A few months ago I shared my thoughts on the animated movie, The Great Mouse Detective. This month I discuss the reasons I admire the decidedly not-for-kids procedural film Memories of Murder directed by Bong Joon Ho. Clearly I am trying to illustrate the breadth of my taste in crime-related films… Expect the next installment to fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Whether you share my love of this film or not, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.
Originally broadcast February 28, 2004 Season 4, Episode 6 Preceded by The Chequered Box Followed by The Grinning Man
Written by David Renwick Directed by Sandy Johnson
Celia Imrie is one of the most familiar faces in British cinema, having featured in a number of films that have been international hits including The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Calendar Girls and Bridget Jones’ Baby. She also has appeared in episodes of a number of genre television shows including Inspector Lewis, Poirot, Marple and Midsomer Murders.
Michael Cochrane is another easily recognizable face who frequently seems to be cast as either aristocrats or villains. Among his genre roles are episodes of Law and Order UK, Murphy’s Law, Rosemary and Thyme and A Touch of Frost. Perhaps my favorite of his performances though is as Redvers Fenn-Cooper (yes, an aristocratic type) in the Doctor Who episode Ghost Light.
A clever impossible disappearance trick but some incredibly dark plot elements feel designed primarily to shock. It works but it also makes for rather disturbing viewing.
A porcelain statue connected with a Shinto monk has been loaned to a small museum by Owen Glendower, a celebrity cookbook author. Given the value of the object there is a small security detail on hand to supervise the unboxing of the vase when it arrives and to ensure its safety.
When the shipment is received Thelma Bailey, the museum’s curator, carefully sets it on a pedestal within a special display unit and asks if she can have a moment in privacy with the statue and lowers the curtains on each door while she sits before it and closes her eyes. A minute or so later she shrieks and the guards enter the unit to find that the statue is gone. The space and Bailey are thoroughly searched but they can find so sign of it and the entrances to the space were under constant supervision. Where could the statue have gone?
If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen me post a few weeks ago that I had discovered that there was an episode of Jonathan Creek I found that I had never seen. It was this one which I somehow missed on original airing. Given that new episodes of Jonathan Creek seem unlikely at this point, though I remain hopeful, this is the closest thing I will have to a new episode and that was pretty exciting for me, even though there are some elements of this that I don’t love.
Let’s start by discussing the impossibility which is a fairly neat example of a disappearing object. The direction does a good job of establishing the physical space both inside and outside of the display unit and while the meditating in front of the statue moment feels a little contrived, I think the moment of the disappearance is quite effective.
This is a scenario in which there seems to be an obvious suspect and I appreciate that Renwick acknowledges that pretty much immediately, having Glendower quickly point the finger at Bailey. There are not many other characters that could be considered suspects and so the question is less who did the crime as how it was pulled off. I came pretty close to guessing how it was done, mostly because I read something that worked a similar trick not too long ago, but I am fairly confident that had I not have come close to working it out and would likely have been quite wowed by it as an idea.
The relationship between Glendower and Bailey is interesting and I think it is elevated by the quality of the casting. Both Imrie and Cochrane are superb actors and bring a fair amount of self-righteous intensity to their parts, making their animosity quite believable. I think their history and that of Gorgons Wood itself is quite intriguing and does give the episode a strange and rather disturbing intensity that can be quite effective.
There are some other elements of this story however that sat far less comfortably with me, striking me as being designed primarily to shock the viewer. I have felt that this intention to disturb or outrage the viewer was noticeable in several earlier episodes this season (most notably The Seer of the Sands) but this episode takes it to a whole new extreme. While I cannot fault the portrayals by the actors involved, I think the extreme darkness of the episode’s themes and elements feels a little out of keeping with the show’s more usual tone up until this point particularly as we reach the episode’s climax.
It’s a shame because as a puzzle I think the episode has much to commend itself. Not only is the solution to how the statue vanished quite clever mechanically (and several of the doubts I had about it were removed when we see the method in action), I think some of the clueing here is quite solid. The grim tone and the rather melodramatic storytelling obscure some of the episode’s subtleties and unfortunately draw attention away from the often rather clever plot construction.
This story would be Carla’s last alongside Jonathan though there is little sense of a conclusion or that a departure is in any way imminent. Instead it is very much business as normal with Carla getting a comical subplot in which she is surprised by the reason some people are buying her exercise videos. Sawalha plays this pretty well and while I don’t think of it as riotously funny, it doesn’t feel at odds with the rather sleazy tone of the rest of the episode.
As for Brendan – well, he’s absent here. JJ quite rightly suggested that this was no bad thing given that it is hard to imagine his more overtly crazy behavior sitting well with this episode’s heavier material (Adam Klaus’ antics on the farm fit better because they are also quite disturbing, albeit in a more lighthearted way) but it does add to the sense that Carla’s departure was unplanned and that there is no real sense of resolution to the character or her relationship with Jonathan. It just ends.
Now that I have reached the end of the Carla Borrego era, I do think of it as a bit of a missed opportunity. I think there was the potential to use Carla’s role as the host of a crime show to bring cases to Jonathan in a way that could have felt quite natural but this was quickly forgotten and her role ends up feeling rather poorly defined. Sawalha was fun in the part and I appreciated that her relationship with Jonathan feels different from what he had before with Maddy. I perhaps would have liked it better however had they remained at odds with one another as a result of their forced professional relationship.
It’s a shame really that she didn’t go out on a better story. Maddy at least had The Three Gamblers which was a case that gave her some moments to shine and felt like a pretty solid puzzle. In contrast Gorgons Wood draws attention away from its two leads. While I think its plot is often quite clever and Imrie and Cochrane are both excellent, the story’s darker themes feel out of place and feel like they are trying too hard to be shocking. In that they perhaps succeed but, for this viewer at least, it comes at the expense of the episode’s sense of fun.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Sandy Johnson
Colin McFarlane is probably most widely known for his role as Loeb in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but he has also appeared in a number of other high profile films and television series including Outlander and Doctor Who. Genre fans may also remember him from episodes of Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise (I really enjoyed his role and performance in that episode) and Judge John Deed.
