Although we tend to think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 –1930) only in terms of his fabulous creation, Sherlock Holmes, the man actually led a fascinating and full life in addition to writing brilliant detective stories and other fiction. He also was a medical doctor, a sportsman, a political activist, a spiritualist, a freemason and an advocate for justice. His work as a crusader for justice is the subject of Masterpiece Mystery’s three-part drama “Arthur & George,” in which Doyle took a prominent role in a campaign to overturn the conviction of a polite Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji.
Based on Julian Barnes’ well-reviewed novel of the same name, ITV’s television adaptation “Arthur & George” has everything going for it, yet, it doesn’t fully reach its high potential. ITV dumbed it down a bit, and threw in unnecessary Victorian atmospherics and two superfluous murders. The time would have been better spent delving deeper into the character of George, since we never really understand him. But it is still better than the vast majority of dramas one can watch on TV.
In 1903, in Great Wyrley, a village in the district of South Staffordshire, England, there were a series of mutilations of horses, cows and sheep, known as the “Great Wyrley Outrages.” George Edalji’s family had been the victims of a long-running racist campaign of untraceable abusive letters and anonymous harassment in 1888 and 1892-5. In 1903, new letters alleged that George was partially responsible for the Outrages, which caused the police suspicion to focus on him. He was tried and convicted for one attack on a pony, and served three years with hard labor.
In 1906, Doyle (well-acted by Martin Clunes, “Doc Martin”) was depressed and at loose ends when he received a request for help from the newly-paroled George (Arsher Ali), son of a local Anglican Vicar (Art Malik). Doyle was mourning the loss of his wife, Mary Louise (“Louisa”) to whom he had been devoted, if not particularly passionate. With the help of Alfred Wood (Charles Edwards, “Downton Abbey”), his private secretary, Doyle spends eight months investigating and searching for the perpetrators of the crimes.
In the first and third episodes, Doyle and Wood visit a highly atmospheric, foggy and frightening scene in Great Wyrley, complete with animal body parts hanging in the air. It looks like something out of a B-movie of “Jack the Ripper.” Later, with Doyle, we explore the unappetizing population of Great Wyrley, who spew ignorance, bigotry and vitriol. The police are unfortunately of the same ilk.
While the investigation continues, we are treated to glimpses into Doyle’s private life. While his wife, Louisa, was ailing, he had met Jean Leckie (nicely played by Hattie Morahan), with whom Doyle fell in love. Their budding romance, as well as the societal gossip it creates, are a welcome counterpoint to the nasty goings-on in Great Wyrley.
Using his deductive powers, energy and friends in high places, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle relentlessly pursues the truth, despite all obstructions and warnings-off, to an unambiguously happy ending. What Doyle accomplished for George has had lasting effects, since it led to the 1907 creation of a court of appeal for England, which has the power to overturn erroneous trial court verdicts.
“Arthur & George” is a fascinating historical tale, unfortunately with some slow scenes, some unnecessary blood and guts and some one-dimensional characters. Nevertheless, I’m recommending it, despite those caveats.