Curious case of Conan Doyle and Houdini in new play

Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will feature in the new production. Picture: AP

Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will feature in the new production. Picture: AP

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IT was an unlikely friendship struck up between the celebrated creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world’s most famous illusionist.

But the strong bond between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini eventually turned to bitterness due to deepening disagreements over spiritualism and the supernatural.

Comedian Phill Jupitus will portray the Edinburgh-born author. Picture: Getty

Comedian Phill Jupitus will portray the Edinburgh-born author. Picture: Getty

They were eventually to fall out completely after a growing crusade by Houdini against fraudulent mediums and “spiritual magicians”.

Now a new play is to retrace their relationship and the rift that saw the previously close companions reduced to writing letters to newspapers criticising one another.

Comedian Phill Jupitus will portray the Edinburgh-born author opposite Alan Cox, the actor son of the Dundee-born star Brian Cox, at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The show, part of the Pleasance line-up, promises to expose the “deadly feud” that developed between the writer and the magician, who met in 1920 during the latter’s tour of England.

‘Towards the end… they were carrying out a war of words’

It has been penned by writers Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, who have won acc­laim in recent years for Fringe plays inspired by the scandals which have engulfed the BBC, the coalition deal Nick Clegg struck with David Cameron five years ago and Boris Johnson’s prospects of becoming prime minister. However, their latest play, which will get its world premiere in Edinburgh this summer, will see them go back in time almost a century to relive what went on between one of Scotland’s greatest authors and the Budapest-born illusionist.

Salinsky told Scotland on Sunday: “I just imagined the story of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini had had this friendship, and then this feud was one that everyone knew.

“But when I started speaking to people about it, it turned out that very few people actually did and that no one had properly dramatised the story of that friendship before.

“At the time they met, Conan Doyle was by far the more fam­ous of the two men.”

Before then, Houdini was ess­entially writing him fan letters to try to get his approval for his own shows. “But towards the end they had completely fallen out and were carrying out a war of words in the press. What could have been a great friendship was completely wrecked.”

Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism and the supernatural was said to date back to the 1880s, when he was still in his early twenties, and he went on to join the Society for Psychical Research in 1893.

When Conan Doyle met Houdini, the latter appeared to have a strong interest and repeatedly stressed a desire to speak to his dead mother.

However, Houdini began to see through the tricks of the mediums that the author took him along to see and tried to convince the writer that only trickery was involved in his increasingly acclaimed stage performances, rather than paranormal abilities, as Conan Doyle firmly believed.

Jupitus said: “The weird thing is I’d heard about the arg­uments and the disputes between Conan Doyle and Houdini, but had no idea that they were also good mates at one time or how their friendship started.”

He added: “The tragedy is that Houdini dies and Conan Doyle is convinced that he will contact him. Then when he doesn’t, he thinks it’s out of stubbornness.”

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