Steve Speirs is best known to me for his role as Burbage in the sitcom Upstart Crow but he has made several appearances in genre shows including Midsomer Murders, The Last Detective, New Tricks and the historical crime mini-series City of Vice.
One of the simpler stories, lacking the high concepts found in many of the show’s later adventures, but it executes those ideas really well.
Inspector Fell is one of the most respected detectives in the police force with his sharp mind and attention to detail, making him a perfect subject for Carla to shadow for a week. She is on the scene when he is called to a locked room death in which a man has died in a room secured with two deadbolts from the inside and she is impressed when he produces a complete solution in just a couple of minutes.
Freelance photographer Hattie Baron is also at the scene in search of a story. After being ejected she receives a message that she should be at a specific location at a certain time to look out the window. When she does she sees and photographs Inspector Fell searching the desk of a lawyer’s office while her dead body is hanging from the ceiling. Is Inspector Fell a murderer or is there more to the story?
Compared with the other episodes in this season of Jonathan Creek, The Chequered Box feels decidedly low key. While previous episodes have presented us with some audacious impossibility, the problems in this episode are far less flashy and convoluted. Yet I would suggest that is largely a matter of presentation as there are two excellent problems at the core of the episode that, while understated, hold together much better than those in either of the previous two episodes. I would certainly rate it much higher as an hour of television.
The first of these problems is the locked room problem that Inspector Fell appears to solve at the very start of the episode. The pace of this early scene is such that the viewer has very little chance to beat Fell to his conclusions but I don’t think that is really a problem for two reasons. Firstly, because it helps establish Fell’s character quite perfectly, setting him up as a credible rival to Jonathan. This was a dynamic I absolutely loved in Black Canary so I was very happy to see the premise used again here though the episode comes up with a great variation to make it feel ultimately quite distinct.
The second reason I don’t have a problem with it is that Fell will not have the final word on that scene. Ultimately there is more to learn there and I quite enjoyed seeing how Jonathan reaches a different set of conclusions. Were this the main impossibility I might be disappointed but as a secondary problem I think it works quite nicely.
The meat of the episode however lies in the problem of the hanging in the lawyer’s office. While this problem does not appear to be impossible, if we take Fell at his word that he did not murder her then an impossibility quickly establishes itself. How does an observer see him walk right up to her when he claims the room was empty? The two accounts appear unreconcilable.
Of course there is a solution and it is relatively simple. This is one of the few cases that I recall actually figuring out pretty quickly on first viewing and that solution can be reached through a series of simple logical deductions. It may be less flashy than a message magically appearing in a bottle but I think the viewer is much better placed to solve this one themselves as everything is very neatly clued.
Inspector Fell is played very well by Colin McFarlane who offers a very strong, authorative presence that contrasts nicely with Jonathan’s more laid back personality. I think the moment when we first see him in the office still feels quite shocking and so it makes a pretty big impact.
If I have a problem with the character of Fell it lies not with the performance but with some of the moments that are given to him in the script. There are a number of points, all clustered around a single sequence mid-way through the episode, that are designed primarily to manipulate the viewer rather than because they make sense in the context of a situation or to that character. McFarlane plays these moments well, delivering them for their maximum impact and I think connecting with what they mean to his character, but they do feel rather forced and unnatural, particularly once we reach the end of the episode.
The simplicity of the plot leaves me with little else to comment on in the main mystery thread so let’s turn to the episode’s secondary plots. These are Adam Klaus’ misadventures as he attempts some David Blaine-style endurance feats, Carla’s home renovation and Brendan’s obsession with his colonoscopy video.
All three secondary storylines are primarily played for laughter with the characters themselves being the butt of the joke. In Brendan’s case quite literally. Admittedly the humor here is hardly highbrow stuff but Edmondson plays it well to further develop his character’s sense of self-obsession to a comical extreme. An attempt at a punchline at the end with Carla and Jonathan fell a little flat but it’s all pretty harmless stuff.
The issue with the toilets in Carla’s home is less crude than you might expect and plays on the comedic idea of someone attempting to keep their dignity in an embarrassing situation. This strand is also quite brief and has an added benefit that it is used to push the plot forward at one point.
Finally, Adam is the comedic target of his own subplot in which we see him make a public spectacle of himself while trying to become a public spectacle. I found it to not only be an entertaining riff on that type of event which was big news back around the time this went out, I appreciate how ridiculous Adam is made to look at a couple of points. The punchline to the underground burial scene was done very well and subverted my expectations of where that was headed pretty well.
Three perfectly fine, non-offensive subplots (the episode script suggests that Adam’s second publicity stunt is meant to be profoundly offensive but I think it just speaks to his complete narcissim and lack of self-awareness). Two of the three actually feed back into the main plot in a meaningful way. A welcome change from the last few weeks.
I think that phrase – ‘a welcome change from the last few weeks’ – can be applied to this episode as a whole. Look, The Chequered Box is not a particularly puzzling or complex mystery. It lacks the high concept hooks that you find in many of the best episodes. That is not an inherently bad thing though. This episode does less but it does it well, lacking any really obvious flaws. As such, by default, it places in the top half of the episodes from this season and I would not be shocked if it ends up in the top half when I get to compile my ranked list of all of the Jonathan Creek episodes at the end of this project…
Written by David Renwick Directed by Sandy Johnson
So, umm… Adrian Edmondson is in this one again.
Honestly – I’ve got nothing.
A potentially great impossibility is wasted with an unconvincing scenario and some of the worst secondary plots the show ever featured.
Justin Mallory has spent years searching for and debunking mystics, mediums and spirtualists. One day he is lying in bed with a headache and wakes to find he has received a fax from his lover, a woman married to a US congressman. He reads it then proceeds to get drunk and then takes his speedboat out on the water, crashing into the rocky coastline and drowning. His body is found on the shore by his assistant who recognizes that he is dead and goes to fetch his servant, Mickey, but when they return they find the body vanished.
On investigation Mickey finds the fax which clearly gives good news making the circumstances of Justin’s death all the more puzzling. Meanwhile Justin’s lover has a strange encounter with a mystic who tells her to ask Justin five questions, then reveals that the answers to them are beneath her. She digs up the sand under her mat to find a bottle with the answers to her questions written on a note stuffed inside. Perplexed, they send for Jonathan to help explain what had happened.
