From the start of Arthur & George, we’ve been bouncing back and forth between fact and fiction. The characters in the story were real people. The premise and circumstances are real as well. How the events surrounding them transpired, well, much of that appears to be pure conjecture in this dramatization.
Let’s take for example the connection between George Edalji and the nefarious Hayden Price, whom we are told was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s nefarious Professor Moriarty.
Early in Part 3, George (Arsher Ali) tells Arthur (Martin Clunes) that the two met in prison, where Price saved his life. George understandably feels indebted to Price and despite knowing the type of character he is, George maintains a relationship with him after they both have been released from prison. That’s a swell story, but none of it appears to be based in fact.
So when we finally reach the heart-pounding climax of the miniseries, you can’t be blamed for wondering just how much of this stuff really happened.
We don’t do spoilers here, but it’s safe to say that the way things play out in the TV version of Arthur & George veer wildly away from actual, documented events. The miniseries gives us colorful yokels with a taste for John Milton, gentleman sleuths, muddy footprints, and “follow that car!” chases through picturesque turn-of-the-century streets. As if the reality of George Edalji’s story isn’t enough to capture the imagination.
But Edalji’s story is intriguing and significant. How significant? It’s not a spoiler to point out that his case contributed to the establishment of the Criminal Court of Appeals. Fleshing out the dramatization with facts, of which there are many unexplained, would have been better than inventing a kooky story about snowdrops to pump up an unnecessary romantic subplot.
How intriguing? It’s a bit of a spoiler to say that while George Edalji was eventually pardoned, the actual perpetrator of the Great Wyrley Outrage of 1903 was never identified with certainty. The case continues to tantalize. That’s why it’s been studied and written about for decades. It’s why Julian Barnes wrote the 2005 novel on which the miniseries is based. It’s why the case of George Edalji is still being investigated and examined. Just a few months ago interest rekindled when a strange packet of letters between Arthur Conan Doyle and Chief Constable Anson of the Staffordshire Police came up for sale at an auction in London. (In the miniseries, Anson, played by Matthew Marsh, mockingly tells Arthur, “[Juries] do not wait for a sign from above like table-turners at a séance.” It’s a jab at Doyle’s penchant for spiritualism. Suffice it to say the real-life Doyle and Anson weren’t pals.)
Arthur & George, the miniseries, is never able to settle on what it wants to be. History, mystery, romance, biography, social commentary… they all figure into the mix in superficial ways that remain underdeveloped and unsatisfying. (The same might be said for the characters of Jean Leckie and the Reverend Shapurji Edalji. They’re played by Hattie Morahan and Art Malik, two fine actors whose talents are squandered in minor roles.)
It’s an entertaining diversion that you’re likely to forget when it wraps up. Unless it tempts you to investigate the case of George Edalji yourself. Then prepare to dig in, peel back the layers, and follow the long, convoluted trail in the muddy footsteps of the great Arthur Conan Doyle.
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.