Originally broadcast February 7, 1998
Season Two, Episode Three
Preceded by Time Waits for Norman
Followed by The Problem at Gallows Gate (Parts One and Two)
Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson
Key Guest Cast
Bob Monkhouse was a standup comic who was a familiar face as a daytime television host on shows like Celebrity Squares and Wipeout.
Geoffrey McGivern makes his final appearance in the show as Maddy’s agent Barry (presumably he would have continued had Quentin come back). Best known for his role as Ford Prefect in original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, McGivern has performed in a wide array of comedy roles.
Finally, Peter Copley plays the small role of Eric the spam sandwich-loving guard here but will be known to fans of Cadfael as Abbot Heribert.
There are more complex or thrilling cases but this is the one I have watched most often. A clever puzzle which is filmed very effectively.
A group of schoolgirls are being led on a tour of the home of theatre critic Sylvester Le Frey and his wife, Lady Theresa Cutler. While they bicker near the pool, a group of eight girls are led into a small room by a guide to see his El Greco while Eric, the security guard, keeps an eye on the group while nibbling on a spam sandwich. The group looks at the painting for a few moments before leaving, the painting still visibly on the wall. The door is closed and the other half of the class are gathered to be led in. As the guide opens the door she is shocked to find that the painting has been cut from the frame. There is no other way in or out of the small viewing room – the walls are solid and the skylight is built not to open. In short, it seems impossible that the painting could have been stolen in the space of thirty seconds with everyone stood outside and yet its disappearance is clear for all to see.
Jonathan detests Le Frey having been the subject of one of his acidic reviews in the past and so when he is tricked into visiting his home to check out the scene he is unwilling to be helpful, though he takes delight in telling Le Frey that he knows how the painting was stolen – he just won’t explain it to him.
In some of the comments on my posts about the first couple of episodes of this second season of Jonathan Creek I mention how the first three episodes make up my favorite run of stories from the show. At least, assuming my feelings about some of the later stories haven’t changed. While this story is perhaps less audaciously plotted than the two preceding it, the incredibly tight timetable in which the impossibility is worked makes the trick all the more impressive to me.
The opening to this episode is very effective, establishing not only the characters and the situation but the geography of the building. The camera is placed to give us clear shots of exactly what has happened, allowing the viewer to feel that they can survey the whole of the crime scene, both at the time of the crime and also as Jonathan will see it when he arrives at the house. That only raises the excitement of this particular case for me, making it an even more direct challenge to the viewer – Jonathan says right from the beginning he can work out how the trick was worked based on the exact same things we are seeing making us aware from the start that as impossible as the crime seems, the trick must be a simple one.
That turns out to be the case – the trick is a fairly simple one. Jonathan even gives Maddy a clue as to exactly how the trick was worked that is the type of one that is oblique enough that it is unlikely to help the viewer solve it yet clear enough that we can all marvel at how smart the sleuth is at the end of the story. Compared to the stories surrounding it however this does not feel noticeably slighter or less interesting in its plotting, particularly as the questions of who pulled off the heist and why remain unclear for much of the episode and are just as interesting to me as the how of the crime.
Adding to the situation is Jonathan’s resentment towards Le Frey. His reluctance to get involved in the case is quite understandable and so Maddy’s attempts to persuade him to help becomes a significant subplot for the episode. This, for me, is the least successful part of the episode as I find the business with the policeman more silly than funny, though I do at least enjoy Jonathan’s reaction to what happens and I appreciate that he does not budge in his conviction to not give Le Frey the satisfaction of an explanation, even when he comes to solve the case.
Speaking of Le Frey, I should probably take a moment to express my appreciation for the casting of Bob Monkhouse. This character is not a particularly complex one, nor is much asked of the performer in terms of showing much range or subtlety – he is there to be an obnoxious, arrogant blowhard and Monkhouse gives us exactly that. I am always a fan of seeing pomposity punctured and given how very, very pompous Le Frey is it is little wonder that I enjoy the grumpy interactions between him and Jonathan. Monkhouse’s performance is broad but entertaining, fitting his role perfectly and making this a favorite guest appearance on the show for me.
All of which brings me to the episode’s conclusion which I think is great. The resolution to the case involves an element of reenactment and I think this is done very well, reminding us of why the crime appeared so mysterious and giving the viewer one final opportunity to work out exactly how it was done before all is revealed. It is a fun scene visually, once again shot very efficiently, and I love the way it caps some of the relationships and themes we have seen developed in this story.
Of all of the Jonathan Creek stories, this is the one that I have the strongest memories of enjoying on first viewing. I remember feeling really surprised about the explanation of the crime and how it was worked, and I have found that my enjoyment for it hasn’t waned much on frequent repeated viewings. While I think there are some more complex or thrilling cases, I find that I love to revisit this story because of its clever premise and for the antagonism with Le Frey and have done so often over the years.