Jonathan Creek: The Sinner and the Sandman (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 7, 2014
Season Five, Episode Two
Preceded by The Letters of Septimus Noone
Followed by The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

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. He had also previously appeared in Jonathan Creek as a different character in The Three Gamblers.

David Gant, who plays Eric Ipswich, has quite a few genre credits to his name including appearances in Sherlock, Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, Whitechapel, Rosemary & Thyme, Inspector Morse and more.

The Verdict

Nothing hugely to object to but not much to excite either. It feels like a collection of disconnected B-plots.

Episode Summary

When failed psychic magician Eric Ipswich has to go to hospital the community decides to rally around and give his home a much-needed refresh. Jonathan and Polly get to work stripping layers of wallpaper in the bedroom only to uncover a series of numbers with the words “will win” written underneath. It turns out those numbers had been winning numbers some time ago when local businessman Leonard Corbyn won the jackpot. How did Eric Ipswich, a terrible psychic, actually make this amazing prediction decades earlier?

Meanwhile Polly finds that returning to her childhood home has brought back some unexpected memories of a nightmarish man she thinks of as The Sandman. Who was he and what was Polly remembering?

Finally, the community tries to understand how rumors are spreading quickly through the village and what the truth is behind the strange beast with glowing eyes seen prowling in the vicarage garden at night.

My Thoughts

The Sinner and the Sandman strikes me as a rather disjointed episode. In addition to working to establish Jonathan and Polly’s new home and community, the story tries to set up and resolve at least three or four mysteries but each of these strike me as quite slight including the most eye-catching – the psychic prediction.

Before we tackle any of these though I have to start by briefly discussing the very strange opening with what must be the least convincing home invasion in television history. Polly has dragged Jonathan to have dinner with a ‘wrestling critic’, whatever that is but finding them not at home with dinner left out they explore leading to an unfortunate interaction with the would-be thieves.

The scene plays out somewhat comedically but it’s odd as it has little importance to the rest of the story. It is really only there to set up a zany punchline moment Renwick has planned for the end of the episode. It feels like a pretty length detour and the payoff was not, for me, enough to make the time spent on it feel worthwhile for me. I wish instead that the space had been given to one of the other plot threads to give room for a little more complexity.

One of the most notable elements of series five is that the episodes feel smaller with a strong focus on the show’s new rural setting and Jonathan’s embrace of domesticity and middle age. Of the three episodes, this is the one that most strongly focuses on that village setting and a set of common characters who are shared between the episodes. For instance this would once again use James Bachman as the vicar who we saw conduct the funeral service in the previous episode while it also introduces us to John Bird’s Horace Greeley – a sort of village busybody who runs the parish newspaper.

Now I have to say that I really enjoy John Bird as a performer but I was not in love with the choice of bringing him back to the series to play a new character. We had seen this same practice several episodes earlier with Nigel Planer but I think there is an important difference between the two: Planer’s performance feels quite distinct with a rather different make-up and completely different manner. Bird’s performance as Greeley, while enjoyable, feels quite similar to his DI Gallo from The Three Gamblers and so it’s hard to forget that we are watching the same actor at work which makes it all the more odd that Jonathan never comments on the similarity. I think the best way I can make peace with this is to say that this is another little love note to Columbo which frequently did this but I did find it a little distracting.

On a more positive note though, I do like the idea of giving Jonathan a more permanent base of operations, even if it turned out to be quite short-lived. While it feels quite different from what the series had done before, I think it does allow for some different sorts of stories to be told and presumably would have enabled the series to make some cost savings. It even allows for the possibility that characters would have been reused between episodes, creating a stronger sense of the community. It’s a shame really that the series would end so soon so these ideas were never fully realized.

The most satisfying of the three mystery strands for me was the one rooted in village life. The comedy in this plot thread feels relatively gentle compared to some of the previous stories and I think the explanation is pretty credible (well, except for the belief in the ‘beast’ and the preventative measures taken by the villagers). There isn’t a whole lot here to detect but the explanation is at least pretty logical.