The Seer of the Sands boasts one of the most remarkable and inventive impossibilities that Jonathan Creek ever did. The idea that someone could make a message appear directly beneath a person without moving them is incredibly clever both in terms of the way it appeals to the imagination and also in terms of the explanation of how the trick is worked. I was and remain seriously impressed with how this was conceived. Unfortunately in spite of this enormous stroke of creativity, The Seer of the Sands is one of the most frustrating and poorly-conceived episodes the show ever made.
The episode has much bigger problems than its impossibility yet I think that’s a good place to start because even this – a potentially breathtaking puzzle – has some significant problems in the way it is conceived and executed.
To be clear, I do believe that the core concept and technique of the trick here would work both mechanically and psychologically. I mean, I am as cynical as it comes and if this had been pulled on me – had they been able to get me to venture five questions in the first place – I believe I would have been every bit as amazed as Geraldine. It’s a great trick.
The problems lie in two main areas. First, this is a trick that relies on some things happening that are beyond the direct control of the person or persons arranging it. Now I happen to believe that this is quite easily solved, even within the constraints of the scenario presented here, but it isn’t and so the viewer is forced to accept an element of chance within the solution. This is rarely satisfying and it certainly isn’t here.
The other problem lies in the matter of the motive for the trick being achieved in the first place. Renwick does provide us with one that certainly goes some way to explain why someone might want to go to the lengths that they do yet I think there are some pretty significant inconsistencies with other aspects of the setup and there is never any explanation of what would have happened if the mark had not gone for it.
This is a shame because the problem is otherwise really good and it could easily have been the basis for a really effective episode. Some small adjustments or a little further explanation, perhaps from the perpetrator themselves, would have gone a long way.
This is not the only mystery in the episode however – we also have the question of what happened to cause Justin Mallory to take to the water in the first place. It’s an intriguing question psychologically but I was left unconvinced by some aspects of the answers we are given.
We are told early on that Justin is one of the most ‘level-headed’ men around which sets up some expectations of how a character might behave when placed into different situations. I equate that phrase to mean calm, rational and logical. The very traits we are told made Justin effective at his work debunking mystics and spirtualists. Ignoring the content of the fax for just a moment, I would expect that if he diverged from those character traits that we would get a really good explanation for why.
We don’t. His behavior remains largely inexplicable given the context of what he read. So sure, while I think that there is a germ of a clever idea at play here, the execution once again feels very poor.
Then we get to the third mystery – the question of what happened to cause Justin’s body to disappear. While the explanations to the other two problems have aspects that feel quite clever or inventive, this feels like an enormous afterthought and really rather cartoonish. Similarly the much smaller (and less significant) mystery of why a smudge appeared on a picture frame each and every day.
Four mysteries. That’s a lot for any episode of the show and I was struck by a sense that Renwick was really trying to do far too much here. There are simply too many elements at play to do them justice and I think several of the problems with these plot points lie in the need to set them up in such a way to make space for the other mysterious elements of the episode. And this doesn’t even touch upon the secondary plots…
I have problems with the execution of the mysteries. I have bigger problems with the concepts behind each of the secondary plots in this episode. Let me start though by taking a moment to praise something that works: the way this episode calls back to Maddy.
There is a wonderful moment, handled with surprising subtlety, in which conversation turns to Jonathan’s past relationship with her. What I appreciate so much about this brief moment is not just that it gives us a tiny bit of continuity and a link back to the past but that it feels so organic, emerging both from the ongoing tension between Jonathan and Carla but also an action Jonathan has taken in pursuing this specific case. It even seems to spark a little realization for Jonathan about the relevance of a clue that had previously escaped him. It’s clever, subtle and played really well.
Similarly I quite enjoyed the start to the plot thread that Adam Klaus is attempting to make his own street magic video, presumably to capitalize on some of the success that performers of that type were having at the turn of the century. The montage where Adam walks the streets plays on an amusing idea, contains a moment that I think some Adam-detractors may empathize with, and demonstrates something that is easily forgotten about TV magic – that the viewer can be manipulated.
Unfortunately part of the reason that these moments stood out to me so much is a reflection on how poor the rest of these secondary plots are.
The Adam Klaus stuff is an expansion on the running joke that he is a frankly terrible person who will do anything to sleep with a woman, even when it is clearly against his own professional or personal interests. This episode places him in some particularly uncomfortable and frankly rather ludicrous positions and situations that are entirely of his own making but they didn’t work for me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there are several developments that feel really cartoonish and extreme to the point where I felt the episode was seeking to cause offense. For another, the episode seems to suggest that we should feel sorry for Adam at points – particularly at the end.
This plot thread also includes a piece of terrible prop work. Quite why anyone at the BBC has ever believed they could create a convincing puppet or animatronic snake I do not know but they failed to achieve it here (this snake slithers comfortably alongside the terrible Mara puppet from Doctor Who and the snake in BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair).
And then we get to Brendan. If he was poorly served by The Tailor’s Dummy, he fares even worse here.
There clearly was an intention when the character was introduced to position him as a block or foil for Jonathan and Carla, preventing them from immediately getting together. I actually felt that this was quite a clever idea as it would allow the will they, won’t they dynamic to be sustained far longer and more naturally than was possible with Maddy.
Instead the previous episode pushed things along quite sharply, putting Jonathan and Carla into some very awkward physical situations that made Carla all the more awkward about working with him. This episode picks up that thread which feels necessary – those feelings obviously needed to be addressed.
The start of that exchange is handled quite well and certainly seemed to address that well. And then Renwick blows that moment up with a revelation of a secret past that feels ill-conceived and poorly developed.
Part of the problem here is that the revelation is unbelievable (it would not have been possible for one thing) and so it doesn’t play dramatically, instead it is treated comedically and feels devoid of any realism. It takes Brendan from being a character that was being used satirically to comment on the industry to becoming the joke himself prompting a few really lazy exchanges, particularly the one-liner Jonathan drops during the car journey.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Christine Gernon
Maureen Lipman has had a celebrated and varied career, making it hard to point to just one or two standout roles. Audiences will perhaps be most familiar with her for her role as Evelyn Plummer in Coronation Street over the past few years while Doctor Who fans will remember her playing the Wire in The Idiot’s Lantern, an early David Tennant episode.
