ITV’s new period drama Arthur & George is based on a real-life crime mystery that inspired the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to turn detective.
Based on Julian Barnes’s novel of the same name, the three-part drama sees Martin Clunes’ Conan Doyle form a Watson-and-Holmes-style double-act with his secretary Alfred “Woodie” Wood, played by Downton Abbey star Charles Edwards.
The plot focuses on the pair’s attempts to clear George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor played by Arsher Ali (pictured below) who was imprisoned for a series of bizarre attacks on livestock in a small Staffordshire community in 1903 known as the Great Wyrley outrages.
But what do we know about the real Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer to whom Benedict Cumberbatch owes so much?
Here is our guide to the legendary scribe…
His real name was Doyle
Conan is a middle name. And his full name was Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle. He added the Conan shortly after leaving school. Get him!
He was a sporting pioneer, first as a motorist….
Conan Doyle was one of Britain’s very first Jeremy Clarksons, reportedly buying a car before he could even drive. He also took part in in the 1911 Prince Henry Tour, an international road competition organised by Prince Henry of Prussia to pit British cars against German ones.
..and as a cricketer…
Conan Doyle was on the same cricket team – the Allahakbarries – as Peter Pan writer JM Barrie and Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne. He also took a first class wicket as a bowler – the scalp of none none other than the great W.G Grace.
..and as a footballer
Under the pseudonym AC Smith, the writer played as a goalkeeper for amateur side Portsmouth Association Football Club, a precursor of the modern Portsmouth FC.
…and as a skier
Conan Doyle was also one of the first British skiers and predicted – correctly – that hordes of Europeans would one day take up the sport. Skiing widows today can blame the Sherlock Holmes creator for their travails.
He was a less successful politician…
He ran for Parliament as a member of the Liberal Unionist Party in 1900 and 1906 and failed to be elected on both occasions.
…And an even less successful eye doctor
He set up an ophthalmology practice in London (a blue plaque marks the spot at No. 2 Upper Wimpole St, London W1) but wrote in his autobiography that not a single patient ever crossed his door. But this did mean that he could dedicate more time to his writing.
Sherlock Holmes was based on someone real
Holmes was partially modelled on his former university teacher Joseph Bell. “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes,” he wrote to him. “Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.” Dr (John) Watson owes his surname, but probably little else, to a Portsmouth medical colleague of Conan Doyle’s, Dr James Watson.
But Conan Doyle didn’t like Sherlock very much
In November 1891 he wrote to his mother: “I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” His mother responded, “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” In order to dampen his publisher’s constant demand for Holmes stories he inflated his fees – but found they were still keen to accept his rates, making him one of the best-paid authors of his day.
He probably wasn’t made a Sir for his Sherlock Holmes books
By the time he was Knighted in 1902, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were massive hits, but most people believe he was made a Sir for a short pamphlet called The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct which pleased the authorities by praising the British military campaign in South Africa.
He had some unconventional ideas
Conan Doyle was convinced by the Cottingley Fairy photographs, the famous 1917 hoax, and even spent vast sums of his own money promoting them. He also wrote a book, The Coming of the Fairies in 1921 about their authenticity. Conan Doyle was an advocate of spiritualism as well – many think to deal with his grief over the death during the First World War of his beloved eldest son Kingsley. He often used mediums – something which brought him into conflict with his friend the escapologist Harry Houdini who believed they were fraudsters. Conan Doyle chose to believe that Houdini was himself a spiritualist who denied his own talents. They fell out.
He never contacted the living after his own death
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930 aged 71 of a heart attack. He collapsed in his garden, clutching his heart with one hand and holding a flower in the other. His last words were to his (second) wife, whispering: “You are wonderful.” A séance was conducted at the Royal Albert Hall after his death attended by thousands including his wife and children. But he never appeared…
Arthur & George airs on ITV on Mondays at 9pm