Martin Clunes on playing Sherlock creator Arthur Conan Doyle

ITV's new period drama Arthur & George is based on a real-life crime mystery that inspired the author to turn sleuth

More than one person has also asked Clunes’s wife Philippa Braithwaite, who is his business partner and the executive producer on Arthur & George, whether she’s been spending a lot of time in Baker Street making the film. “There’s undoubtedly been a Sherlock Holmes revival,” says Braithwaite. “The Doyle interest has almost been a lucky coincidence – Sherlock hadn’t come out when I started working on this, but it’s become huge in the meantime.” 

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The recent Sherlock obsession means that most people will know more about Holmes than they do about the writer who dreamt him up. Born in 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle was a self-made man from Edinburgh who trained as a doctor. Applying the diagnostic tools he learned in medicine to detection, he created the character of Sherlock Holmes, with his university teacher Joseph Bell very much in mind.

The first Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet appeared in 1887 and by the time it was followed by The Sign of Four in 1890, Doyle was a sensation.The success of the Sherlock Holmes stories made him hugely wealthy, but publishers weren’t interested in his ideas for books on other subjects – they just wanted more Holmes.

Doyle was reluctant to comply, leaving him with not only the means but the time to pursue his many passion projects. “He was like Toad of Toad Hall,” says Clunes, “because he had all these interests, except he didn’t pick them up and drop them – he saw them through.”

Doyle thought he’d like to go to war – so he took himself off to the Boer War and served as a medic in 1900. He heard Norwegian polar explorer and champion skier Fridtjof Nansen speak in London – so he took himself off to Switzerland and learned to ski. He was also a decent cricketer and once dismissed the legendary batsman WG Grace.

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But Doyle’s wealth and celebrity also made him bombastic and self-regarding. In the Edalji case he saw no reason why he shouldn’t turn his hand to detection and succeed where the police had failed. “He genuinely believed that if he said this man was innocent then this man was innocent,” says Braithwaite. “If he told the world, if he wrote to the papers and said, ‘You’ve got it all wrong – I’m the creator of Sherlock Holmes, I know these things, this man’s innocent,’ he thought they’d all say, ‘Oh, of course, yes. Of course he is.’”