Nicholas Jones is best known to my kid for playing the Grand Wizard in The Worst Witch but he has made a lot of appearances in mystery-themed shows including Lewis, A Touch of Frost, Silent Witness, Rebus, Foyle’s War and two appearances in Midsomer Murders.
The core impossibility is very cleverly worked but other aspects of the episode feel quite heavily padded.
Fashion designer Marco Bergman has enjoyed enormous success as a fashion designer, running his own celebrated fashion label which employs his children. Those children are returning to the house they share with him one evening when they are startled to see him stood in the window of his upper story bedroom, preparing to jump. Moments later he takes the leap and when they reach him they find him already dead.
Meanwhile a critic who has savaged Marco in a recent newspaper article is staying in a hotel room when she is threatened by an attacker who when briefly removing his mask can be seen to be Marco’s son Claude. When the manager knocks on the hotel room door the attacker hides behind a shower curtain but when the manager picks up on her signals and investigates they are shocked to find a completely different man than the one she expects to find there…
When I first watched Jonathan Creek I was not as focused on the idea of the impossible crime as I am these days. To my less trained eye most of the show’s plots were utterly baffling and startlingly original, so it was hard for a teenaged and inexperienced Aidan to distinguish a great impossibility from a good one. As long as a story didn’t contain an obviously barmy or flawed plot (yes, I am talking about you – The Curious Case of Mr. Spearfish), my best metric for judging an episode was how much it entertained me.
Prior to revisiting it for this post, I remembered quite a lot about The Tailor’s Dummy from earlier viewings, including the solution to its impossibility. Those memories were of a fairly average story – certainly not an episode that stood out to me at the time. That may go some way toward explaining why I was so surprised to read a comment from TomCat, an expert in the locked room and impossible crime story whose taste and judgment I really trust, in response to my previous Creek post that praised this particular episode in strong terms. This made me all the more interested to revisit and reassess it.
We should begin with the core impossibility which is the business in the hotel room with the attacker who appears to have two completely different faces. While this is not the central problem of the episode, that would be the business about the curious circumstances surrounding the death of the fashion designer, it is this part of the story that provides the strongest sense of wonder.
The scenario is a striking one, in part because Renwick is so good at clearly defining the space and the circumstances around it. As in many of the best impossible scenarios, every aspect of the situation appears carefully accounted for. The manager of the hotel can serve as a witness while the physical conditions are very precisely established and can be easily checked. In short, we have a situation that feels genuinely inexplicable.
The solution to the impossibility is quite audacious for reasons that I will address in the Aidan Spoils Everything section below but while Renwick clearly dreams big, rather than being frustrated by its audacity, I can appreciate the clever construction of that solution. As with many of the best impossibilities, once you find the right questions to ask everything becomes quite clear and the problem can be broken apart by thinking it through logically.
The bigger mystery of the circumstances that caused a fashion mogul to jump to his death is similarly audacious in its conception. In some respects it may even be cleverer than the impossibility but as much as I appreciate the basic idea for how this might be achieved, I simply could not believe that it would work in practice. I will say however that I did like the clue of the bird cage which is a really good one and is perhaps wasted on the
Putting to one side the question of how it was done, the question of who did it is not much more satisfying. The villain’s identity can be inferred quite simply from the circumstances surrounding it, particularly given that there is not much going on when the event first takes place to misdirect the viewer.
On a more positive note, I do think that there are aspects of the story leading up to the big reveal that do work quite well. There is a moment in which a character is placed in peril that is created quite effectively that does show the villain in quite a brutal light and while the killer’s reaction following their unmasking felt a little too big to me, I had enjoyed their performance a lot up until that point.
It should be said that were I purely basing my enjoyment of this story on those mystery elements I would still be ranking this in the top half of my list. The bigger issues I have with the story lie in its secondary plots.
Let’s start with the return of terrible magician Kenny Starkiss played once again by Bill Bailey. The character had previously appeared in Satan’s Chimney and looking back on my review of that special I note that I never actually commented on the character – at least, not in the spoiler-free section of that post. Given that this is his second and last appearance (at least at the time of writing), I probably ought to pass some spoiler-free comment on him.
I come to the character as someone who enjoys Bill Bailey a lot outside of Jonathan Creek. While I watch fewer panel-type TV shows these days after living in the US for over a decade, at the time this was broadcast I always enjoyed seeing him crop up on a show. I actually think he is well suited to play this character of Kenny and I think that the character is used pretty thoughtfully within the grander scope of both episodes he appears in.
I am less enamored with his own subplot however, not for the initial scene in which we see his terrible act (which amuse you if you enjoyed the joke that he is a magician who doesn’t do magic) but the more serious scenes that follow it. I recognize that if you’re going to bring Bailey back you need something for him to do but I think that the story, like several others that attempt to represent the more realistic world of organized crime, doesn’t convince.
Another running theme throughout this episode is the way Jonathan and Carla keep getting thrust into awkward and intimate situations together. It’s not that the scenes are inherently bad – in fact I would suggest that they are better than many of the comparable scenes we had with Maddy in the first few seasons – but I think it leans into that dynamic too quickly and without much sense of resolution in this episode (it gets picked up again in the following one but that’s a story for another day).
My bigger issue though is with the awkward use of Brendan within the episode. Now, I have been relatively positive about the character and the way he is used to comment on the television industry in my previous Season Four posts. We get a little more of that here with the discussion of the Japanese reality show he is attempting to bring to British screens and the idea that television producers are more interested in creating dynamic situations than being responsible towards the people they involve in creating that programming. While I wouldn’t call those observations particularly challenging, they feel pretty relevant to some of the issues we have seen in recent years with participants in reality TV shows.
The material with Brendan pushing Carla into positions where she should get close to Jonathan, though it clearly is making her uncomfortable, is pretty painful to watch. More problematically, it also makes the character seem ludicrously disconnected with reality. I recognize that airy-headedness is an aspect of Brendan’s character but it makes him seem almost cartoonish (and while I don’t want to get ahead of myself too much, it will get worse).
