Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast April 1, 2013
2013 Special
Preceded by The Judas Tree
Followed by The Letters of Septimus Noone

Written and directed by David Renwick

Familiar Faces

Joanna Lumley first became famous for her roles in The New Avengers and Sapphire and Steel but she is probably best known these days for her role in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Genre roles include playing Mrs Peacock in a series of Cluedo, Dolly Bantry in Agatha Christie’s Marple and Felicity Fanshaw in Paddington 2.

Okay, that last one isn’t exactly a genre film…

Sarah Alexander plays Polly, Jonathan’s wife. She will be most familiar for her roles in comedies such as Green Wing, The Worst Week of My Life and Smack the Pony though she also has a couple of genre credits. These include appearances in Midsomer Murders and Marple.

The Verdict

So much better than I remembered. While I have some issues with a development towards the end, the resolutions to the events in the present and in the past are each really interesting.

Episode Summary

A corpse is seen and photographed through the keyhole in the only door to a locked room. The door is under constant observation until help arrives and the door is kicked down. When they enter however they find that the body has completely vanished.

My Thoughts

Back when I started this project of rewatching the entire run of Jonathan Creek in order my object was to see the material through much more experienced eyes. As I have noted in some previous posts, when I first saw these they were pretty much the only locked room and impossible crime stories I had ever experienced. This meant that my reactions to the stories were often centered on the metrics of how much a story either surprised or amused me at the time.

That was unfortunate for a story like The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb. While the two previous specials had both featured dark themes and moments, they also had some familiar, more ostensibly comedic elements. In contrast, this story jettisons some of those and presents a somewhat different version of Jonathan – now obviously in his middle age and less quirky. I had been hoping for more of the same but instead we got something that sought to take the character forward. While that disappointed me at the time, I find that I have a completely different impression of those choices now.

The most significant change for Jonathan here is that in the space between the last special and this he has got married to Polly, played by Sarah Alexander. We will see much more of her in subsequent episodes as she has little involvement in the case itself but the marriage is used to show that he is in a very different headspace than he had been in the past. He is trying to be grown up, now being on the corporate ladder, and so his desire to investigate a crime becomes a point of conflict for the character in a way we haven’t seen before. This manifests in a costuming decision to switch him into suits, at least at the start, and so one of the most satisfying moments in the episode is when we see him reaching for the duffle coat – a scene that feels almost reminiscent of an aging Bruce Wayne reaching for the cowl in Batman: Year One.

The choice to reintroduce Rik Mayall’s Gideon Pryke in this story makes a lot of sense in this context. The character, who had been one of the highlights of Black Canary for me, was the first to be presented as almost a mirror of him. Equally brilliant, often pipping Jonathan to some key discoveries, the two seemed to come to a mutual respect for each other by the end of that adventure and the rivalry seems to bring out the best in each of them. Here we see that Gideon has also experienced his own significant life changes after a bullet leaves him confined to a wheelchair but he remains every bit as brilliant, charismatic and capable.

Pryke’s role then is to remind Jonathan of who he is. What makes Jonathan a great detective is not his background as a stage illusionist but his personality. In particular, his attention to detail and ability to think creatively. He is also there as someone for Jonathan to spark off and compete with. That he continues to have that relationship with Joey here, creating a sort of investigative super-trio, is all the more exciting.

This brings me to Sheridan Smith’s Joey Ross, sadly making her last appearance in the series here as she left after this due to her theatrical commitments. This character is, for me, the most appealing of all of Jonathan’s ‘assistant’ characters, in large part because she is anything but. She is a partner and an intellectual competitor with him. She isn’t there to be amazed or to be a source of romantic tension – her role is to be ahead of the audience but still ever so slightly behind Jonathan, spurring him on to greater deductions.

Smith is brilliant in the part, working equally well when she is interacting with him as when she is taking the lead on an investigation as she does at the start of this story. The actors play wonderfully off each other both dramatically and comedically. Perhaps most satisfying of all though is that unlike the previous departures of an assistant, this does at least have the feeling of a deliberate transition as we introduce Polly.

Turning to matters plot, this story presents two strange situations for our team to solve – one in the present, one in the past. I have shared in the past my feeling that this is a golden formula for the show that we have seen Renwick use in each of the specials and I am pleased to say I find it just as successful here. In some ways perhaps more so as I think both are fairly well clued.