The Sandman storyline struck me as a little forced though I can accept that memory can be distorted and repressed. I do appreciate that this plot thread is intended though to build up Polly’s backstory and I quite liked an emotional note that the episode gives following the explanation for this plot and Sarah Alexander’s performance. I will note though that unlike the other mystery threads, this isn’t particularly strongly clued though.

The clunkiest plot thread for me is the impossibility. The problems begin with the heavy level of contrivance that is required to find it in the first place. The home makeover, Polly’s marvelous memory that recalls that the numbers exactly match a photograph she glimpsed only for a few seconds some days before and the presentation of the message found beneath the wallpaper. The explanation is not inherently bad but the idea that anyone might think that Ipswich had predicted the lottery results years before there was even a lottery seems quite strange. Even more so that he doesn’t gain anything from it himself (if he had been the winner it would have seemed more miraculous but I imagine it would be harder to explain why anyone would have found the prediction).

Were this a b-plot, I wouldn’t have minded quite so much. The problem is that it is supposed to hold our attention for an entire episode and it simply arrives too late in the hour to make much impact. It’s not really a case that requires much investigation at all – hence why when we do get the scene where Jonathan explains it all it seems to come from nowhere, necessitating the awkward introduction of several characters.

Still, while I didn’t find much here to marvel at I didn’t hate it either. Just don’t expect it to be placed particularly highly on my ranked list of the episodes when I eventually share that…

Jonathan Creek: The Letters of Septimus Noone (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 2014
Season Five, Episode One
Preceded by The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb
Followed by The Sinner and the Sandman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

Paula Wilcox was one of the stars of Man About the House and may also be known for her roles in Coronation Street and Emmerdale as well as Upstart Crow. Her genre credits include Grantchester and A Touch of Frost.

Raquel Cassidy is probably best known for her role as Miss Baxter in Downton Abbey and an appearance in Doctor Who. In this household however she is a favorite for her performance as Miss Hardbroom in the recent TV adaptation of The Worst Witch. She also has some genre credits appearing in episodes of Poirot, Law & Order: UK and Midsomer Murders.

Finally I have to mention Kieran Hodgson who became familiar to me during lockdown last year for his Youtube channel where he posts what he calls bad impressions. The draw for me was this series of reenactments of early Doctor Who.

The Verdict

A rare example of an inverted impossibility – an idea that Renwick handles pretty well though the pacing is a touch slow.

Episode Summary

An actress seems to have been stabbed moments after entering a dressing room that is under observation from the outside. Meanwhile Polly Creek learns of the death of her father and investigates if there is a secret in her parents’ past.

My Thoughts

If there’s one thing I like even more than impossible crimes it is an inverted mystery. That makes The Letters of Septimus Noone then something of a treat as it represents one of the very rare instances where those two subgenres combine and we get a case where we know the solution from the start. The question is then how will Jonathan reach that solution.

The setup for this case is handled quite well, carefully laying out the reasons behind the stabbing as well as the silence of those who have information that could clear the whole mess up. Those motivations struck me as pretty compelling, even if they are misguided.

I have suggested before that I rather like impossibilities that are created unintentionally and this is a perfect example of that. Characters make decisions based on their understanding and priorities with little thought as to how this will look from the outside to a third party. The case that develops is not particularly complex but suits this episode’s short running time and the need to fit alongside another more personal plot.

It should not surprise then that given the simplicity of the case, finding the solution comes down to spotting a single clue. Some may feel a little disappointed that Jonathan doesn’t actually deduce every step of the solution for himself and prove a case but I don’t think that would have fitted this story or the themes it had been developing.

Running through this, in one of the better comedic subplots from the show’s later years, is the idea that Jonathan has unwillingly acquired an intern of sorts – Ridley, a student returning from university who idolizes him and thinks he can perform the same feats of deduction. The jokes are somewhat predictable (and perhaps recall Miracle in Crooked Lane a little too much) but they are delivered well by Kieran Hodgson, culminating in an entertaining spin on the gathering all the suspects trope.

That other plot involves the sudden death of Polly’s father and the discovery of a box of letters. The mystery here is harder to summarize, in part because some aspects are introduced relatively late in the episode, but it is much more focused on exploring matters of grief and how we come to terms with the idea that we may not know someone as well as we thought.

