Martin Clunes admits he was daunted by the idea of playing one of Britain’s most celebrated authors.
“I was quite terrified by the thought of playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but my wife, Philippa, had spent a great deal of time optioning the book and doing deals with agents, writers and ITV,” Martin says.
“Arthur and George is a hugely successful book, and Julian Barnes didn’t need us to make a television programme of it. Philippa very patiently and persistently pursued the idea. She swears there was no pressure, but there was pressure!” Martin jokes.
“I am sure if somebody else had said: ‘why don’t you do this’ I would have said: ‘I’m a bit scared’.It is quite outside my comfort zone in a way. My comfort zone has been Doc Martin or documentaries about animals. That has been my life for so long, with little bits of acting along the way but never in the title role.
“This is quite big. Conan Doyle is a very famous Scotsman, so I had to speak with an authentic Scottish accent as well.
“At the time we find him in the story his wife has been dying of consumption for about nine years. They have all known it was going to come.
“She dies right at the beginning of our story, which puts him in a strange place because he had been seeing Jean Leckie - you couldn’t say he had been having an affair because we are pretty certain it hadn’t been consummated. His relationship with Jean was quite openly known about, even his wife knew, and the whole family knew too.
“They all gave the friendship their blessing. But when his wife died he went into a spiral of guilt and became fed up with his own invention, Sherlock Holmes. He couldn’t get his other books published, couldn’t get people interested in them and they weren’t shifting.
“Having said that there was an enormous appetite for Sherlock Holmes stories, as there still is today. In his mail one morning, in this strange state, he gets a letter from George Edalji with press cuttings telling the story of how he had been wrongfully imprisoned for these ghastly crimes against livestock.
“It triggers something in his imagination, and he gets fired up, and tries to use Sherlock Holmes’ forensic methods to solve the case. It is kind of frustrating for him, because it is the real world, it is not fiction, and he can’t write what is going to happen, so things come and trip him up and surprise him.
“I think he’s seized on this case as a distraction and something to occupy his mind. I think when you are very, very sad and you have nothing to do it makes you sadder.
“I think he becomes aware of that so he throws himself wholeheartedly into this, with great energy, and quite single mindedly. That does seem to nourish him as the story unfolds, even though it doesn’t necessarily go as he’d like it to go, it is still the whole act of doing it which invigorates him.
“What I love about the story is he had this tortured seven year relationship. Then when SirArthur’s wife did die he went on this massive guilt trip. Working on this case sort of allowed him to marry Jean Leckie, and they did live happily ever after. Then they had three children. It was a tremendous love, and I like that. It could have fallen by the wayside, but it didn’t.”
Martin had read Julian Barnes book, and prepared for his leading role in the drama by researching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the internet.
“I know the true story from Julian Barnes’ book, but you can never just televise a book, everything has to be translated. That is why Ed Whitmore, who has written the adaptation, has done so brilliantly because he writes contemporary crime thrillers. He has given that sort of spin to it.”
Martin says his research showed Sir Arthur to be “quite bombastic, confident to the point possibly of arrogance, but not insensitive and definitely intelligent, and quite a Toad of Toad Hall. He was a man of adventure and hungry for experience. His wealth allowed him to investigate.”
Some of Martin’s favourite moments during the shoot came when they were filming in central London early on Sunday mornings with horses and carriages. “One day we were filming at Somerset House. We had horses and carriages, a car from the period, gentlemen and ladies in hats all in front of that building. It was terribly exciting and magical.”
Martin enjoyed a great rapport with Charles Edwards who plays his trusted secretary, Woodie.
“Charles is great. Alfred Wood was referred to as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s manservant, which I am sure is the right word for it at the time. But for our ears it doesn’t sound enough because he also performed secretarial duties and dealt with his mail. He was his complete right hand man.
“Alfred Wood is every inch the English gent as he was in real life. He was a great cricketer, great soldier and a great school teacher and very bright. I like to think there’s a part of him that Sir Arthur looks up to. The relationship has been effortless and Charles is superb as Woodie.”
And Martin says he would be more than happy to explore the possibility of bringing more Conan Doyle stories to the screen.
“Historically this wasn’t the only investigation Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became involved in. If people enjoy watching this and ITV are happy with that, then I am sure we could adapt some more of those cases.”
Arthur and George is on ITV on Monday at 9pm.