Wednesday 13 December 2017

Arthur and George turns Doyle into a clone of Sherlock

Martin Clunes as Arthur and Charles Edwards as Woodie
Martin Clunes as Arthur and Charles Edwards as Woodie

YOUR heart has a right to sink whenever ITV announces it’s going to dramatise a book you know and love. Look at the vandalism it inflicted on Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

Summerscale’s 2008 bestseller was a gripping and moving account of the investigation into the savage murder of the infant son of a wealthy, influential family in 1860. The case laid bare the class prejudice of Victorian England and caused the downfall of Scotland Yard’s greatest and most celebrated detective, Inspector Jack Whicher.

Whicher, a working-class man who’d risen through the ranks, correctly identified the murderer as the boy’s older half-sister but failed to find enough evidence to secure a conviction. His accusation outraged both her family and the establishment. Vilified in the press at the time, Whicher was vindicated five years later when the half-sister confessed. By then, though, his previously glittering career had been all but destroyed.

ITV’s 2011 feature-length adaptation, starring an uncomfortably-cast Paddy Consodine as Whicher, compressed Summerscale’s poignant book into a flat, humdrum murder mystery. Several completely fictionalised sequels which imagined the retired Whicher turning private eye compounded the damage.

And now comes Arthur & George, a three-part adaptation of Julian Barnes’s terrific novel based on an actual chapter in the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, played here by Martin Clunes with the aid of an impressive moustache and an even more impressive Edinburgh accent.

In 1907, Doyle, mourning the death of his wife, wracked with guilt over his feelings for his “platonic lover” Jean Leckie, and thoroughly bored by his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, took up the cause of Anglo-Indian solicitor George Edalji, who’d served three years’ hard labour for mutilating animals in the parish of Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, where his father was the vicar.

Edalji, portrayed in the drama by Arsher Ali (The Missing), was introverted, myopic and had a distinctly odd manner about him. He was also undoubtedly an innocent victim of trumped-up charges. His father, it emerged, had for years been enduring a hate campaign from hostile locals, which he’d kept hidden from the young George and his sister.

Doyle, who considered Edalji’s conviction and imprisonment a gross miscarriage of justice fuelled by blatant racism, vigorously set about proving his innocence, unmasking the real culprit and securing him a pardon.

It’s a fascinating story. Barnes’s novel gives as much space to vividly detailing the individual histories of Doyle and Edalji (they don’t even meet until halfway through the book) and their positions as outsiders who have absorbed “Englishness” as to the mystery itself.

Arthur & George the drama is not quite as grievous a botch job as that inflicted on Summerscale’s book; in fact, if you’re in the mood for an undemanding, middle of the road Edwardian mystery yarn, it’s perfectly acceptable. But that’s all it is.

It’s certainly not what anyone who read and enjoyed Barnes’s witty, elegant and thoroughly absorbing book would recognise as a satisfying adaptation. It’s not an adaptation at all, really, more of a loose riff.

Screenwriter Ed Whitmore amps up the thriller element to the exclusion of everything else. As Doyle and his faithful valet/secretary/sidekick “Woodie” Wood (Charles Edwards) chase a hooded figure through the Staffordshire mists in tonight’s episode, what we’re watching is a couple of Holmes and Watson analogues.

If ITV wanted to do a period Holmes story, why didn’t it just go ahead and do one?

Arthur and George, UTV/ITV 9pm

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