As with the stabbing case the deductions required here are not particularly challenging. One of them will likely leap off the screen to viewers as soon as they see it, particularly given it’s an idea Renwick has used elsewhere. Still, I appreciated that the episode was trying to give us a different sort of case than we had seen before on the show and I liked that it was personal to Polly as I think it helps us understand her better and also provides a transition for the show into slightly new ground.

Beyond that I don’t have a lot else to say. I think that says rather a lot about this episode compared to those from the previous couple of seasons and the various specials. This is slighter than some offering two relatively simple puzzles but it also feels much more cohesive in terms of its themes and ideas. The comedic elements and the personal drama sits comfortably alongside the central mystery rather than fighting each other for dominance. It’s arguably comfortable and perhaps unambitious compared to those stories, fitting comfortably into the time slot and playing out at a rather leisurely pace. Still, I found it likable and I think it does a good job overall of completing the transition of Jonathan into a more comfortable, settled middle age.

That said I do have one point of enormous frustration. This episode completely pointlessly gives away some of the plot from The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Bah!

Jonathan Creek: The Judas Tree (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast April 4, 2010
2010 Easter Special
Preceded by The Grinning Man
Followed by The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb

Written and directed by David Renwick

Familiar Faces

Paul McGann played the eighth incarnation of Doctor Who, working with Sheridan Smith on a series of audio stories. He also has a number of genre credits including a recurring role in Luther, Waking the Dead and Poirot. My favorite of his roles though is as Eugene Wrayburn in the exquisite 1998 adaptation of Our Mutual Friend – not really a mystery though it has some mysterious elements…

Ian McNeice also has a Doctor Who connection in his recurring role as Winston Churchill but he has a varied career that includes roles in high profile shows such as Rome and Doc Martin as well as a wealth of genre credits including Inspector Lewis, Murder Rooms, Cadfael and Ruth Rendell Mysteries.

Doreen Mantle is perhaps most familiar for her recurring role on Renwick’s comedy series One Foot in the Grave as Mrs. Warboys. She does have several genre credits including Father Brown, Inspector Lewis and the 1979 adaptation of Malice Aforethought.

The Verdict

A failure but an interesting one. I appreciate that this at least attempts to try and tread some new ground. Sadly the solution feels undervalued and contrived…

Episode Summary

Years after witnessing a house vanish into thin air, Emily comes to work for the mystery novelist Hugo Dore in a house with its own strange history. Over a century earlier the owner of the house died at exactly the moment his death was predicted by his Egyptian mistress. Following her employment she experiences a number of strange events including seeing an apparition of that woman and Dore’s wife starts receiving notes predicting the moment of her own demise. That prediction comes to pass as she is seen falling from a window to her death and Emily becomes the prime suspect.

My Thoughts

So I finally get to The Judas Tree. I must confess that I have been both eagerly anticipating and rather dreading writing about this one. You see, I consider the episode to be one of the most interesting of the whole series run and yet I would also argue that it is among the least successful. It’s going to be tricky to explain exactly why, particularly in the spoiler-free section of the review, but I will give it my best effort.

The episode, like many of the previous specials, incorporates multiple strange events and impossibilities though I would suggest that the sheer number contained here is quite notable. Among the many events Jonathan will be called on to explain are the disappearance of a house in a matter of seconds, a photograph managing to alter its appearance, an apparition of a long dead woman appearing on a woodpile, a historical murder where a man died at a predicted time and place with no one in his vicinity and the murder of a woman in the present day where she seemed to be pushed out of a window while all the suspects were gathered below.

That is a long list and frankly it’s hard to escape the feeling that the episode is rather overstuffed. Though each of these strange events will be important to understanding the broader mystery of the episode, viewed individually several of these problems may strike the viewer as quite straightforward. Take for instance the appearance of the apparition which is so simple that it is disposed of in just a few moments as part of a broader explanation. Similarly, the matter of the photograph is also quite quickly explained although there at least there is a little cleverness in an aspect of the setup that I did appreciate.

The disappearance of the house, a problem which is introduced in the episode’s opening montage which is presented with some garish visual processing, is quickly set up but subsequently hardly mentioned except as evidence of Emily’s unreliable nature as a witness. There is at least a clue to what happened here, though I would suggest that it is not enough for Jonathan to be able to prove the solution he reaches. Instead we are supposed to accept it because it fits all of the facts we have been given.

