and really enjoy having it. I wish I’d been born in 1880 so I could wear one all the time. Half the job is done for me. I don’t need to act with a moustache like this. But I can’t keep it. We’ve got to do Episodes again in the spring of 2016 so it’ll have to come off. But it was easy to grow. I had a beard when I did a play on Broadway three or four years ago. So my facial hair growing capabilities are strong. 

Fog filming

Q: How did you film the opening scene of the series?

A: You find Houdini and Doyle drowning at the very beginning of the first episode. We are in a cellar. A mischievous - some might say, downright naughty - nun has let us fall into this terrible predicament. It will come as no surprise to anyone that we manage to get out of it somehow. Otherwise it would be a very short series. We shot most of it in a day. They got a shipping container and then filled it up with water. So we were inside this watery container in a car park in Manchester. We tried it once and the walls of the shipping container started to bow, because water is obviously incredibly heavy. So they had to reinforce it.

In the scene the water level is rising and we’re running out of air. And even though it was a grill above us - so we weren’t under a solid ceiling - we were still down to the last two or three inches of space. And you feel your heart really starting to pound. Because even though you intellectually know you’ll be all right, your body is going, ‘This is not good. You shouldn’t be doing this.’ That’s one of the few stunts I do. On the whole Michael does most of them. He was suspended upside down in a straitjacket and lowered into a tube of water. He’s always leaping around whilst I’m typing at a typewriter.

Q: Does Doyle have any other action scenes?

A: He punches Sergeant George Gudgett, played by Adam Nagaitis, and knocks him out. I haven’t been in many shows where I get to punch people. I don’t tend to play those kind of characters. And even though Doyle is not really that sort of man, when it’s necessary he’ll step up to the plate. So I enjoyed that. Storming down the corridor in Manchester Town Hall and laying him out with a right hook.

We’ve filmed a scene where a knife is held to my throat and the actor misjudged the knife. He’s supposed to throw my head forward, throw it back and then hold up a knife. He threw my head forward, pulled up the knife and took a big chunk out of the bottom of my face. It was a stunt knife but he hit me with quite a lot of force. But I was fine. It’s all part of the war wounds and the mystique of the hard man actor.

Q: In the series do Houdini and Doyle get physical? 

A: In the story Houdini slaps me awake but does it one or two times too many. Then later on I get the chance to return the favour and slap him a few times too many. But they actually filmed the scenes where Doyle slaps Houdini first rather than second. So I knew I had to be careful, otherwise I was going to get repaid in spades later.

Q: What were some of the other memorable scenes?

A: I spent a thrilling afternoon lying in the Derbyshire countryside in a pair of Victorian long johns. There’s something for everyone in this show. We’ve had some really fantastically odd days. That episode is all about aliens and visitors from outer space. It’s a real mix and a joy to do.

We also filmed in the Peak Cavern - also known as the Devil’s Arse - in Derbyshire, which is an enormous system of caves. That was rather fantastic. Although two or three days filming in a cave starts to mess with your head after a while.

We filmed in a couple of graveyards, including Highbury in London. They always provide really dramatic lighting. Huge great towers with a shaft of light coming through and they fill the whole place with smoke. It’s really atmospheric.

Q: Where did you film scenes of Doyle’s London home?

A: His home is filmed in Liverpool. We filmed most of the series in Liverpool and Manchester and the architecture there is fantastic and largely unspoilt. There are huge areas of Liverpool that are perfectly preserved, Regency and Victorian streets. So we filmed that on, appropriately enough, the street where all the doctors are. It’s the Harley Street of Liverpool and a beautiful old five storey house. We didn’t have to do too much to it at all. It had been kept in a great state.

We’ve used some beautiful locations. Some days on set was like going through a time machine. You walk out and there are horses and carriages, the very first early cars. It was a joy.

Q: Did filming attract a great deal of attention?

A: Yes it has attracted attention. I think people are fascinated to see - as I was - a whole street transformed back 110 years. All the road signs are taken away, all the road markings go. You have maybe 30 or 40 extras in full, proper Edwardian gear with all of the facial hair and proper haircuts. It’s magical to see that happen and a real privilege.

Q: What car does Doyle drive?

A: Doyle drives a red Wolseley Roadster. It’s very peculiar. Because the thing about filming is often you’re required to come shooting down a driveway and then pull up and stop on a mark. And they want you to hit it to within two or three inches. Well this car, there’s no brake pedal. You put up the revs via a lever on the steering column and the brake is just a lever on the side of the car which you pull up, it then starts to slow the car down in its own sweet time. And you’re moving quite quickly.

So you basically have to guess some distance away when to start pulling the lever to try and hit this mark. It was not easy. Car design has come on a little bit in the last 110 years. I kept stalling it trying to put it into reverse and drive it back. But when I first got in it, it took off like the clappers and I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my, this could all end in tears.’ You don’t mind crashing a Mini Metro, which I have done on set before. You do mind writing off a 1904 red Wolseley. The owner was there having a panic attack behind a pillar.

Q: What was it like working with Michael Weston?

A: He’s great. I think you know really quickly whether someone is in it for the right reasons. You’re always looking for someone who will work hard but not take themselves too seriously. That’s the thing you really hope for. And he is fantastic. Very creative. Lots of ideas and a good bloke.

Q: Where are you filming the last two episodes?

A: In Canada which is exciting. We have the same showrunners overseeing it so they’ve kept the continuity. There comes a point on a show like this where actually the actors are the people who have been around the longest and know the show and the characters better than anyone else almost. So in conjunction with the writers, I’m pretty confident it won’t suddenly turn into a completely different drama.

Q: Houdini says, ‘Fear is a good thing.’ Doyle believes it erodes your strength. Where do you stand?

A: A little fear is useful in every life, as long as it’s not overwhelming. It’s good for us to put ourselves in situations that we don’t know how they’re going to turn out. Otherwise life becomes very predictable and dull.

Every time I do a play in the theatre I stand in the wings before the first show and I can’t imagine why I ever thought it would be a good idea. But you’ve got to test yourself and keep testing yourself. I’ll be worried when the fear goes completely.

Q: How would you sum up the appeal of Houdini and Doyle?

A: It’s a lot of some familiar things done very well. It’s a crime drama. There’s a reason why there are so many around, and it’s because they hook you in. You just want to know whodunit. But at the same time there is a variety in each show. Each episode is like a self-contained film all on its own plus a double act. Again, a classic formula. Two very different blokes. I think they have fallen upon two fascinating characters in Houdini and Doyle. It’s exciting, compelling and funny. And a real bonanza for anyone turned on by moustaches.

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