Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Martin Clunes interview: The actor stars as the Sherlock Holmes creator in Arthur & George

GERARD GILBERT  Author Biography  
Wednesday 25 February 2015

"When I tell people I'm playing Arthur Conan Doyle on TV, some of them ask, 'Oh, is Benedict Cumberbatch in it?'," says Martin Clunes, illustrating a common blurring of distinction between the creator of Sherlock Holmes and his creation. Sitting in a carriage on a steam train on the Bluebell Railway line in Sussex (the same locomotives used in Downton Abbey, as it happens), with Clunes suited, booted and cloaked in full Victorian-Holmesian outwear, it's easy to understand the confusion. "London taxi drivers tell me that American tourists have sort of heard of Conan Doyle," he says, as we chug through the countryside, "but they think he was a prime minister. Mind you, they also think Sherlock was prime minister."

So to be clear: Clunes is filming a scene in ITV's new three-hour adaptation of Julian Barnes's 2005 novel Arthur & George, in which Barnes fictionalised real events from 1903 when Conan Doyle – rich and famous from the proceeds of his Sherlock Holmes stories, but widowed and bored – took it on himself to investigate what he saw as a miscarriage of justice. Staffordshire solicitor George Edalji, the Anglo-Indian son of a vicar – and the victim apparently of long-standing racial prejudice – had been convicted of mutilating livestock. "There's no way he could have cut those animals," says Clunes. "He was a bookish, disabled, poor-eye-sighted solicitor."

Clunes's wife, and the co-owner of a production company that also makes the actor's enduring ITV hit Doc Martin, Philippa Braithwaite, optioned Barnes's novel – with no real intention, she tells me, of casting her husband as Conan Doyle. "It wasn't written for Martin; it was just because I loved the book," she says. "I didn't know anything about Conan Doyle. I just picked up this book and it was a real case that just seemed so bizarre. And this was before any of the big Sherlock Holmes revivals had started really, so it was a coincidence that Sherlock had become so huge while we were working on this."

"I knew she was beavering away on this and slugging it out with Julian Barnes's agent and trying to satisfy them," says Clunes. "When I read the book I couldn't instantly see what Philippa had seen because it doesn't scream out 'televise me' when you read it, but she's obviously much smarter than I am." Peter Fincham, director of television at ITV, had, in his previous job as controller of BBC1, tried to persuade the channel to film Barnes's novel, but had been told it was "BBC2". "In the way that people say those things," says Clunes.


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