The BBC produced Houdini's Lost Diaries appears to have been very popular with those who caught its debut on History's Greatest Mysteries last Tuesday. (Thanks to everyone who sent me kind words about my own small part.) If you're a cord-cutter like me and missed that initial airing, know you can now stream the episode free for one week at the HISTORY website. You can also buy the episode on Amazon Prime, which is exactly what I did last night.
Even though I'm not a fan of the quick-cut, sound-clipy style of HISTORY shows (and that bombastic music), I thought this documentary was cut above in every other aspect. It really does feel we get something new here. There are several photos I've never seen before. They eschew all the easy mythology and work to get their facts right. I especially liked how they characterize Ehrich Weiss as making a conscious effort to transform into the mythic HOUDINI. It's a well told story.
The line-up of talking head experts is also impressive. But it's Teller who steals the show by not only speaking on-screen for the first time in a Houdini documentary, but tearing up twice. It's also a joy to see the great Patrick Culliton, "Houdini's Ghost", back in front of the camera talking Houdini.
So what about the diaries? While offering no real bombshell revelations, there is still gold. The fact that Houdini paid some challengers isn't new, but I love that he apparently coded these payments in the diaries as "be quick." The diaries are really used more to provide the kind of deep character insight that you don't get in other Houdini documentaries. Many pages are shown on-screen, and you can bet I'll be doing some pausing! Bill Kalush, who also gives a rare on-screen interview, is described as "the custodian of the diaries."
I was a little surprised by the sparse use of film footage. Instead they relied heavily, maybe too heavily, on reenactment photographs. And where the heck is Bess!? They also fall into the familiar narrative trap of jumping from Mama's death to spiritualism, ignoring Houdini's war work and movie career. However, they do not conflate his mother's death with spiritualism and correctly root it in his relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Spiritualism comes in for the harshest treatment of any Houdini documentary, with Penn Jillett taking off the gloves and likening it to organized crime. Sounds right.
In the end, they do amp up the sensationalism around Houdini's death and hint at possible murder, which I guess is just de rigeur for anything that airs on HISTORY. But they ultimately come down on the side of reason and discount any conspiracy.
Houdini's Lost Diaries is definitely one to watch. The option to stream free or buy on Amazon Prime appears to only be available to U.S. viewers at the moment. But as this was made by the BBC, I expect it will be getting a UK airing sooner than later. Below is an extended preview.