Originally broadcast 24 December, 1998
1998 Christmas Special
Preceded by Mother Redcap (Season Two)
Followed by The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish (Season Three)
Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson
Key Guest Cast
Rik Mayall makes his first appearance as DI Gideon Pryke, a Police Investigator who is every bit as brilliant as Jonathan. Mayall was one of the stars of Britain’s alternative comedy movement in the 80s, featuring in some of the decade’s most popular shows such as The Young Ones, Comic Strip Presents and The New Statesman. This was apparently his first acting role after he experienced a traumatic quad biking accident that had left him in a coma for five days. He would make a further appearance in show around fifteen years later in the episode The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb.
The first TV special feels deserving of that title, giving Jonathan a brilliant rival to spar with and a pretty challenging case to solve.
Marella Carney was one of the stars of the magic circuit, performing as the Black Canary, before a tragic accident led to her early retirement. Marella’s daughter contacts Jonathan to ask for his help in explaining the strange circumstances surrounding her sudden suicide. We learn that Marella’s wheelchair-bound husband Jerry was dozing in the conservatory when he woke to see her standing in the snowy garden arguing with a limping man. Suddenly she brandishes a shotgun, causing the man to run away, before turning it on herself moments later and shooting herself. Distraught, Jerry tries to get outside and when he does he notices that the only footprints that have been left in the snow are Marella’s…
Throughout its first season and most of its second Jonathan Creek stories were about fifty minute, standalone stories. The exception to that was a two-part story in the second season (The Problems at Gallows Gate) which I regard as fundamentally misconceived with many of its problems arising from the change in running time and issues of pacing. Black Canary, the show’s first Christmas special, would also be essentially double-length and could very easily have fallen into many of the same traps that Gallows Gate had. Instead Renwick delivered a story that not only felt tailored to its running time but also actually deserving of the label “special”.
To describe why this works I think it is important to pose a question: What do we want from a Jonathan Creek TV special?
The answer couldn’t simply be more Jonathan Creek. The show had by this point established a pretty solid rhythm and formula with an impossibility mixed with some comedic material and some will they/won’t they banter between Jonathan and Maddy. The Gallows Gate two-parter had shown that simply adding more running time into a story doesn’t make it more baffling or compelling.
Instead I think the answer lies in using that extra time to create a story that is bigger and more complex than you can typically tell. That doesn’t necessarily mean bigger in terms of the stakes of the show but bigger in the sense of telling Black Canary takes just such an approach and goes a step further by introducing a character who is capable of disrupting the show’s typical pacing, allowing for a different tone and unsettling the usual dynamics within our investigative team.
Much of my love for this episode stems from this character, DI Gideon Pryke, who represents a brilliant challenge to Jonathan. Pryke is, like Jonathan, incredibly brilliant with an ability to quickly assess and process information and see small details that would pass others by. As a consequence of that he is frequently one step ahead of Jonathan meaning that he has genuine competition to solve this case. It is, for the most part, fairly cordial although Jonathan is clearly frustrated by Pryke’s initial patronizing dismissal of him as the amateur who must be tolerated. Yet by the end their deductions are feeding each other, spurring each other on to crack the case. It is a really fun dynamic and one that I think enhances rather than diminishes Jonathan as a sleuth.
Rik Mayall gives a superb performance in the part, managing to not only portray Pryke as a good rival to Jonathan but ultimately a very effective detective. While the character is certainly arrogant, an attribute found in many of Mayall’s most celebrated characters, he is also surprisingly charming and ultimately quite gracious. This friendly rivalry reminded me somewhat of the one between Poirot and Giraud found in Murder on the Links although there is less of a stylistic difference between Creek and Pryke.
Turning to the actual details of the case, Renwick also makes some very smart choices in the way he sets up this story. One of the reasons that I have been rather vague about the details of this story in this post is that at the start of the story he leaves us with a lot of intriguing threads and pieces of information to think about. The seasoned viewer is likely to make some solid deductions from some of these and may feel that they are far ahead of the sleuths, only to find that there are a number of early reveals, some of which actually spin the story off in different directions.
This is the real benefit of the expanded running time – Renwick has the option here to develop clues that lead to other clues or sometimes cause you to rethink the way you are looking at them. The result is a story that feels much more complex than any Creek has tackled up until this point, building a sense that this story is more complex than it appears.
That feeling is borne out by the solution which is, for the most part, quite clever and logical. While the means by which the impossibility is achieved is not directly clued, I feel the viewer can infer what happened from some of the other clues around the crime scene. I enjoyed the way in which the solution is revealed with the two sleuths working in tandem to deliver the explanation which felt a rather charming way to not only close out the mystery but to show that the two had come together and a respect had formed. It is a nice moment that made me wish he had been brought back sooner so we could see more of that tag-team sleuthing that I found so enjoyable to watch.
While I think most of the mystery plot works well there are a few elements that I think are less successful. One aspect of the storyline, Jonathan and Maddy’s betting about whether Pryke’s assistant is male or female, feels pretty inappropriate and does not reflect brilliantly on those characters. It is another instance of the comedic elements of the show feeling really dated, though unlike some of the other examples I have pointed to this would not have been unusual content for the era it was produced in.
The other element that I think wouldn’t be written in exactly the same way today is Adam Klaus’ misbehavior with a costume designer working on his show. In particular, his behavior with a small recording device without her knowledge. Clearly we are intended to view this as a boorish and sleazy behavior when it is more of a violation of her body. Aside from that initial scene however I think that story thread does have some very amusing moments that I do think serve as a nice balance to the much more serious mystery material while the eventual payoff to that thread stands up pretty well.
With the exception of those two issues, I think much of the rest of the episode holds together really very well and proves that the show could work in a longer format. I think the hook of the disappearing footprints is fun and handled pretty well and I do enjoy the sort of haunting, spooky quality the episode channels at several points with the camera often dwelling on that rather eerie statue of Marella by the stairs.
The biggest reason I hold this episode in such high regard though is Mayall’s performance as Pryke. The character fits alongside Creek perfectly and, revisiting this episode, I found myself wishing that we had seen him more often. It is, in my opinion, one of the best guest performances on the show and I think that difficult relationship is perhaps the episode’s most memorable elements.
Which brings me to the end of my current run of Jonathan Creek posts. I plan on taking a short break from writing about the show until after the New Year when I plan on offering up some thoughts on The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish.