British actor Arsher Ali who is starring in Arthur and George which airs on Masterpiece Theater spoke to us about Sherlock Holmes, acting, and much more..
TSM: Have you always been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories?
AA: Alas, no. But I do remember my first introduction to Sherlock Holmes. It was as a child watching Jeremy Brett in the early ’90s television series. I also remember thinking that when I was old enough to be in charge of the remote control that I would never watch such a boring show like that ever again! Didn’t quite appreciate the subtle nuances of a good old yarn back then.
TSM: Tell us about the series?
AA: It’s loosely based on the book of the same name, written by Julian Barnes. It tells a remarkable intersecting story of two men from completely different walks of life in the early 20th century: one being one of the most famous writers of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the other, a shy Anglo-Indian solicitor called George Edalji who was wrongfully convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a story about an unlikely friendship that develops by chance and is also about what it means to be British. If you enjoy the series but don’t know the book yet, I would urge you to read it. It’s a meticulous and hugely touching story.
TSM: What about George Edalji’s subsequent life?
AA: George is someone who never craved the limelight at all. He was a shy and awkward fellow. All he ever wanted in life was to be a quiet, useful member of society and to be allowed to do the job he loved: practicing law. After his wrongful conviction, however, he wasn’t allowed to practice. That is what set off a chain of events that led to him writing letters to many prominent people of the time, including Sir Arthur, to enlist their help in receiving a pardon. And, after some fierce lobbying from Sir Arthur, George did receive a pardon and was readmitted to the roll of solicitors.
TSM: How much research did you do to prepare for the part of George Edalji?
AA: Fortunately, it’s a well-documented case so I had an abundance of things to digest. Also, the book is so well written it was like a ”how-to” guide. When you are telling a story about a real person, I think you have a responsibility to be true to who they were. I had to constantly resist my very actorly urges to make him charming and immediately likeable. He was not that in real life. And that’s what makes him unique.
He was very singular, honest, painfully shy, socially awkward, and plain speaking. By today’s standards, George would certainly be someone who would live on the autism spectrum and I felt very strongly about including this element in the performance.
TSM: Why has this interesting part of true crime history been overshadowed by so many other things over the years?
AA: I’m not sure as it’s quite a landmark case in the history of the judicial system in England. This case directly led to the creation of the Court of Appeal in 1907. Before that, there was no procedure, no access to appeal. Imagine.
TSM: What are you working on now?
AA: I’ve just finished filming a BBC series called Line of Duty. It’s a fantastic series that looks at procedural police dramas in an utterly absorbing, fresh, and realistic manner. It’s definitely worth seeking out.
TSM: How does the book by Julian compare to the script?
AA:The book and the script are very different beasts, but they obviously share the same DNA. Packing nearly 400 pages of a beautifully dense book into 135 minutes of screen time was always going to be a challenge. Also, the adaptation is a little more “television friendly” in that it ups the ante and subsequently, the action slightly.
TSM: Why do you think the world is so fascinated with Sherlock Holmes?
He appeals to the innate “know-it-all” in all of us! Also, tweed jackets, deerstalkers, and pipes are cool.
TSM: Did you find anything about Conan Doyle during production that you never knew?
AA: Ectoplasm. Seances. Fairies. A whole side to Conan Doyle I had no earthly idea about. It made me love him even more. He was the Egon Spengler of his time.
TSM: What’s it like to film a period piece with all the costumes? Do you feel swept back in Edwardian England or are you more surprised when you see the rushes?
AA: This was my first experience with a costume drama and, I must say, I could do it every day. The costumes are so rich in detail and they have a real weight to them. Proper clothes. Seeing it all come together and being a part of it was a joy. Horse and carriage is the only way to travel.