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.

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.

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.