There the episode is on stronger ground with its two murders with the episode once again playing with the idea of historic crimes influencing events in the present (and possibly being repeated). I think the way that idea is used here is less successful than Mother Redcap, Satan’s Chimney or The Grinning Man but I do appreciate that it seems that Renwick was trying to explore that idea slightly differently in this story. I would also add that given I rate those three stories incredibly highly, failing to live up to them is reflective more of those stories’ greatness more than the weakness of this effort.

The historical murder is the less interesting of the two, in part because it feels much more limited. Unlike those other episodes I referenced we are not looking at a series of events but a single, isolated occurrence. I think the bigger issue I have with it though is that the circumstances of that murder all feel rather convoluted and silly, being designed with the idea that we will try and link it to the modern day case rather than for it to make sense as a plan for murder. Still, given how brief the discussion of this case proves I appreciate it for its color and the atmosphere it gives the episode.

The meat of this story then must lie in its modern day murder. This seems particularly apparent if we acknowledge that all of these other puzzles exist to feed into it, creating a sense of atmosphere and being used to define Emily’s character. The moment in which our victim is murdered has a shock value, even if some of the ambiguity of the action is spoiled a little with the certainty that the camera gives. Regardless, it makes for an intriguing problem for Jonathan to solve.

Interest in the scenario is elevated by the introduction of a deadline being imposed upon Jonathan. While we saw a race against time element employed at the end of the previous story, this sets that expectation from the beginning by having the investigation take place against the backdrop of Emily’s trial and that he needs to discover the truth to prevent her from going to prison.

The case, which unlike the other plot threads does at least have some clueing, is elevated by some splendid acting performances – particularly from Paul McGann who gives a beautifully ambiguous performance as Hugo Dore. He has long been one of my favorite actors because of the way he is able to project sincerity and warmth, even when his character’s actions seem to have quite different motivations. He is great here, coming across as quite ambiguous throughout the case and I was really impressed by how well that is sustained throughout this episode.

The solution to how this is worked is mechanically smart, even if I think it relies a little too heavily on everything going according to plan. There is a moment for instance where I feel some witnesses should be able to see something and had they the story would have had a distinctly different resolution. Similarly I can’t help but think that there were countless opportunities for the killer’s plan to go wrong and yet everything miraculously comes off without a hitch. It’s all pretty convenient…

Perhaps the biggest complaint I have about the solution though is that a key aspect of it feels like it emerges from nowhere. When it comes to the motive for the crime, there is little in the episode that I think suggests the solution that we end up with and so that aspect simply seems to come from nowhere. It is rather unsatisfying…

So, what makes this episode interesting? I think it has to do with some beats that this story takes towards its end that take the action into some territory that was entirely new both for Jonathan and for the show as a whole. This not only allows Alan Davies to portray the character in a different sort of situation, I think it raises some interesting questions about how this case ought to be resolved that the reader can consider and judge for themselves.

This somewhat different direction results in the ending feeling somewhat unsatisfying. Unlike most stories, we are left without the certainty that justice has prevailed. A brave narrative choice, even I’m not sure it quite pays off. Perhaps if the gaps between the episodes hadn’t been quite so long it would have been easier to accept.

Normally this is the point where I would moan about the secondary plot with Adam Klaus. While I cannot say I particularly enjoyed his subplot, I did appreciate that he becomes the figure of fun here and the victim of the joke. Is it needed? Probably not, though I also like that Renwick avoids going overboard and uses it mainly to cap the episode.

Overall then it’s hard to view The Judas Tree as anything other than a mess as a story but I will say that I appreciate that it was at least attempting to do something a bit different, even if it missed more often than it hit.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

Gur Whqnf Gerr vf vagrerfgvat gb zr orpnhfr vg vf na rknzcyr bs n fgbel jurer n terng qrgrpgvir snvyf. Wbanguna pregnvayl pbzrf pybfr gb fbyivat n ahzore bs nfcrpgf bs gur pnfr, rira vs uvf fgbel ba gur fgnaq vf pyrneyl abg jbexvat, ohg fvzcyl pnaabg cvrpr rirelguvat gbtrgure orpnhfr bs n ynpx bs xabjyrqtr. Hasbeghangryl jr ynpx gung xabjyrqtr gbb naq fb gur fbyhgvba pnaabg ernyyl or qrqhprq – bayl thrffrq ng. Arire n fngvfslvat guvat va n zlfgrel.

