Originally broadcast April 1, 2013
Preceded by The Judas Tree
Followed by The Letters of Septimus Noone
Written and directed by David Renwick
Joanna Lumley first became famous for her roles in The New Avengers and Sapphire and Steel but she is probably best known these days for her role in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Genre roles include playing Mrs Peacock in a series of Cluedo, Dolly Bantry in Agatha Christie’s Marple and Felicity Fanshaw in Paddington 2.
Okay, that last one isn’t exactly a genre film…
Sarah Alexander plays Polly, Jonathan’s wife. She will be most familiar for her roles in comedies such as Green Wing, The Worst Week of My Life and Smack the Pony though she also has a couple of genre credits. These include appearances in Midsomer Murders and Marple.
So much better than I remembered. While I have some issues with a development towards the end, the resolutions to the events in the present and in the past are each really interesting.
A corpse is seen and photographed through the keyhole in the only door to a locked room. The door is under constant observation until help arrives and the door is kicked down. When they enter however they find that the body has completely vanished.
Back when I started this project of rewatching the entire run of Jonathan Creek in order my object was to see the material through much more experienced eyes. As I have noted in some previous posts, when I first saw these they were pretty much the only locked room and impossible crime stories I had ever experienced. This meant that my reactions to the stories were often centered on the metrics of how much a story either surprised or amused me at the time.
That was unfortunate for a story like The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb. While the two previous specials had both featured dark themes and moments, they also had some familiar, more ostensibly comedic elements. In contrast, this story jettisons some of those and presents a somewhat different version of Jonathan – now obviously in his middle age and less quirky. I had been hoping for more of the same but instead we got something that sought to take the character forward. While that disappointed me at the time, I find that I have a completely different impression of those choices now.
The most significant change for Jonathan here is that in the space between the last special and this he has got married to Polly, played by Sarah Alexander. We will see much more of her in subsequent episodes as she has little involvement in the case itself but the marriage is used to show that he is in a very different headspace than he had been in the past. He is trying to be grown up, now being on the corporate ladder, and so his desire to investigate a crime becomes a point of conflict for the character in a way we haven’t seen before. This manifests in a costuming decision to switch him into suits, at least at the start, and so one of the most satisfying moments in the episode is when we see him reaching for the duffle coat – a scene that feels almost reminiscent of an aging Bruce Wayne reaching for the cowl in Batman: Year One.
The choice to reintroduce Rik Mayall’s Gideon Pryke in this story makes a lot of sense in this context. The character, who had been one of the highlights of Black Canary for me, was the first to be presented as almost a mirror of him. Equally brilliant, often pipping Jonathan to some key discoveries, the two seemed to come to a mutual respect for each other by the end of that adventure and the rivalry seems to bring out the best in each of them. Here we see that Gideon has also experienced his own significant life changes after a bullet leaves him confined to a wheelchair but he remains every bit as brilliant, charismatic and capable.
Pryke’s role then is to remind Jonathan of who he is. What makes Jonathan a great detective is not his background as a stage illusionist but his personality. In particular, his attention to detail and ability to think creatively. He is also there as someone for Jonathan to spark off and compete with. That he continues to have that relationship with Joey here, creating a sort of investigative super-trio, is all the more exciting.
This brings me to Sheridan Smith’s Joey Ross, sadly making her last appearance in the series here as she left after this due to her theatrical commitments. This character is, for me, the most appealing of all of Jonathan’s ‘assistant’ characters, in large part because she is anything but. She is a partner and an intellectual competitor with him. She isn’t there to be amazed or to be a source of romantic tension – her role is to be ahead of the audience but still ever so slightly behind Jonathan, spurring him on to greater deductions.
Smith is brilliant in the part, working equally well when she is interacting with him as when she is taking the lead on an investigation as she does at the start of this story. The actors play wonderfully off each other both dramatically and comedically. Perhaps most satisfying of all though is that unlike the previous departures of an assistant, this does at least have the feeling of a deliberate transition as we introduce Polly.
Turning to matters plot, this story presents two strange situations for our team to solve – one in the present, one in the past. I have shared in the past my feeling that this is a golden formula for the show that we have seen Renwick use in each of the specials and I am pleased to say I find it just as successful here. In some ways perhaps more so as I think both are fairly well clued.