Thinking back to how I felt about this episode before I revisited it, I find that my opinions have shifted. I do recognize the appeal and the cleverness of the impossibility which definitely appealed to my imagination and I appreciate how carefully it is constructed. On the other hand, I feel that my dislike of the Brendan material and Kenny’s subplot has probably increased and I am more conscious that it feels like padding. It’s still one of the better episodes in this fourth season but I think it doesn’t really compare to the best stories from the first two seasons.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Christine Gernon
Jack Dee was well established as a stand-up comic with a famously deadpan delivery by this point and had starred in a much-loved series of ads for John Smith’s beer and a few years earlier been the winner of the first season of Celebrity Big Brother. He is a fixture on panel games and has chaired the iconic radio series I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue since 2009.
Sophie Thompson has several genre credits for appearances in Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders and the adaptation of Hallowe’en Party for Poirot. I remember her most as Miss Bates though in the Paltrow version of Emma.
Trevor Peacock, playing the creator of the ventriloquist’s dummy, is best known for his role as Jim Trott in the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley.
Tamsin Greig is probably most widely known for her performance as Maggie in the film Shaun of the Dead but UK audiences will also be familiar with her from comedy shows such as Green Wing and Black Books.
An intriguing and pretty original impossibility but it’s hard to route for the client here…
Composer Dudley Houseman had thought himself the luckiest man alive when he got married to pop star Sally Ellen Oakley but soon he began to wonder if he had fallen in love with her showbiz persona, not the real woman. He meets Maria, an air hostess, and the pair seem to click and start a short and reckless affair, seeing each other frequently over the course of a few weeks.
During a lunch before Maria leaves for a trip overseas, Dudley’s P.A. voices her concerns that Maria may be after his money and calls his attention to a strange package addressed to him in her travel bag. He dismisses the idea and continues their date but as they are about to part his wife returns home prompting a violent exchange between the two women.
Sally soon spots the package and opens it to find a video tape and some hair. Putting it in the player they are shocked to see Maria tied up to a chair with a masked man by her side. She reads a statement which demands a ransom of a hundred thousand pounds for her safe return and proceeds to cut her hair. He even holds up a copy of that week’s Radio Times to show the date.
Dudley approaches Jonathan to seek his help understanding what happened. Having looked carefully at the tape it is clear that her hair is really being cut off and he knows she was not wearing a wig, so how could her hair have grown back in just two days?
It can be difficult to come up with a truly novel impossibility but Angel Hair certainly makes a decent stab at it, centering a mystery around a woman’s apparent ability to regrow her hair in just two days. I haven’t studied my Adey well enough to be able to say with certainty that this is an original idea but I have certainly never encountered it elsewhere.
One slight problem that this episode has to confront from the start is that this impossibility could well be possible thanks to some movie magic. Care has to be taken to definitively rule out a really well-fitted bald cap or wig as well as the possibility of some kind of video manipulation. Renwick’s script does manage to do that but it does mean that the setup for this story feels a little slow.
It doesn’t help much that I didn’t find Dudley at all likeable. He fits into a fairly common theme for the show of lousy men being portrayed sympathetically in spite of the faults in a situation largely being of their own making. It seems like he almost blames her for not matching his image of her. There is no suggestion that Sally has behaved particularly badly and yet this will be another one of those situations where the impetus seems to fall on the woman to understand and make allowances for her man.
Dee ought to be well cast in the part, which he plays straight. He certainly handles the explanation of the situation well and I do enjoy his interactions with Trevor Peacock who played his father. Unfortunately though Dee amplifies his character’s unpleasant, selfish traits in his performance to the point where I was left to wonder just why she ought to go back to him and give him another chance. Much as in The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish, I struggle to see just why I ought to want a reconciliation, even though it is clear that the script thinks we should.
This is unfortunate because I do quite like the core puzzle itself and I think it works better in performance than it does in description. Perhaps more importantly, at least for those of us who like to play along with these, it can be unpicked quite logically from quite early in the episode just from reviewing the core facts of the case. Proving that explanation can be a bit trickier but this case felt pretty fair to me.
That is not to say that everything about the solution was convincing. I do have some issues with some aspects of the explanation, particularly those relating to the identity of the masked figure in the video, but I think I will have to save those for the spoiler section below. None of them were significant enough though to significantly alter my enjoyment of that resolution.
I am a little less forgiving of a B-plot in which Carla becomes offended at her gynaecologist’s choice of music after spotting a CD in his briefcase. My issue here isn’t with whether it is funny or not (though for what it’s worth, the payoff is really weak) as much as that this plot thread feels completely tacked on to the episode, having little relationship to anything else going on. This makes it feel like padding rather than something to actively look forward to seeing more of.
Brendan gets some better material to work with as we get to hear about how viewers had responded to the events depicted in the previous episode. While I know the character isn’t to everyone’s taste, I quite enjoy the little swipes at the way that broadcasting works and the focus grouping.
There are two other comedic subplot on offers. One involving the commissioning of a ventriloquist’s dummy for Adam’s act from Henry Houseman, Dudley’s father. The gag here is an old one but I think it still has some impact and is played pretty well by everyone involved. The other involves Jonathan getting into a romantic relationship with a make-up artist and which leads to a very silly montage that is one of my favorite little comedy sequences the show ever did.
It all leaves me with rather mixed feelings about this episode. I think that the central concept feels original and the impossibility (and aspects of its solution) are pretty clever but I find it difficult to get past my issues with Dudley. I wonder if instead of creating a new character whether this was a scenario that Adam Klaus should have been used for instead. The scenario would take a little tweaking to reflect his single status but I think it would be easier to think sympathetically of that character if they hadn’t been cheating on their partner.
I can only judge the episode in front of me though and so while this has some interesting ideas, I couldn’t get over my dislike of Dudley. Others may well feel differently though!
Written by David Renwick Directed by Christine Gernon
Anna Wilson-Jones has appeared on several other crime-themed shows, making several guest appearances on Midsomer Murders as well as Inspector Lewis, Inspector Morse and Agatha Raisin. She is probably best known to international viewers though for her appearances in the first episode of Black Mirror (as the Prime Minister’s wife) and a recurring role in Victoria.
