Originally broadcast February 14 and 21, 1998
Season Two, Episodes Four and Five
Preceded by The Scented Room
Followed by Mother Redcap
Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington
Key Guest Cast
Clarke Peters plays the supposedly blind pianist Hewie Harper. Since filming this episode Peters has appeared in several crime-themed productions including the recent Partners in Crime adaptation, The Wire and season two of The Tunnel.
Perhaps the most famous face though in the production is Amanda Holden. She is probably best known now for her role as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent and, as an actress, for her role in Cutting It. Genre fans may also be familiar with her from the Marple episode What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw.
Heavily padded to make it a two-part story and easily my least favorite case up to this point in the show’s run.
The story begins with a large party that takes place at a country house. Birthday boy Duncan greets Felicity, a late arrival, who gives him a gift. Later that night Duncan enters Felicity’s bedroom where he finds her in bed with his friend Neville. She tells him to get over her rejection of him but instead he walks towards the balcony, climbs on the stone fencing and jumps. His friends rush to the balcony where they see him lying bloodied on the ground below and when an ambulance is called he is pronounced dead and buried.
Later Felicity is found murdered in her cottage by Adam Klaus’ sister Kitty who was in the area along with Jonathan and Maddy. When she speaks to the police the man she describes a man exactly matching Duncan’s description as the murderer – something that clearly should be impossible.
In my previous post about Jonathan Creek I shared my belief that the first three episodes of the second series represent the strongest run of episodes that the show ever pulled off. I did hedge that praise a little however by noting that I may find I like some of the later episodes much more than I remember on revisiting them. I feel far more certain of my ground with this story however in saying that I think it is one of the poorest stories the show ever did.
There are a number of problems with this story but I think the problems begin with the decision to structure this story as a two-parter. That is not because the show cannot work in a feature-length format – I am pretty confident that I will be singing the praises of such a story relatively soon – but because this particular plot is not substantial enough to justify that extra time and, as a consequence, the two episodes feel heavily padded.
One indication of this is that Jonathan and Maddy are not introduced to the central storyline or its cast of characters until the very end of the first episode. Instead they are engaged in a secondary plotline in which Adam Klaus tries to persuade Jonathan to keep his sister Kitty occupied during her visit so she will not interfere with his dating life or from getting in the way of their attempts to recruit the supposedly blind pianist Hewie Harper to take part in their next big show.
Putting aside the question of whether this comedic material is successful or not for the moment, it seems utterly bizarre to spend an entire episode of a detective show without any actual detection taking place. Instead this first forty five minutes is a mix of setup and padding with all of the serious sleuthing restricted to the second part. A problem that is only exacerbated by the apparent simplicity of the case leaving me wondering why this story was envisaged as a two parter at all.
The best episodes of Jonathan Creek present us with an impossibility that is structured like a magic trick. Several of the earliest stories directly reference that, having Jonathan work with a little set to demonstrate the deception. To be really successful however the story must engage in some sort of sleight of hand. Each of the previous three stories does this to some extent, framing the crime in such a way that our attention can be drawn to the wrong elements. I feel that this impossibility misses the mark because there is really only a single logical way to pick apart what has happened.
The central impossibility here is a variation of the person being seen in two places at once, albeit one of the two places here is six feet underground. It is also rather reminiscent of the problem we saw just two episodes earlier in Time Waits For Norman which presented it with a much cleverer twist. The difference however is that in that story we have actual observation in two places at once – here the corpse clearly cannot be observed and the episode has already demonstrated that a burial can be faked courtesy of a sequence involving Adam Klaus. In short, we can be pretty confident that for Duncan death was not the end – the only questions that are left to solve is how the trick was worked and why.
The question of why feels really insubstantial, the reason seeming quite clear from what we observed in the first few scenes of the first part. The mechanism by which it was done is more complex but more mechanical than intellectual. While perfectly serviceable as a solution to this type of story, it is nowhere near unusual or complex enough to justify it being told as a two part story.
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Which brings us to the content of the story’s padding: the supposedly blind musician and Adam’s sister Kitty. Sometimes a comedic plotline in an episode doesn’t work for me but it can be easily ignored – here we get so much of it, particularly in that first episode, that it feels like the focus. And unfortunately this episode’s material really doesn’t work for me.
Part of the reason for this is that the tone of some of that material feels really quite unpleasant – when Adam Klaus womanizes it is clear that while he may objectify the women he pursues, they are consenting. Hewie’s ‘accidental’ groping however is on another level and I found those scenes very uncomfortable to watch. This is, of course, intentional to some extent but I think the nature of the ‘punishment’ he receives struck me as neither satisfying nor particularly funny. Once again I do find myself wondering if this story, made again today, would handle this plotline quite differently (or, more likely, omit it altogether).
The Problems at Gallows Gate could have been a decent story. The problem is entirely one of its pacing – having an extra forty five minutes only gives the viewer more time to recognize the trick that is being pulled on them. Stripped of its secondary plots, I think this could have been a pretty entertaining forty five minutes of television. Unfortunately I found my viewing experience was defined heavily by the story’s padding and viewed in the context of the previous three episodes, each of which was much tighter, did it no favors at all.