Let’s start with the present as it is this that prompts Jonathan and Joey to start investigating. Our mystery here is the disappearance of a corpse from a room, the only door to which was under constant observation. We even have photographic evidence of what was seen, taken through the keyhole. It’s a pretty tantalizing problem to unpick, particularly given that no one seems to have had a motive for murder.

I feel that the circumstances of the disappearance are clued pretty thoroughly. While I have some qualms about an aspect of motivation – more about that in the spoilers below – I think the viewer does at least have enough information to piece together what happened and how the body disappeared and I felt that the explanation held together very well.

The historic thread concerns a strange set of events at a convent school in the sixties. We have the mystery of why a group of girls each had odd markings appear on their foreheads while sleeping, one of whom died. The other concerns a strange ‘quiet room’ with a painting that seems to come to life, reaching out to them.

This thread of the story gives me some serious Gladys Mitchell vibes in several respects. While the subject matter is clearly pretty dark and disquieting stuff, especially since it involves children, I think it is executed well and I think the solutions to each question struck me as broadly satisfying. A few clues that seal the deal come a little late in the game but even without those I feel we are given enough to have a general idea of what was happening and the motivations for it.

The link between the two strands of the episode is Joanna Lumley who plays Rosalind, the victim’s wife who was one of the children in the historic thread of the story. I think the casting here is absolutely perfect and I think enriches the character. Similarly I really like Nigel Planer’s Franklin – a much better role for him than his earlier appearance in The Reconstituted Corpse.

Of course, this is not a perfect episode by any stretch. I have already alluded to my having some issues with an aspect of the motive for the disappearance which feels a little weak. My bigger problem comes though with a secondary development that takes place towards the end of the episode which feels rather silly. Unfortunately I can’t discuss it here without spoiling it but I think this would have been a more satisfying outing had the story omitted it. It’s hard to view this as anything but an attempt to pad out the story with one extra surprising twist.

Overall then I have to say that this has been about the most pleasant surprise this project has given me. It’s tonally consistent in a way few episodes have been in the past few seasons and offers up several intriguing impossibilities. Had I been asked at the start of this to produce a ranked list of episodes I think this may have been towards the foot of that list – instead, while I would not say it is a Championship contender it may well be looking at a Euro Cup spot. As surprises go that’s a great one.

Finally, before I get to the spoiler section, let me offer a couple of links to some contemporary reviews of this episode for some alternate perspectives. TomCat reviewed this on Beneath the Stains of Time while the Puzzle Doctor shared thoughts on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

Nyzbfg nyy bs zl vffhrf jvgu guvf fgbel eryngr gb gur znggre bs gur QIQ. Vg’f abg gung V vaureragyl zvaq gur vqrn bs n tbireazrag pbafcvenpl – gubhtu V nqzvg vg’f abg n snibevgr cybg cbvag – ohg vg yrnirf fbzr cybggvat ceboyrzf V fgehttyr jvgu.

Sbe vafgnapr, gur fhttrfgvba vf znqr gung gur znyshapgvba bs gur punvafnj jnf pnhfrq checbfrshyyl ol gur gjb haqrepbire bcrengvirf. Tvira gung Senaxyva bayl neenatrf gb qb gur gevpx ba gur avtug va dhrfgvba evtug orsber ur urnqf gb gur onea, ubj qvq gurl unir gvzr gb pbzr hc jvgu gung cyna (naq ubj pbhyq gurl or fher, sbe gung znggre, gung ur jbhyq or gur bar gb hfr gur punvafnj engure guna uvf nffvfgnag)?

Zl ovttre vffhr gubhtu pbzrf jvgu gurve vagrenpgvba jvgu gur Dhvrg Ebbz va gur pbairag fpubby. Juvyr vg vf arire pbasvezrq, V guvax jr pna thrff gung gur znyr bs gur cnve jnf gur bar gung gevrq gb fgenatyr Wbrl guebhtu gur cnvagvat. Ubj qvq ur svaq gung frperg ebbz? Zber vzcbegnagyl, jul qvq ur srry gur arrq gb xvyy Wbrl? Ur xarj gung gur QIQ unq orra renfrq naq fb fur unq abg frra gur fhccbfrq pbagragf. Whfg jung jnf ur pyrnavat hc?