Adrian Edmondson was one of the most familiar faces from Britain’s alternative comedy scene. After appearing in The Young Ones he worked with Rik Mayall, also a Creek alum, on Bottom. While he doesn’t have a lot of crime and mystery credits beyond Creek, he did recently appear on an episode of Death in Paradise.
While it may not be a classic, this episode offers two very solid takes on the impossible disappearance.
A serial killer has strangled several women and the only thing that seems to be known about them is that they are described as wearing some rather distinctive headgear – a Davy Crockett hat. Carla Borrego, now the host of a true crime show, is working with the police on a reenactment at the scene of the most recent murder when shots are fired at the reenactors. The police quickly identify the position of the gun and converge on the location within moments only to find the door locked from the inside and the gunman vanished.
The Coonskip Cap feels quite strikingly different from all of the episodes of Jonathan Creek that preceded it. Some of that is visual as the episode sports a darker, richer look with moodier lighting and considerable amounts of night-shooting but it is also noticeable in the script itself. This is a story about a serial killer who preys on women, a scenario that seems to have far more in common with news headlines than most Jonathan Creek episodes which usually seem to feature the sort of crime scenarios you might find in golden age detective fiction.
The result is quite jarring when watched shortly after the Maddy Magelan era though of course there was a gap of several years between them. Personally I think it helps to define and separate this next phase in the show’s development from what has come before and while not every change is wholly successful, I am happy that this episode is structured around a couple of pretty solid impossibilities.
The first impossibility involves the disappearance of a suspect from within a room moments after gun shots are fired. When the police arrive they find that the door is locked from the inside and have to break it down to get access. Meanwhile the window, the only other exit to the room, is under observation from several other officers. When the bullets are retrieved they match the sniper rifle found inside the room so how did the suspect manage to escape?
This impossible disappearance is a fine appetizer though I think that it would disappoint if it were the main meal. There is a logical solution to the situation that I think becomes all the more obvious when the viewer sees what Jonathan is interested in at the crime scene. It’s still a good idea though and executed well and there are some very solid questions about who did it and why that are left to linger for much of the episode.
The second impossibility is the meatier one as it once again involves an apparent disappearance but this time the killer has struck successfully, strangling a police officer in a gym in a really effective sequence that plays out in near pitch black. There is nowhere to hide in the gym and only the one locked exit which Inspector Ted Parnevik and other officers have under observation. Furthermore the moments leading up to her death are captured in a rather grim radio recording so how did the killer strike and then get away?
There are a couple of reasons that I think that this is more effective than the first impossibility. For one thing, a character has actually died which raises the stakes. For another, we are given clearer physical confirmation about characters’ movements around the moment that the situation occurs and the narrow window in which it takes place. The trick, worked in tighter constraints, seems all the more baffling and even Jonathan appears to be struggling at first to solve it.
Of course Jonathan does eventually figure out how the various elements relate to each other and I have to say that I was pretty satisfied with his explanations of how and why these two impossibilities occurred. The only thing that disappointed me a little was a visual clue which I’ll describe in my Aidan Spoils Everything section after the page break. I think that is the least important part of the denouement though and so it didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much.
Looking at various online episode rankings though it does seem that I am a bit of an outlier in feeling that way. In several posts I read this episode tends to place towards the bottom. I suspect that the reasons for this lack of popularity lie with the character of Carla and the adjustments made to her background to enable her to become a viable on-going assistant for Jonathan.
Back when Carla was introduced she was a theatrical agent. That made sense as a rationale for that story but clearly she could not keep encountering Jonathan in that guise. The true crime TV show, while being a little reminiscent of Maddy’s true crime books, feels like a further updating of that idea and provides a much stronger reason to keep bringing them together – particularly as the collaboration is essentially forced on her.
The idea that the show would be produced by her husband seems to be a common source of annoyance with this era. He is certainly another smarmy showbiz type though nowhere near as obnoxious as Adam Klaus, but I think that this episode does use him to make some interesting observations about the philosophy of television programming. Some of those observations specific to true crime programming feel even more relevant today than they would have been back then because of the glut of such shows being produced now both through traditional media and online.
There are two other reasons I quite like him, at least in the context of this episode. Firstly, I think Adrian Edmondson is well cast in the part, giving him a strong (if sometimes pretty frustrating) personality. The other reason is that Carla being married gives our investigators a more obvious obstacle to their being together romantically. This was welcome after three seasons in which I frequently wondered just what the problem was that stopped Jonathan and Maddy getting together when they both clearly wanted it at points. Now, I’m not foolish enough to claim that it would always be so – just I don’t hate it here.
Overall then, I think that this one is better than its reputation would suggest. While it is clearly not on the level of some of the classic stories in the show’s second season, I’d take this over almost any from the third. Whether I will be as generous of the next story… Well, you’ll have to wait to next week to find out.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Sandy Johnson
Perhaps the most recognizable face for international audiences will be Steven Berkoff. A frequent villain in Hollywood films, Berkoff is probably best known for his role as the unhinged General Orlov in the Bond film Octopussy or as a murderous art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop.
There are lots of connections between Jonathan Creek and Doctor Who but this special features offers one of my favorites. The victim in this story is played by Mary Tamm who had played the first incarnation of Romana opposite Tom Baker in the Key to Time series.
Finally comic Bill Bailey, best known at the time for his role in the relatively new comedy Black Books, makes his first appearance as terrible magician Kenny Starkiss.
An entertaining feature-length episode with two very solid impossibilities that are cleverly linked to each other. Sure, it’s not on the level of the previous special, Black Canary, but I liked it a lot more than any story from Season Three.
Actress Vivian Brodie is the star of Black Snow, a big budget film being made by her friend Herman Grole. The set is becoming a rather strained one as her big name co-star refusing to shoot their scenes together, fearing he will catch her throat infection. Away from the shooting she also seems to be concerned about being harrassed by someone as we see the clothes in her wardrobe have been shredded and overhear her making a somewhat distraught phone call in response to someone who is not identified.
Shooting continues on location where a scene is to be filmed in which several characters break down a door with an axe. As the door is being broken through the actors react in horror to see Vivian has really been shot and on the point of death. The cast rush inside and Vivian appears to point at the window which is still in tact and completely sealed. All of the cast and crew seem to be accounted for on the other side of the door so how was Vivian shot dead without the glass of the window being broken?
