Jonathan Creek: Satan’s Chimney (TV)
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
Perhaps the most recognizable face for international audiences will be Steven Berkoff. A frequent villain in Hollywood films, Berkoff is probably best known for his role as the unhinged General Orlov in the Bond film Octopussy or as a murderous art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop.
There are lots of connections between Jonathan Creek and Doctor Who but this special features offers one of my favorites. The victim in this story is played by Mary Tamm who had played the first incarnation of Romana opposite Tom Baker in the Key to Time series.
Finally comic Bill Bailey, best known at the time for his role in the relatively new comedy Black Books, makes his first appearance as terrible magician Kenny Starkiss.
An entertaining feature-length episode with two very solid impossibilities that are cleverly linked to each other. Sure, it’s not on the level of the previous special, Black Canary, but I liked it a lot more than any story from Season Three.
Actress Vivian Brodie is the star of Black Snow, a big budget film being made by her friend Herman Grole. The set is becoming a rather strained one as her big name co-star refusing to shoot their scenes together, fearing he will catch her throat infection. Away from the shooting she also seems to be concerned about being harrassed by someone as we see the clothes in her wardrobe have been shredded and overhear her making a somewhat distraught phone call in response to someone who is not identified.
Shooting continues on location where a scene is to be filmed in which several characters break down a door with an axe. As the door is being broken through the actors react in horror to see Vivian has really been shot and on the point of death. The cast rush inside and Vivian appears to point at the window which is still in tact and completely sealed. All of the cast and crew seem to be accounted for on the other side of the door so how was Vivian shot dead without the glass of the window being broken?
As it happens Vivian’s ex-husband, escapologist Alan Kalanak, is working with Adam Klaus on a routine when he receives news of Vivian’s death. His agent Carla wants to do something to help and Alan suggests that she work with Jonathan…
Before I embarked on my current project to rewatch all of Jonathan Creek in order I used to dip into the series from time to time, picking out episodes at random. The result was it never struck me until a month or so ago that this special, the story that introduces Jonathan’s second companion, Carla Borrego, was missing on the service. As a result I can say with near-certainty that I hadn’t seen this since the day it was first broadcast; the few memories I had of the story were all to do with being excited to see Mary Tamm (this was the year I had become a Doctor Who fan so her appearance was particularly exciting for me). In short, this would be almost like watching the story for the first time – an exciting proposition!
Satan’s Chimney was created as a Christmas special and benefits from an extended running time. As with the previous special, Black Canary, Renwick takes advantage of the extra time to incorporate additional plot elements and craft a rather more elaborate story featuring multiple impossibilities. The result is a story that at times can seem overstuffed with elements, though everything is ultimately connected to tell a single cohesive (if incredible) story.
Let’s start with the way that the episode builds up the details concerning the murder of Vivian Brodie. The expanded running time allows for us to get a sense of the dynamics between her and several other members of the film’s cast and crew, allowing us to have a pretty good idea of the points of tension both spoken and unspoken prior to the murder taking place.
When that murder does occur, great care is taken to carefully demonstrate that there is no one present in the locked room. What’s more, almost all of the suspects are clearly shown as being located outside the room. This only makes the scenario seem more puzzling, as does the addition of a wordless dying message from Vivian.
One of the things I appreciate about these longer specials is that Renwick often disposes of a few of the small points about the crime scene quite quickly. In this case Jonathan is able to explain the relevance of the dying message, if not decipher who it actually refers to. This has two effects. For one thing, it builds up Jonathan’s powers by acknowledging he can see the significance of some apparently confusing points quickly – not dissimilar to the Sherlock Holmes deducing a number of personal details from someone’s appearance. Anything that may remain seems even more mysterious by contrast. The other is that it helps consolidate our interest around a few aspects of the mystery allowing room for further impossibilities.
In the episode summary above I have chosen to only outline the first of the story’s impossibilities. There are a couple of reasons for this but primarily it is that the second impossibility occurs relatively late in the story and is rather hard to explain without a lot of context. What I can say though is that it involves some historical (and horrific) elements established in the episode’s opening montage – a technique I have found to be quite effective in previous Creek stories such as Mother Redcap. While the historical background itself is rather inaccurate, the idea behind the second puzzle is quite striking and I appreciate that it shifts the story in quite a different direction.
The solutions to each of the impossibilities, while clearly wild, are also pretty entertaining and I particularly liked how the two problems relate to each other. I do question an aspect of the murder of Vivian but given that is getting into heavy spoiler territory I’ll save that for the Aidan Spoils Everything section that follows this post. I certainly enjoyed the craziness of what happens and felt that some key aspects of the case were clued well. My issues with the solution really only struck me in the aftermath of the story.
The guest cast here is quite strong and features a few striking performances, particularly from Steven Berkoff. I think he does a good job of making his character, a genius-level movie director who decides to live in a medieval torture castle, feel surprisingly credible. Mary Tamm is also great in her performance and I appreciate that we are given a little more time with the victim here, making her murder all the more affecting, and I think she played wonderfully with Berkoff whenever they were on screen together.
Finally, I probably ought to take a moment to acknowledge one of the most significant elements of the episode: that it introduces us to a new companion for Jonathan. I should begin by acknowledging that the episode does provide an explanation of sorts for why Maddy is not present that clearly leaves the door open for a return. While Carla does get an ending that clearly suggests she might have further adventures with Jonathan, it is possible that this could have been intended to be a one-off (and I do think that Carla’s next story presents her as occupying a role that feels like a more natural fit for Maddy).
I really like the casting of Julia Sawalha in the part and think that however the character would be developed in the episodes to come that she makes a really strong impression in this story. Part of the reason for that is that she gets a clear reason for being somewhat antagonistic and frustrated in her dealings with Jonathan. Unlike Maddy her priority is not selling a good story and she is not thrilled to be working with him. Also, while there are hints of romantic tension these are not quite so overt and they are not the main source of that comedic tension – rather it is her frustration at some of the things she is called upon to do in order to distract witnesses and learn the truth.
The most notable difference in the role is that Carla is clearly designed to be a sidekick rather than a co-investigator with many of her actions being directed by Jonathan. I would suggest that this is a continuation of a trend from the previous seasons of Creek which had slowly minimized Maddy’s role as an investigator and rarely relied on her professional skills. I can understand why some miss Maddy’s greater independence though, even if I don’t particularly miss the will they, won’t they dynamic she has with Jonathan.
Overall then I think that this is a pretty solid special that may not quite match the heights of Black Canary but I think it holds up better than almost all of the previous season. I am looking forward to getting started on revisiting a whole new era of Creek in the next few months.Continue reading “Jonathan Creek: Satan’s Chimney (TV)”