Doyle expected to be revered as much as his creation Sherlock Holmes, as if he was the only man who could possibly take this case on. That’s not what happened – in real life both the police and the public were suspicious of this writer who thought he was a detective. Yet the parallels between him and Holmes are striking. Doyle had his own Watson in the form of Alfred “Woodie” Wood (played by Charles Edwards, below in this adaptation), his manservant, who was an Army major and his master’s confidante.
Like Holmes, Doyle had little faith in the police, lobbying parliament for police reform. But the reforms he was suggesting were, in Martin Clunes’s words, “potty” – he earnestly believed that every police force should have a psychic on their books. That idea came from Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism, another obsession that would dominate his later life.
For a man renowned for logic and deduction he was surprisingly gullible, authenticating several photos that purported to show fairies and championing cranks who promised links to the afterlife. (It was for this reason that he fell out with escapologist and showman Harry Houdini. Doyle thought Houdini was blessed with supernatural powers, whereas Houdini had no time for “miracle mongers”.)
Martin Clunes and Charles Edwards in Arthur & George
George Edalji was eventually given a free pardon thanks to Doyle’s efforts, but he didn’t have it all his own way. “Edalji was never compensated,” says Clunes, “and Doyle was p***ed off about that – the powers that be did kind of say, ‘Shut up, writer.’ ”
Nevertheless, Doyle went on to investigate a number of other cases. Oscar Slater was a German Jew sentenced to life imprisonment in 1909 for the murder of Marion Gilchrist. In 1912 Doyle applied the Sherlock method and questioned the prosecution’s evidence in a pamphlet entitled The Case of Oscar Slater. Slater was eventually released in 1927, though again his name was never cleared.
And in 1926 Doyle’s literary heir apparent Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared for 11 days, in a case that enthralled the nation. Naturally, Doyle was called upon to investigate, although by this late stage in his life the best he could muster was to take one of Christie’s discarded gloves to a medium. It proved nothing.
The material, then, is there, as well as the idiosyncratic lead – could Doyle himself be TV’s next great detective?
“If this goes well then perhaps it’s something we’d like to continue,” says Clunes. “We’re sort of ready for that. Not every year, but to do a three-parter every now and again. The character can maintain – and we haven’t even touched on his spiritualism. Now that would be fun.”
Arthur and George is on ITV tonight (Monday 2nd March) at 9pm