N srj zber zvabe guvatf – jbhyq n pnzren ba n cubar ernyyl gnxr fhpu n pyrne cvpgher guebhtu n xrlubyr? V jbhyq grfg guvf zlfrys ohg nyy zl ybpxf ner Lnyr-glcr ohg vg qbrf frrz hayvxryl gb zr gung lbh jbhyq trg fhpu n pyrne cvpgher. V’q dhvgr jvyyvatyl npprcg V znl or jebat gubhtu.

V nyfb jbaqre jul Wbanguna qbrfa’g vzzrqvngryl pybpx gur qvssrerapr va gur tybor orgjrra gur gjb cvpgherf? Vg qvq vzzrqvngryl whzc bhg ng zr gubhtu V jvyy pbaprqr gung V znl whfg or erzrzorevat gung vg jnf vzcbegnag sebz zl cerivbhf ivrjvat.

Gur bayl guvat gung ernyyl vexf zr nobhg guvf gubhtu vf gung gur zbgvir sbe qbvat gur qvfnccrnevat obql srryf n yvggyr jrnx nf rkcynvarq, gubhtu V guvax vg vf ng yrnfg pyhrq gung vg unf n cresbezngvir nfcrpg. GbzPng znxrf n pbzcnevfba va uvf erivrj gb n cerivbhf rcvfbqr bs gur fubj gung rfpncrq zr ng gur gvzr ohg juvpu V pna pregnvayl frr abj. V nz fngvfsvrq gubhtu ol gur zber trareny vqrn gung gurer vf n arrq gb cerirag nabgure punenpgre sebz snyyvat haqre fhfcvpvba.

Bu, naq bar zber guvat – V jvfu gung gurer jnf n yvggyr zber sbphf ba gur vqrn bs Senaxyva xabjvat uvf qrngu qngr. Guvf vf guebja bhg gurer sbe gur ivrjre ohg ab bar rire pbzzragf ba vg. Juvyr jr zvtug guvax gung pbhyq uvag ng n fhvpvqr rkcynangvba gung pyrneyl qbrfa’g uryc jvgu gur qvfnccrnevat obql naq fb vg srryf yvxr n qrnq raq sebz gur zbzrag vg vf vagebqhprq, gurer sbe ngzbfcurer ohg yvggyr ryfr.

Jonathan Creek: Black Canary (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast 24 December, 1998
1998 Christmas Special
Preceded by Mother Redcap (Season Two)
Followed by The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish (Season Three)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Rik Mayall makes his first appearance as DI Gideon Pryke, a Police Investigator who is every bit as brilliant as Jonathan. Mayall was one of the stars of Britain’s alternative comedy movement in the 80s, featuring in some of the decade’s most popular shows such as The Young Ones, Comic Strip Presents and The New Statesman. This was apparently his first acting role after he experienced a traumatic quad biking accident that had left him in a coma for five days. He would make a further appearance in show around fifteen years later in the episode The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb.

The Verdict

The first TV special feels deserving of that title, giving Jonathan a brilliant rival to spar with and a pretty challenging case to solve.


My Thoughts

Marella Carney was one of the stars of the magic circuit, performing as the Black Canary, before a tragic accident led to her early retirement. Marella’s daughter contacts Jonathan to ask for his help in explaining the strange circumstances surrounding her sudden suicide. We learn that Marella’s wheelchair-bound husband Jerry was dozing in the conservatory when he woke to see her standing in the snowy garden arguing with a limping man. Suddenly she brandishes a shotgun, causing the man to run away, before turning it on herself moments later and shooting herself. Distraught, Jerry tries to get outside and when he does he notices that the only footprints that have been left in the snow are Marella’s…

Throughout its first season and most of its second Jonathan Creek stories were about fifty minute, standalone stories. The exception to that was a two-part story in the second season (The Problems at Gallows Gate) which I regard as fundamentally misconceived with many of its problems arising from the change in running time and issues of pacing. Black Canary, the show’s first Christmas special, would also be essentially double-length and could very easily have fallen into many of the same traps that Gallows Gate had. Instead Renwick delivered a story that not only felt tailored to its running time but also actually deserving of the label “special”.

