There have been plenty of female detectives on screen both throughout history and in recent years, but how many of them can say they were the first of their kind? The historic character Rebecca Liddiard plays in new series Houdini & Doyle might just be able to.
In the drama, which, yes, features a young Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) and Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Managan), Liddiard portrays Adelaide Stratton, a woman said to be “the first female constable to ever to work for the London Metropolitan Police Force.” And if that’s not enough to get you interested, filles, Adelaide’s also a secret suffragette with even more strength (physical and emotional) than her famed comrades in crime-solving might initially (unfairly!) attribute to her.
Cinefilles got a chance to speak with Liddiard during the 2016 Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour. Read on to find out more about Adelaide, the series and where Meryl Streep comes in.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How much did you look into the gender dynamics of the police department in London at the time this series takes place?
Rebecca Liddiard: I did start [Googling] ‘female police officers’ and there’s not a lot … Adelaide Stratton was not even on my radar; I just assumed she didn’t exist because I couldn’t find her! There were a few other women, though. Sophia Stanley actually designed the first [police] uniform for women. But she didn’t come along until much later.
It was a lot of not super useful information [out there], so I just started reading female writers of that time, like Elizabeth Barrett Brown and even Jane Austen. I just wanted to get an idea (aside from my general assumptions) of what it was like to be a woman in that time. What did it mean, and also what did it mean to be a woman that wanted to work a job and be a professional and that kind of dynamic? It was almost inconceivable!
The British museum has this fantastic digital archive of female manifestos arguing for why women should be in the workplace. Essentially, the basis of the argument is, we’re 50 per cent of the human race. Just reading that and getting a sense of crazy it was to be a woman [back then] gave me an idea of how I would have to conduct myself in those situations, in a workplace filled with men. Like, what does that mean? What would that feel like?
Have you watched the movie Suffragette?
RL: It came out while I was away and I haven’t seen it!
You should watch it.
RL: It came out in when we were in Manchester and we were going to go to the opening and we missed it. Now, I just haven’t seen it.
On the [TCA] panel you talked about the fact that there is an episode featuring suffragettes and just how much action they had to take to get people’s attention.
RL: In that episode, the suffragettes are holding a huge protest and they have a history of being violent … It was a really fun episode because Adelaide really idolizes the suffragettes. And she is one. She totally is one! I was actually wearing real suffragette jewellery that was a 120 years old!
Because the suffragettes were so controversial, they couldn’t show their allegiance, their support, so they wore jewellery that was garnet, amethyst and emerald. I wore these earrings for the whole series and they are real suffragette earrings!
RL: That episode is interesting because we’re dealing with these suffragettes and I’m a police officer. So, I’m put in a position where I have to arrest one, even though I agree with everything she stands for. That was kind of interesting perspective of really supporting this really controversial group and even idea, but being on the side of the fence that’s supposed to be keeping it under wraps and under control.
Can you tell me what episode this takes place in?
RL: That is Episode 2!
Right at the start!
I’ve only seen the first episode, but right off the bat, I found Adelaide to be a very strong character. She’s doing this job and going against gender norms of the time, but also, she saves Houdini and Doyle in Episode 1! Does this relationship continue? Is she continually being the one to be like, ‘Guys, get out of this situation! What are you doing?’
RL: Yeah! A lot of times! I mentioned that she makes mistakes, but she also has so many victories. It’s awesome!
She saves them in a very real sense from dying, but she also saves them [emotionally], particularly Houdini, who is really going through some stuff. They connect on a very emotional level and they become friends and confidantes. She really helps him in the way that Houdini helps Doyle and, yeah, Doyle helps Houdini. I don’t know if she saves him, but she gives him a really honest dose of reality. In turn, they save her in a sense as well.
I got a very Mulder and Scully vibe between them, where she brings him back to reality. Are there any other female detectives from pop culture history that you draw on?
RL: To be honest, the only female detective that I have ever really related to would be Hermione Granger.
I would call her one!
RL: She’s a detective, right?
Even in all of the crime shows, there are great female characters, but … I think Adelaide is something different then them.
Yes, there’s an element of ‘She’s in this camp, they’re in that camp,’ but she really does sway. She really does go back and forth. She’s conflicted about some things and she’s very confident about other things. For example, she’s very religious. Even though there’s tonnes of evidence to the contrary, she’s like, ‘I just can’t give up my faith. I’m sorry!’ She grew up with that and that’s a convention she can’t let go of.
I think there’s a realness to her. She’s not a complete cut-out. She’s growing and changing all the time.
Are there any other women you’re admiring right now in the industry? Either from the Canadian or American side?
RL: There are so many! In terms of actors, Tatiana Maslany. I’ve been watching her for so long now. And Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway … those are the big ones, but I really admire what they’re doing.
On a smaller scale, there are a lot of young women in Toronto who are movers and shakers. Like, playwrights like Kat Sandler, who just wrote this play that I’m doing. Even Christina Jennings [of Shaftesbury] … I watch them and I just admire them so much. They’re so strong and powerful and creative and they approach their work as women and they’re not apologetic about it.
Do you feel like being around these women, or even just playing this part, has changed you at all? Are you a little more fearless?
Doing this series, I definitely feel a little more confident as a professional. Going in, I was very nervous, but I had so many conversations with the women involved in this project. It’s mostly about how unapologetic they were. Like, yeah, sometimes it is difficult and sometimes it would be easier if I was a man, but we just have to be the best and not apologize for what we are and what we are is actually what makes us so good.
Houdini & Doyle premieres on Global (Canada) and Fox (U.S.) Monday, May 2.