Rira jura jr yrnea gur gehgu, juvpu vf erirnyrq gb hf ol n guveq cnegl gbjneq gur raq, gurer vf n snfpvangvat hagvqvarff nobhg gur zbeny enzvsvpngvbaf bs gung gehgu. Fubhyq Wbanguna unir gbyq gur nhgubevgvrf? Vg’f na vagrerfgvat dhrfgvba yrsg gb gur ivrjre gb pbafvqre. Gur fubpx erirny bs gur certanapl vf fvzvyneyl irel rssrpgvir va gur jnl vg nqqf gb gur frafr bs thvyg gung gur punenpgref ner rkcrevrapvat ol gur raq.

Gurer ner fbzr cerggl fvtavsvpnag ceboyrzf ubjrire jvgu guvf cybg. Gur jubyr fpurzr vf eryvnag ba n srj gerzraqbhf pbvapvqraprf unccravat. Gur svefg vf gung gurl ner noyr gb grzcg Rzvyl gb gnxr gur wbo va gur svefg cynpr. Gur frpbaq, gung fur fgnlf chg guebhtubhg nyy gur jrveqarff jvgubhg bapr gelvat gb erfvta. Vs fur jrer gb qb fb, jung jbhyq unir unccrarq? Jbhyq gurl unir whfg xvyyrq gur bgure tvey naq ubcrq gung gur ynpx bs n zheqre fhfcrpg gb cbvag n svatre ng jbhyq abg cerfrag ceboyrzf?

Bgure pbvapvqraprf vapyhqr gung Uhtb zneevrf n jbzna jub ybbxf whfg yvxr gur jbzna ur jvyy jnag gb xvyy (be rira rabhtu gung fur zvtug cnff sbe ure), gung fur vf sebz noebnq naq jvyyvat gb cynl gur cneg, naq gung gurl ner noyr gb xvqanc gur zheqrere ng nyy. Gura jr trg gb gur jubyr dhrfgvba bs ubj gurl pbzr gb qrpvqr gb hcraq gurve yvsr gb chyy guvf fghag gung pbhyq erfhyg va gurz obgu orvat wnvyrq gurzfryirf. Guebj va gur erfbheprf gung vg gnxrf gb chyy vg bss naq gurve pubvprf srry vapernfvatyl snagnfgvpny.

Ba gur fhowrpg bs snagnfgvpny guvatf, yrg’f nyfb ersyrpg ba gung bcravat frdhrapr. Guvf vf hfrq bfgrafvoyl gb perngr gur rivqrapr gb fhttrfg gung Rzvyl vf na haeryvnoyr jvgarff be cbffvoyl whfg n yvne. Gung ubjrire pyrneyl pnaabg or gur pnfr orpnhfr vs vg vf gura guvf jubyr fgbel orpbzrf abafrafvpny – vs gur fbyhgvba gb guerr vzcbffvovyvgvrf jrer whfg fur yvrq gura jr jbhyq unir n qrrcyl hafngvfslvat fubj ba bhe unaqf.

Vs jr gura erwrpg gung cbffvovyvgl gur bayl pbapyhfvba jr pna or yrsg jvgu vf gung gur riragf unccrarq naq gung gurl ner arprffnel sbe fbzr bgure ernfba. Guvf bs pbhefr vf gung jr arrq gb xabj gung fur unq n snapl fcbegf pne naq unq gung sevraq – vg vf gurer gb or rivqrapr. Gur ceboyrz V unir jvgu vg gubhtu vf gung guvf vf cerggl zhpu gur bayl rivqrapr jr ner tvira sbe gur pbzcryyvat onpxfgbel nobhg Uhtb’f oebgure naq vg srryf ernyyl fyvtug. Vg qbrf znxr zr jbaqre vs creuncf gurer jnf bevtvanyyl zber ba gung gbcvp gung tbg ybfg va na rqvg, creuncf jura gur cevrfg ortvaf gb gnyx nobhg gur uvfgbel bs gur Whqnf gerr. V’q or phevbhf vs nalbar unccraf gb xabj gur nafjre.

