Arthur and George is a three-part British television production based on the historical crime novel of the same name by Julian Barnes. Now I make all of my judgements from the television series as I haven’t read Mr Barnes’ novel.
Arthur and George is a fictionalised account of the successful attempt by Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to clear the name and criminal conviction of the Anglo-Indian George Edalji in 1906. Edalji had served a period of imprisonment following a conviction for animal mutilation. The case attracted the attention of Conan Doyle after he read about it in the newspapers.
In reality, Conan Doyle was successful in clearing Edalji’s name. Much like his creation Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle interviewed all parties concerned, visited the scenes of the crimes, sifted the evidence and, finally, was successful in exposing the folly of the original prosecution.
You can read some very good accounts of what actually happened in the better biographies of Conan Doyle. It was in many ways a most important case in the annals of British jurisprudence. It led to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. In itself, it is a gripping yarn that might well have come from the pen of the master himself.
The television production is, I think, a bit of a mixed bag. It is extremely well acted, though I find – as a Black Country boy myself – some of the Midland accents rather on the dodgy side.
Martin Clunes makes an admirable Conan Doyle, catching something of the bluff and determined nature of the man himself.
(For collectors of TV trivia, this production has some interesting Doylesian and Sherlockian links: Martin Clunes is the cousin of Jeremy Brett who played, I think, the definitive Holmes on television in the 1980s; Charles Edwards – who plays Conan Doyle’s secretary Wood (almost his Watson) in this programme – portrayed a younger Conan Doyle in the wonderful TV series Murder Rooms; the Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, alongside the late Ian Richardson as Dr Joseph Bell. Both series are well worth buying on DVD.)
There is a sub-plot in Arthur and George dealing with Conan Doyle’s guilt over his long relationship with Jean Leckie (later the second Lady Doyle) following the very recent death of his first wife Louise.
The production, certainly in the first episode, portrays the Edalji case more or less accurately. The second (the third is on this Monday night – you can see the first two on ITV catch-up TV) goes wildly astray from what actually happened, with chases, fights, and a good old-fashioned murder thrown in.
Now I know that fictionalising a real event is perfectly permissible, but in an account of the Edalji case it really wasn’t necessary. What actually happened to Edalji is gripping enough.
Despite these flaws the production has much to commend it. The acting (Midlands accents ignored) is generally very good. The set dressings and photography are quite superb. You really have the feeling that you are there. There have been some criticisms of Clunes’ Scottish accent. I thought it was rather good for an English actor.
It is worth seeing Arthur and George and it would be pleasing to see Martin Clunes play Conan Doyle again in some of the other real-life cases that the creator of Sherlock Holmes investigated.