As it happens Vivian’s ex-husband, escapologist Alan Kalanak, is working with Adam Klaus on a routine when he receives news of Vivian’s death. His agent Carla wants to do something to help and Alan suggests that she work with Jonathan…
Before I embarked on my current project to rewatch all of Jonathan Creek in order I used to dip into the series from time to time, picking out episodes at random. The result was it never struck me until a month or so ago that this special, the story that introduces Jonathan’s second companion, Carla Borrego, was missing on the service. As a result I can say with near-certainty that I hadn’t seen this since the day it was first broadcast; the few memories I had of the story were all to do with being excited to see Mary Tamm (this was the year I had become a Doctor Who fan so her appearance was particularly exciting for me). In short, this would be almost like watching the story for the first time – an exciting proposition!
Satan’s Chimney was created as a Christmas special and benefits from an extended running time. As with the previous special, Black Canary, Renwick takes advantage of the extra time to incorporate additional plot elements and craft a rather more elaborate story featuring multiple impossibilities. The result is a story that at times can seem overstuffed with elements, though everything is ultimately connected to tell a single cohesive (if incredible) story.
Let’s start with the way that the episode builds up the details concerning the murder of Vivian Brodie. The expanded running time allows for us to get a sense of the dynamics between her and several other members of the film’s cast and crew, allowing us to have a pretty good idea of the points of tension both spoken and unspoken prior to the murder taking place.
When that murder does occur, great care is taken to carefully demonstrate that there is no one present in the locked room. What’s more, almost all of the suspects are clearly shown as being located outside the room. This only makes the scenario seem more puzzling, as does the addition of a wordless dying message from Vivian.
One of the things I appreciate about these longer specials is that Renwick often disposes of a few of the small points about the crime scene quite quickly. In this case Jonathan is able to explain the relevance of the dying message, if not decipher who it actually refers to. This has two effects. For one thing, it builds up Jonathan’s powers by acknowledging he can see the significance of some apparently confusing points quickly – not dissimilar to the Sherlock Holmes deducing a number of personal details from someone’s appearance. Anything that may remain seems even more mysterious by contrast. The other is that it helps consolidate our interest around a few aspects of the mystery allowing room for further impossibilities.
In the episode summary above I have chosen to only outline the first of the story’s impossibilities. There are a couple of reasons for this but primarily it is that the second impossibility occurs relatively late in the story and is rather hard to explain without a lot of context. What I can say though is that it involves some historical (and horrific) elements established in the episode’s opening montage – a technique I have found to be quite effective in previous Creek stories such as Mother Redcap. While the historical background itself is rather inaccurate, the idea behind the second puzzle is quite striking and I appreciate that it shifts the story in quite a different direction.
The solutions to each of the impossibilities, while clearly wild, are also pretty entertaining and I particularly liked how the two problems relate to each other. I do question an aspect of the murder of Vivian but given that is getting into heavy spoiler territory I’ll save that for the Aidan Spoils Everything section that follows this post. I certainly enjoyed the craziness of what happens and felt that some key aspects of the case were clued well. My issues with the solution really only struck me in the aftermath of the story.
The guest cast here is quite strong and features a few striking performances, particularly from Steven Berkoff. I think he does a good job of making his character, a genius-level movie director who decides to live in a medieval torture castle, feel surprisingly credible. Mary Tamm is also great in her performance and I appreciate that we are given a little more time with the victim here, making her murder all the more affecting, and I think she played wonderfully with Berkoff whenever they were on screen together.
Finally, I probably ought to take a moment to acknowledge one of the most significant elements of the episode: that it introduces us to a new companion for Jonathan. I should begin by acknowledging that the episode does provide an explanation of sorts for why Maddy is not present that clearly leaves the door open for a return. While Carla does get an ending that clearly suggests she might have further adventures with Jonathan, it is possible that this could have been intended to be a one-off (and I do think that Carla’s next story presents her as occupying a role that feels like a more natural fit for Maddy).
I really like the casting of Julia Sawalha in the part and think that however the character would be developed in the episodes to come that she makes a really strong impression in this story. Part of the reason for that is that she gets a clear reason for being somewhat antagonistic and frustrated in her dealings with Jonathan. Unlike Maddy her priority is not selling a good story and she is not thrilled to be working with him. Also, while there are hints of romantic tension these are not quite so overt and they are not the main source of that comedic tension – rather it is her frustration at some of the things she is called upon to do in order to distract witnesses and learn the truth.
The most notable difference in the role is that Carla is clearly designed to be a sidekick rather than a co-investigator with many of her actions being directed by Jonathan. I would suggest that this is a continuation of a trend from the previous seasons of Creek which had slowly minimized Maddy’s role as an investigator and rarely relied on her professional skills. I can understand why some miss Maddy’s greater independence though, even if I don’t particularly miss the will they, won’t they dynamic she has with Jonathan.
Overall then I think that this is a pretty solid special that may not quite match the heights of Black Canary but I think it holds up better than almost all of the previous season. I am looking forward to getting started on revisiting a whole new era of Creek in the next few months.
In late 2019 I started to introduce some video content onto this blog which was a project I was really pretty excited about. I had recorded several posts where I discussed the reasons I love particular mystery-themed movies and also a book discussion about my favorite novel, A Kiss Before Dying. The views weren’t incredible but it was a chance to speak extemporaneously about things I liked which is fun to do.
Unfortunately that project ground to a halt when several videos I shot got corrupted before I could upload them (including a Five to Try with books from the British Library Crime Classics range – a video I should probably try and do again at some point) and by the time I could start over again the pandemic was underway and the house was anything but quiet. The idea was quietly shelved and I got on with other stuff. Like actually writing about books – ho, hum.
Well, as I was planning to take a break this week from watching Jonathan Creek and to catch up on my reading I decided that it might be fun to get this plan back on track and record another of these. The question was which movie to talk about.
As it happened I recently rewatched The Great Mouse Detective with my kid who is currently in a bit of a detective phase (which I am doing my best to support by providing lots of material). She enjoyed some parts very much while other bits struck her as a little slow compared to more recent Disney cartoons or mystery shows like The Inbestigators but that is very much a reflection of the era in which it was made.