Jonathan Creek: The Grinning Man (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast January 1, 2009
2009 New Year’s Special
Preceded by Gorgons Wood
Followed by The Judas Tree

Written and directed by David Renwick

Familiar Faces

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.

The Verdict

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.

Episode Summary

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.

My Thoughts

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

ROT-13:

Gur Obfpu cnvagvat znxrf sbe n fgevxvat ivfhny ohg qbrfa’g gur yvggyr rkcynangvba nobhg vg srry ernyyl gnpxrq ba? Vg’f n qnex erirny naq creuncf vagrerfgvat gb cynl, ohg jr qba’g xabj gur punenpgre jryy rabhtu sbe vg gb ernyyl ynaq nf fubpxvat. V nyfb qba’g xabj gung V nz va ybir jvgu gur jnl vg vf onfvpnyyl hfrq gb ervasbepr n jrnx zbgvir.

Wbrl’f ynpx bs na rzbgvbany erfcbafr gb gur qvfnccrnenapr naq yngre gur qvfpbirel bs gur pbecfr bs ure sevraq srryf n yvggyr bss, gubhtu V haqrefgnaq gung ure bja arne fpencr jvgu qrngu birejuryzf gur ynggre.

Nf pyrire nf gur ivqrb cyna vf zrpunavpnyyl, jung jbhyq Trffyre unir qbar vs gur jrngure pbaqvgvbaf jrer fhofgnagvnyyl qvssrerag ba gur qnl gung gur fvtugvat jnf fhccbfrq gb gnxr cynpr pbzcnerq jvgu gur qnl vg jnf svyzrq?

Jonathan Creek: The Chequered Box (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 21, 2004
Season 4, Episode 5
Preceded by The Seer of the Sands
Followed by Gorgons Wood

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

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.

The Verdict

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.


Episode Summary

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?

My Thoughts

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…

Continue reading “Jonathan Creek: The Chequered Box (TV)”

Jonathan Creek: The Seer of the Sands (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 14, 2004
Season Four, Episode Four
Preceded by The Tailor’s Dummy
Followed by The Chequered Box

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

So, umm… Adrian Edmondson is in this one again.

Honestly – I’ve got nothing.

The Verdict

A potentially great impossibility is wasted with an unconvincing scenario and some of the worst secondary plots the show ever featured.


Plot Summary

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.

My Thoughts

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.

All in all, not the show’s finest moment…

Continue reading “Jonathan Creek: The Seer of the Sands (TV)”

Jonathan Creek: The Tailor’s Dummy (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 15, 2003
Season Four, Episode Three
Preceded by Angel Hair
Followed by The Seer of the Sands

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

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 Verdict

The core impossibility is very cleverly worked but other aspects of the episode feel quite heavily padded.


Episode Summary

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…

My Thoughts

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.

Continue reading “Jonathan Creek: The Tailor’s Dummy (TV)”

Jonathan Creek: The Coonskin Cap (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 1, 2003
Season Four, Episode One
Preceded by Satan’s Chimney
Followed by Angel Hair

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

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.

The Verdict

While it may not be a classic, this episode offers two very solid takes on the impossible disappearance.


Episode Summary

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.

My Thoughts

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.

Continue reading “Jonathan Creek: The Coonskin Cap (TV)”

Jonathan Creek: Satan’s Chimney (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast on December 26, 2001
Christmas Special 2001
Preceded by The Three Gamblers
Followed by The Coonskin Cap

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

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.

The Verdict

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.


Episode Summary

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…

My Thoughts

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.

Continue reading “Jonathan Creek: Satan’s Chimney (TV)”

Jonathan Creek: The Three Gamblers (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast on January 2, 2000
Season 3, Episode 6
Preceded by Miracle in Crooked Lane
Followed by Satan’s Chimney

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Richard Holthouse

Familiar Faces

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.

The Verdict

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.


Episode Summary

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…

My Thoughts

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.