Let’s start with the present as it is this that prompts Jonathan and Joey to start investigating. Our mystery here is the disappearance of a corpse from a room, the only door to which was under constant observation. We even have photographic evidence of what was seen, taken through the keyhole. It’s a pretty tantalizing problem to unpick, particularly given that no one seems to have had a motive for murder.
I feel that the circumstances of the disappearance are clued pretty thoroughly. While I have some qualms about an aspect of motivation – more about that in the spoilers below – I think the viewer does at least have enough information to piece together what happened and how the body disappeared and I felt that the explanation held together very well.
The historic thread concerns a strange set of events at a convent school in the sixties. We have the mystery of why a group of girls each had odd markings appear on their foreheads while sleeping, one of whom died. The other concerns a strange ‘quiet room’ with a painting that seems to come to life, reaching out to them.
This thread of the story gives me some serious Gladys Mitchell vibes in several respects. While the subject matter is clearly pretty dark and disquieting stuff, especially since it involves children, I think it is executed well and I think the solutions to each question struck me as broadly satisfying. A few clues that seal the deal come a little late in the game but even without those I feel we are given enough to have a general idea of what was happening and the motivations for it.
The link between the two strands of the episode is Joanna Lumley who plays Rosalind, the victim’s wife who was one of the children in the historic thread of the story. I think the casting here is absolutely perfect and I think enriches the character. Similarly I really like Nigel Planer’s Franklin – a much better role for him than his earlier appearance in The Reconstituted Corpse.
Of course, this is not a perfect episode by any stretch. I have already alluded to my having some issues with an aspect of the motive for the disappearance which feels a little weak. My bigger problem comes though with a secondary development that takes place towards the end of the episode which feels rather silly. Unfortunately I can’t discuss it here without spoiling it but I think this would have been a more satisfying outing had the story omitted it. It’s hard to view this as anything but an attempt to pad out the story with one extra surprising twist.
Overall then I have to say that this has been about the most pleasant surprise this project has given me. It’s tonally consistent in a way few episodes have been in the past few seasons and offers up several intriguing impossibilities. Had I been asked at the start of this to produce a ranked list of episodes I think this may have been towards the foot of that list – instead, while I would not say it is a Championship contender it may well be looking at a Euro Cup spot. As surprises go that’s a great one.
Finally, before I get to the spoiler section, let me offer a couple of links to some contemporary reviews of this episode for some alternate perspectives. TomCat reviewed this on Beneath the Stains of Time while the Puzzle Doctor shared thoughts on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.
Aidan Spoils Everything
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4 thoughts on “Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb (TV)”
We’re pretty much in agreement here — I liked this until the motives came into play in the final stretch (the manner in which Planer is killed, especially). Without that, and with the whole DVD element removed, there might have been space to let the other two plots breathe and this could have been a classic episode.
Of course, it would have been a false dawn, because we all know what happens next…
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It’s certainly a whole lot better than I had remembered. Even the Planer thing didn’t bother me that much – the DVD element however was ridiculous…
I really go back and forth on this one. Like you, I found it a lot more enjoyable than I remembered during a recent re-watch. The central mystery is interesting as are the circumstances of the past which cast a dark and mysterious shadow over the entire episode. I don’t think the elements are tied together as neatly, however; the girls’ school elements not really impacting the present day plot which gives the special a somewhat uneven feeling.
While I do appreciate that Renwick was trying to take the character in a different direction, Jonathan’s abandonment of the magic profession just feels really awkward to me and like a lot of the fun and energy has been drained from his character. Oddly, when he’s not around I miss Adam Klaus too. I also think it’d worth pointing out that this episode has some of the worst attempts at humor. The comments around the transgender character are particularly bad and feel especially short-sighted for an episode released in 2013.
Overall though its a decent episode – pretty middle of the pack, I think – but a thousand times better than some of what was to come…
I think you make a fair point about the weak connection between the past and present plot threads. They don’t work smoothly together but I do at least appreciate them individually which helps.
I think I missed Klaus when I first saw this episode but I think Renwick had exhausted ideas for what to do with him even by the time we got to the specials. I do agree that the character feels different but I rather like that he is in a different phase of life and struggling to adjust to that. I understand though that it does remove some elements that attracted people to the series (the loss of the windmill is a similar one for me).
And yes, the comedy around the transgender character is misguided.