As for myself, I am not going to pretend that this the greatest mystery ever written. You will notice the plot is not included in my list of five things. This was my first introduction to the idea of a detective though and specifically to the world of Sherlock Holmes and so while it is not necessarily a great mystery in its own right, I still appreciated revisiting it and had no difficulty thinking of five things I wanted to talk about:
Whether you share my nostalgic love of this film or not, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Richard Holthouse
John Bird is a familiar face on British TV, particularly to fans of political comedy for his work with John Fortune and Rory Bremner. While his background in principally in satirical comedy, Bird has appeared in a number of genre shows including Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders and he also appears again in this show in a pair of later episodes.
Nina Sosanya is much more well known today than she would have been when she filmed this, having appeared in recent years in His Dark Materials, Good Omens, Staged and Killing Eve.
Of all of the actors the one I would have been most familiar with at the time was Hattie Hayridge who played Holly, the shipboard computer, in several seasons of Red Dwarf.
Finally Harry Peacock is Ray Bloody Purchase from the sitcom Toast of London. Genre credits include episodes of Wire in the Blood, Pie in the Sky and Midsomer Murders.
Maddy’s final episode is not a classic but it is one of the better efforts from this third season boasting some effective imagery and a solid puzzle plot.
Three friends meet up with a man named Geiger who plans to cut them in on a drug score that will take place in the Caribbean. He outlines the plan but as the evening goes on the tensions between the group grow, suddenly erupting when the two men try to steal Geiger’s contact book. When Geiger stumbles in on them he is livid, accusing them of trying to cut him out, and they fire at each other. Floyd instinctively grabs a poker and smashes Geiger over the head, knocking him unconscious, then shoots him repeatedly in the head using his own gun.
They deposit his body in the cellar, locking the door and blocking it with a heavy dresser before throwing the key away in the river. When they attempt to go ahead with the plan they are ambushed by the local police. After spending a few months underground Floyd becomes convinced that Geiger was having his revenge from beyond the grave and when he returns to England he confesses to the Police. To corroborate his story they go to the farmhouse where they find everything as it was left by the gang months earlier. When they pull the dresser away however they see a hand poking out from under the door and open it to discover Geiger at the top of the stairs, arm outstretched, with a terrible expression on his face…
The Three Gamblers not only brings the uneven third season of Jonathan Creek to a close, it also marks the final appearance of Caroline Quentin as intrepid investigative reporter Maddy Magellan. When questioned about returning to Creek on Graham Norton’s radio show, Quentin indicated that she always expected she would come back but indicated that the production team seemed to have moved on during that time.
Certainly there is little to indicate that this was intended to be a sendoff for the character. The plot does not particularly revolve around her character and she gets a pretty average amount of screen time. While she may not have been the focus of the episode though, I do appreciate that her final case gives her a moment in which she uses her observational skills to deduce something important, even if that moment is highlighted to such an extent with the performances and the edit that it rather robs it of the impact it might have had.
At this point I had intended to address the question of Quentin’s legacy to the show but I think that may be a topic best left for the end of this series of posts when I can consider what each of the partners brought to the show. Instead let’s crack on and discuss some of the details of The Three Gamblers.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this episode is its tone. From the beginning this seems to attempt to evoke a sort of hard boiled realism with talk of drug running and a criminal conspiracy and some more graphic depictions of gun violence than usual. That perhaps explains why the first time I revisited this a few years ago I couldn’t recall anything beyond that opening – I suspect either the TV must have been switched off or the children were exiled from the living room!
While it may have been a little grittier than usual though I should be clear that this could not be mistaken for an episode of Luther or a Guy Ritchie movie. After all, I don’t think many of us would think to cast John Bird if we’re looking to give a show a hard boiled edge. Strip away the sequence leading to the murder and a brief moment of violence in the middle and you have a pretty typical episode of the show based around a single impossibility.
I really like a lot about the presentation of that impossibility which leans in nicely to some horror tropes. The moment where you see Geiger’s corpse is horrific and a triumph of makeup and lighting, delivering chills. While it is obvious rationally that he is really dead, much like it was obvious that there was no real alien several episodes earlier, it is not initially easy to imagine how this could have happened, and I think the psychological impact this has on Floyd is clever as it is clear that his experience seeing the corpse has left him shattered and unable to help the Police with their investigation.
Unfortunately once you get past the reveal of the impossibility, I think that the investigative portion of the episode feels a little flat. That is because there simply isn’t anyone to speak to and the crime scene is in itself rather bland. While there are certainly important clues to find, the entire business hinges on a single concept and so this leaves a lot of narrative space that will need to be filled.
The episode tries to do this in two ways. The first is to add an extra problem to overcome at the end of the investigation, leading to a rare action sequence. I have mixed feelings about this because I quite like the technical elements of this – particularly Jonathan’s means of resolving it which feels absolutely true to his character and skill set – but I hate that it feels tacked on to the end of this phase of the story as it has very little relevance to anything else.
The other is to get plenty of time to Adam Klaus who has not one but two story threads within the episode, the more notable being his getting worked up about whether he will win a major magic award. This offers Stuart Milligan some amusing moments where he gets to show how two-faced and insincere Adam can be, particularly in a scene in which he places a string of telephone calls. My only disappointment here is that both this thread and the one featuring a young subversive magician he meets feel like they just tail off rather than land a decisive knockout punchline. Still, in spite of that I found that they were pretty entertaining viewing.
The problem is one of balance though. Given what feels like near-equal time to Jonathan and Maddy’s investigation as well as the biggest laughs, these scenes feel like they are the focus of the story which isn’t exactly what I am looking for from the show. In contrast the investigation appears drab and a little simple, being explained quite easily. While that explanation seems pretty clever, I found the simplicity here underwhelming rather than wowing.
In spite of this issue with the balance of the various elements, taken in the context of the third season however I think this has to be regarded as one of the stronger efforts. While the impossibility is comparatively simple, it is quite arresting visually and I feel it has one of the more credible solutions on offer in this run of episodes. I wish that there was a little more to go on (or that Maddy’s deduction was a little harder) but it is a pretty solid puzzle overall and certainly very watchable.