When it comes to PBS, I admit to suffering from a chronic case of Brit fatigue. With the surfeit of British imports, there are so many times I’d kill to hear an American accent on “Masterpiece” (as long as it’s not Jeremy Piven’s on “Mr. Selfridge”).
Absent any motivation to go shopping in other countries, PBS is inextricably committed to imported crumpets, though, and with a few minor exceptions, you can’t really argue with their overall quality, especially when a real winner comes along like “Arthur & George,” an exceptional three-part miniseries premiering Sunday.
The Arthur of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, whom we meet in middle age as his first wife is on her deathbed and his fame has become a wearisome thing. A package arrives at the Conan Doyle residence in the first episode. It turns out to be a painter’s interpretation of the author’s notable creation. Arthur (Martin Clunes, “Doc Martin”) quickly covers the painted face with a book.
A Sherlock Holmes book. No matter what he does, Arthur can never escape his greatest creation.
For several years, Arthur has maintained a close but chaste friendship with a woman named Jean Leckie (Hattie Morahan), who seems to be the only person in England not enamored with Sherlock Holmes. Arthur is in love with her, but plagued by guilt about his divided affections during his wife’s final years.
In search of both a distraction and a way of atoning for what he insists on calling his adultery, Arthur and his secretary, Alfred Wood (Charles Edwards), go off to reopen the case against a mixed-race solicitor named George Edalji (Arsher Ali), who has recently finished a three-year prison term for maiming a horse and allegedly other local livestock in what has become known as the Great Wyrley Outrages.
George’s race may or may not be a factor in his conviction, as well in the near universal disdain with which he’s met after he’s released from prison.
The miniseries is based on actual events and on the novel of the same name by Julian Barnes, which is lovingly adapted by Ed Whitmore. The novelist’s hand is felt in the thrillingly subtle parallels we find between Conan Doyle’s real-life crime solving and that of Sherlock Holmes. The message, of course, is that even in real life, the author cannot shake Sherlock.
The most obvious parallel is that, like Holmes, Conan Doyle has a faithful factotum in the person of “Woody,” Alfred Wood. But there are less apparent connections, whose discovery will delight Holmes fanatics. I’ll just give you one: In their investigation, Conan Doyle and Woody meet a young farmer whose father was the local schoolmaster when George was a boy. The father, alas, is no longer with us, apparently having slipped and fallen to his death at a nearby waterfall. At the time the real-life story takes place, Conan Doyle has apparently killed off his vexing hero by having him tumble over Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, in a fatal embrace with his archenemy, Moriarty.
“Arthur & George” is a “Masterpiece Mystery” presentation, and rightly so – we’re certainly caught up in the whole whodunit aspect of the Outrages case – but the miniseries has far more depth and character nuance than you’ll find in, say, a “Marple” or a “Poirot.” Much of that owes to Whitmore’s attention to the telling details of character development and, of course, to the performances, especially Clunes.
There are some actors who inhabit a role so completely, their real-life identity almost disappears. For years, we knew Clunes chiefly as the eponymous big-city transplant to small-town England known as “Doc Martin,” who has left his surgical practice behind him for a very logical reason: He can’t stand the sight of blood. The British comedy seemed tailor made for Clunes, so much so that he is as identified with the role as David Suchet is at this point with the role of Hercule Poirot.
Yet, here he is with an entirely different persona, as the world’s most famous mystery author, who may be able to sort out crimes on the page, and perhaps in real life, but stumbles when it comes to sorting out his own personal life and feelings.
Clunes isn’t the only reason “Arthur & George” is such a keeper, but he certainly seals the deal.
“Arthur & George” airs at 8 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 6-20 on UNC-TV.