Stephen Mangan: I thought we needed some more Sherlock in our lives

The star of Houdini & Doyle on joining the super sleuth’s world, accents and his interesting technique for learning lines

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Stepping into the role of famed author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for ITV’s brand new drama Houdini & Doyle, Stephen Mangan laughs: “I thought we needed some more Sherlock in our lives…”

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It’s a busy time to come into the world of Sherlock after all. The ten-part series arrives not long after the channel’s own Arthur & George with Martin Clunes, as well as joining an arena dominated by BBC’s Benedict Cumberbatch-fronted mega-hit. But Mangan says he’s got no concerns about competing with other versions of the super sleuth and his creator.

“You feel no more pressure,” Mangan told RadioTimes.com. “Your pressure is to make something interesting and worth watching: that’s always the pressure, that’s always there. The more well known you become, the more pressure there is. I don’t care about the fact that there’s a well-known Sherlock thing going on.

“We did Dirk Gently at the same time that Sherlock came along,” he added, speaking of the BBC adaptation of Douglas Adams’ novels which was cancelled after just one series. “Sherlock was a huge, just extraordinary hit worldwide, but I was still really proud of what we did with Dirk Gently, you know? It’s like the old football manager speak, you can only concentrate on your own results, you can’t really worry about other teams and what they get up to.”

As for where we’re at in Doyle’s life, he’s just killed off Sherlock for the first time and he’s struggling to brush off the feeling he’s a one-trick pony. His pal Houdini (Michael Weston) – for all his showmanship – is trying to debunk the mystics and the psychics who he thinks are ripping off vulnerable people, clashing with Doyle’s own beliefs in the supernatural. Amid all of this bickering, they fight some crimes. 

There’s a different feel to each episode, ranging from vampires to a psychological, and somewhat trippy, episode that sees Doyle end up in a cell with Sherlock Holmes (played here by Ewen Bremner).

“Essentially there’s lots of shots of Houdini being hung upside down in chains into glass tanks and diving manfully into frozen lakes… and there’s lots of shots of me sitting at a typewriter not being able to write. In some ways, it’s not the sexiest part, in other ways, I was inside,” Mangan laughs.

“The Edwardian X-Files is the best way to think of it I suppose.”

Mangan’s taking on the role devoid of Doyle’s characteristic Scottish accent, which Clunes came under fire for last year – a decision the actor admits he didn’t fight.

“The American producers were pretty clear that they wanted him to sound English. I’ve listened online to his actual voice, it’s pretty extraordinary. Even for a Scottish accent it’s a pretty unique voice and I think it would have sounded pretty peculiar.

“We make so many changes to reality. We muck about with time, place and character,” Mangan added. “The whole thing is really a construct hung on a real friendship, but once you get to the end of their friendship and what they’ve done with the rest of it is pretty much made up.”

Mangan’s preparation is extensive, recording an entire scene before filming in which he plays every single part. 

“I record the scene reading everyone else’s lines, leaving the appropriate gap for my lines. So then I literally hit play and I have to play the scene along with myself as it were. If I don’t know the line well enough the next line will come in. I just sit in a room and do that. It is an almighty pain in the arse, I have to say.

“I know everyone else’s lines. You should hear all the various accents I do for all the men, women and children. If those tapes ever got out… I think they’d be a bigger hit than any show I’ve ever been in just because they’re so awful.”

But he may need to get used to those other parts, with a five-year option signed on Houdini & Doyle. 

“Not many shows go on to be that successful so chance’ll be a fine thing for it to be that successful, but I’m very proud of it so I think it could well be.”

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Houdini & Doyle will premiere on ITV and ITV Encore at the same time on March 13th at 10:15pm. The series will then continue on ITV Encore from March 17th at 9:00pm each week. The series also airs on FOX in the US from May 2nd