Written and directed by David Renwick
Sheridan Smith makes the first of three appearances as Joey Ross, a paranormal investigator. Smith at this time was probably best known for her role in hit sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and since then has amassed some impressive credits and awards including two Olivier awards. To Doctor Who fans though she will always be Lucie Miller, companion to Paul McGann’s Doctor in the Big Finish audios.
Katherine Parkinson is probably more familiar to me today than she would have been back then. A year later she would appear with Alan Davies in Whites but she is probably best known for her role as Jen in The I. T. Crowd.
Finally, keep your eyes and ears peeled for an appearance by The Puppini Sisters, a close harmony trio, who perform Spooky during a garden party scene.
A pretty strong return after years away, The Grinning Man serves up two interesting impossibilities while also introducing us to a new assistant who makes a strong first impression.
Since 1938 visitors staying in the attic room at a mansion have disappeared without a trace. When a young woman traveling with Joey Ross, a paranormal investigator, hears about the room after taking shelter at the mansion she decides she will check it out for herself. When history repeats itself the owner’s mother decides to call in Jonathan Creek to see if he can discover the truth behind the disappearances.
When The Grinning Man originally aired it was the first new episode of Jonathan Creek in around five years so it is perhaps fitting that my post about the episode also marks something of a comeback given that it comes after a longer-than-expected three month hiatus. Happily it is nice to be able to start back on a positive note as I consider The Grinning Man, while not perfect, to be one of the better episodes of the show.
The best place to start is with its most striking problem – a series of disappearances, spread over a number of decades, of those staying in an attic room at a mansion named Metropolis. Yes, this is yet another house in Jonathan Creek with a frankly ridiculous name and here it doesn’t even tie into the story in any meaningful way other than to faintly suggest to us that the house was built in the thirties.
After being given a little bit of the room’s back story and its history of disappearances, the episode brings things right up to date with a fresh occurrence taking place in the present as a young woman disappears after volunteering to stay in the room on a dare. This is a pretty familiar setup for impossible crime stories set in supposedly cursed homes but that reflects that it is really effective. By making a room or house kill over a span of decades rather than just a few weeks, it builds up the mystique of that space and emphasizes that we are dealing with the sort of problem that has baffled people for years making it all the more impressive when Jonathan will finally work out how the trick has been done. This approach had worked really well in Mother Redcap, still one of my favorite episodes, and I think it is handled comparably well here.
It’s not just that the setup and structure of this mystery are effective – the solution also felt pretty satisfying too. This is partly a case of how it works mechanically but also the circumstances in which the reveal takes place. The realization of what happens brings about an excellent example of a race against time sequence that feels quite genuinely tense and creepy, being realized pretty effectively on screen.
The vanished woman, Mina, is a friend of paranormal investigator Joey Ross (played by Sheridan Smith) who will be Jonathan’s new assistant for this story as well as the next two specials. I will save my overall thoughts about the character for my post about her last story but I will say that I really like how she is introduced here and that I think Smith was inspired casting, offering something quite different from either of her predecessors.
Unlike Maddy and Carla, Joey feels far more of an equal to Jonathan on first appearance both in terms of her role in the story and also in her understanding of tricks and mechanisms that might be employed to give the illusion of an impossibility. This is particularly apparent in a fantastic sequence in which she shows Jonathan the attic space, preemptively explaining the things she has already checked in that space before he can even speak. It feels strikingly fresh, subverts some expectations, and reminded me a little of when Doctor Who introduced another Time Lord, Romana, to be the character’s companion in the later Tom Baker years or to bring it back to Creek, of Rik Mayall’s DI Gideon Pryke in Black Canary.
In addition to the main mystery Renwick gives us a second, pretty substantial impossibility. I don’t plan on describing that problem given how late it occurs in the episode but I would suggest that in a previous season it might well have sustained an entire episode on its own (I feel it is stronger than some primary plots in the previous few seasons). These two impossibilities work well together so I don’t want to suggest that one of these should have been cut but it does mean that the episode already seems really full. As a consequence the secondary, more comedic plots feel a little redundant and make the episode feel a little overstuffed.
One example of this would be the minor plot threads in which we trace Jonathan and Joey’s respective doomed relationships. I do want to stress that neither of these threads is bad and I can understand why Renwick wrote them, particularly Jonathan’s which provides a handy bit of closure for Carla’s story in her absence. It’s just that neither feels all that notable dramatically or comedically and so they end up getting in the way of the two mysteries, slowing the episode down.
Sidebar: Did I miss a bit that explains why Joey is having conversations with her boyfriend on a digital camera? It seems really bizarre.
The two relationships may have felt somewhat superfluous but the main offender here once again is the plot involving Jonathan’s boss. This time we follow Adam Klaus as he plans to invest in 3D porn and starts to date a star of that industry. Regardless of the question of comedic taste (my own take: it’s not great but its not as tasteless as The Seer of the Sands), it’s entirely extraneous to the episode’s main mystery plots, offering no connection at all to anything else that’s going on. Any time we cut away to it serves to really slow down the episode and given how disconnected it is, I feel the pacing of the piece would have benefited considerably from its excision.
Aside from those complaints about the pacing, my feelings about this are generally pretty positive. It is certainly on par with the the previous special, Satan’s Chimney, and I really enjoyed revisiting it. I love the dynamic between Jonathan and Joey here, found both mysteries intriguing and I was broadly satisfied by the resolution to each. Perhaps more than anything I felt happy to be back to Creek after my unplanned break which is nothing compared to how it felt to be back after five whole years!
Aidan Spoils Everything
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