Jonathan Creek: Danse Macabre (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 24, 1998

Season Two, Episode One
Preceded by The House of Monkeys (Season One)
Followed by Time Waits for Norman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Peter Davison is one of the most familiar faces on British television first becoming known for his role in All Creatures Great and Small before replacing Tom Baker in Doctor Who. He has also been a frequent face in genre productions, memorably playing Margery Allingham’s Campion, Peter Lovesey’s DC Davies and making several appearances as Inspector Christmas in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries.

The Verdict

This story was one of my favorites on original broadcast and remains my go-to pick when I am wanting to revisit the show. Great concept, explained well.


My Thoughts

As much as I enjoyed revisiting the first season of Jonathan Creek, my strongest memories of the show lie in its second season. I remember several of the stories in this season quite vividly and, of those, none sticks in my memory more than Danse Macabre.

The episode begins with Maddy receiving a visit from Stephen Claithorne, a priest who wants her help to understand a strange event that took place at his home. His mother-in-law, the famous horror novelist Emma Lazarus, was visiting along with her husband and bodyguard and while he had to attend a meeting, the rest of the family took part in a fancy dress party. They return to the house where an intruder takes her husband’s skeleton costume and shoots Lazarus dead in her bedroom.

Her daughter Lorna runs to the bedroom where she is knocked unconscious. Caught by surprise as the household stirs, the disguised figure picks up Lorna and carries her to the garage where she uses her unconscious body as a human shield, closing the garage door as the police pull up and surround the building. When they open the garage door they find Lorna stirring but no sign of the skeleton figure at all. This begs the question – who was in the skeleton costume and how did they escape?

This central problem fascinated me at fourteen and even now, knowing the solution, I continue to find it very appealing. Certainly a big part of that lies in the horror trappings, both literal – as in the corny costumes the characters are wearing for the party – but also the idea of the home invasion and a vanishing act that seems to suggest the figure was a ghost or spirit. I think the real reason though that this continues to delight me is that when you revisit it with an awareness of the solution you can admire just how effectively the trick has been worked.

One of the things that struck me watching this again was that had I paused frequently and made notes, I could have solved several aspects of the case early on. In a sense the episode acknowledges this by having Jonathan solve many aspects of the question of how it was worked without him ever setting foot in the house. Assuming that the camera is not lying to us, we should have a pretty good idea of who is in that garage as it closes. The reason I think it works is that this action plays out with a considerable sense of pace, never really allowing the viewer the time to pause and think the problem through.

How clever is the solution to what happened in that garage? Well, I think it is rather ingenious and explained quite effectively. Like many impossibilities you can see how it could all have gone horribly wrong and yet you can also understand exactly how the vanishing was achieved and appreciate the audacity of the idea.

The episode even includes a second mysterious and rather gruesome mystery concerning the disappearance of something from within a coffin. Here I feel the episode perhaps leans into its horror theming a little too much, particularly given its somewhat hokey explanation, though it does add an additional layer of complication at a moment in the story where everything might otherwise seem to be getting a little clearer.

The performances from the guest cast are fine with Peter Davison standing out as Claithorne from the moment he first appears. He not only recounts the strange events well, he also has to serve a sort of moral role in this episode as the one figure who is definitely outside of the whole affair. While Claithorne is a rather dry individual, Davison does at least draw out a little humor in his reactions to the characters around him and injects a role that might otherwise have seemed quite flat with life.

In addition to the main mystery plot, Jonathan is having to deal with the demands of his irresponsible, egotistical boss. This is the story that brings Adam Klaus back, now played by Stuart Milligan, and I was struck by some of the differences in the portrayal compared with Anthony Stewart Head’s performance. Where Head came off as cocky and suave, Milligan shows him as rather more inept and bragadocious. Still a pig, certainly, but one we can count on usually ending up on bottom when difficult situations arise.

His storyline here makes for a solid reintroduction to the character and while his bedroom behavior is hardly unexpected, those elements of the story are executed pretty well. It is hard to imagine how he thinks he can get away with it all however and it is nice to see another character really put him on the ropes in an episode.

Overall I am happy to say that this first episode of Season Two lived up to both my expectations and my memory. The answer as to how the trick is worked is really quite clever and visually I still find this to be one of the most convincing stories in the series. Do I entirely buy the motivations for what happens? Probably not though I think that reflects the imagination of the crime itself which is, in my opinion, this case’s biggest draw and one of the reasons this remains one of my favorite episodes.

12 thoughts on “Jonathan Creek: Danse Macabre (TV)

  1. One odd point about this episode is the choice of name for the victim. Emma Lazarus is well-known in the US as the writer of the lines which appear on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Was this choice of name a coincidence? Or is there some hidden significance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great question that I wish I knew the answer to. Looking at the real EL’s work there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reference so I assume he picked it for the biblical reference as the sort of name a horror author may concoct for themselves.

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  2. I agree with you that this one is a highlight of the whole series. The impossible situation is one of the best of the show’s long run and even though parts of it feel a bit hokey, as you say, the whole episode succeeds because of the impossibility.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to see others feel the same way. The hokey aspects of this one are honestly much of the fun for me (I feel that Creek leans into this gothic aesthetic well in its early years). I will be curious if I enjoy any of the others as much on revisiting them…

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  3. I told you you had inspired me to rewatch the show! I’m in the middle of this episode now. Watching the first season, I was thrilled to note that I had forgotten all of it, which is like waking up with amnesia in a roomful of Agatha Christie novels (with a kindly nurse telling you it would be best to get started reading immediately!) I found the first season . . . okay, especially enjoying the Ellery Queen-like trick pulled on the aging rock star in “No Trace of Tracy.” But already the second season feels smoother and more in charge. I do have an idea as to who was in the garage with the unconscious wife . . . I’ll let you know if I was right, and then I’ll move on to “Time Waits for Norman,” which I believe you highly recommended, too!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hooray. Glad you are revisiting these and I look forward to hearing what you make of the solution to this one. As you say, the writing does feel smoother in the second series and there is less of a division between the dramatic and the comedic.
      The first three episodes of the second season make up my favorite run of episodes that the show did. I have a few issues with Norman but it is cleverly plotted!

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      1. I got everything except the motive, which was a bit of a relief considering the likability of the culprit. I do think that bit of info that Maddy brought out from the hospital at the end was a cheat, but it’s nice to know my mind is starting to think along the lines of a purveyor of impossible crimes!! And the outcome of the coffin bit was actually quite funny!!! I will definitely enjoy watching the next two chapters of your favorite run of the series.

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  4. Aidan – thanks for educating me on Jonathan Creek, which is a new series for me. Given that it started more than 20 years ago, I don’t know how I missed this. The impossible crime and its explanation in this episode were well done, and the humor between Maddie and Jonathan made me smile.

    I see that you’re watching the series’ episodes in chronologic order so will continue following your blog. At some point when you’re ready, consider a post listing your top five Jonathan Creek episodes overall.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to have introduced you to the series!
      That is a great idea for when I get to the end. I think I won’t be spoiling that list by saying this is almost certain to be on it (unless I am badly misremembering and underrating the later seasons).

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