To describe why this works I think it is important to pose a question: What do we want from a Jonathan Creek TV special?

The answer couldn’t simply be more Jonathan Creek. The show had by this point established a pretty solid rhythm and formula with an impossibility mixed with some comedic material and some will they/won’t they banter between Jonathan and Maddy. The Gallows Gate two-parter had shown that simply adding more running time into a story doesn’t make it more baffling or compelling.

Instead I think the answer lies in using that extra time to create a story that is bigger and more complex than you can typically tell. That doesn’t necessarily mean bigger in terms of the stakes of the show but bigger in the sense of telling Black Canary takes just such an approach and goes a step further by introducing a character who is capable of disrupting the show’s typical pacing, allowing for a different tone and unsettling the usual dynamics within our investigative team.

Much of my love for this episode stems from this character, DI Gideon Pryke, who represents a brilliant challenge to Jonathan. Pryke is, like Jonathan, incredibly brilliant with an ability to quickly assess and process information and see small details that would pass others by. As a consequence of that he is frequently one step ahead of Jonathan meaning that he has genuine competition to solve this case. It is, for the most part, fairly cordial although Jonathan is clearly frustrated by Pryke’s initial patronizing dismissal of him as the amateur who must be tolerated. Yet by the end their deductions are feeding each other, spurring each other on to crack the case. It is a really fun dynamic and one that I think enhances rather than diminishes Jonathan as a sleuth.

Rik Mayall gives a superb performance in the part, managing to not only portray Pryke as a good rival to Jonathan but ultimately a very effective detective. While the character is certainly arrogant, an attribute found in many of Mayall’s most celebrated characters, he is also surprisingly charming and ultimately quite gracious. This friendly rivalry reminded me somewhat of the one between Poirot and Giraud found in Murder on the Links although there is less of a stylistic difference between Creek and Pryke.

Turning to the actual details of the case, Renwick also makes some very smart choices in the way he sets up this story. One of the reasons that I have been rather vague about the details of this story in this post is that at the start of the story he leaves us with a lot of intriguing threads and pieces of information to think about. The seasoned viewer is likely to make some solid deductions from some of these and may feel that they are far ahead of the sleuths, only to find that there are a number of early reveals, some of which actually spin the story off in different directions.

This is the real benefit of the expanded running time – Renwick has the option here to develop clues that lead to other clues or sometimes cause you to rethink the way you are looking at them. The result is a story that feels much more complex than any Creek has tackled up until this point, building a sense that this story is more complex than it appears.

That feeling is borne out by the solution which is, for the most part, quite clever and logical. While the means by which the impossibility is achieved is not directly clued, I feel the viewer can infer what happened from some of the other clues around the crime scene. I enjoyed the way in which the solution is revealed with the two sleuths working in tandem to deliver the explanation which felt a rather charming way to not only close out the mystery but to show that the two had come together and a respect had formed. It is a nice moment that made me wish he had been brought back sooner so we could see more of that tag-team sleuthing that I found so enjoyable to watch.

While I think most of the mystery plot works well there are a few elements that I think are less successful. One aspect of the storyline, Jonathan and Maddy’s betting about whether Pryke’s assistant is male or female, feels pretty inappropriate and does not reflect brilliantly on those characters. It is another instance of the comedic elements of the show feeling really dated, though unlike some of the other examples I have pointed to this would not have been unusual content for the era it was produced in.

The other element that I think wouldn’t be written in exactly the same way today is Adam Klaus’ misbehavior with a costume designer working on his show. In particular, his behavior with a small recording device without her knowledge. Clearly we are intended to view this as a boorish and sleazy behavior when it is more of a violation of her body. Aside from that initial scene however I think that story thread does have some very amusing moments that I do think serve as a nice balance to the much more serious mystery material while the eventual payoff to that thread stands up pretty well.

With the exception of those two issues, I think much of the rest of the episode holds together really very well and proves that the show could work in a longer format. I think the hook of the disappearing footprints is fun and handled pretty well and I do enjoy the sort of haunting, spooky quality the episode channels at several points with the camera often dwelling on that rather eerie statue of Marella by the stairs.

The biggest reason I hold this episode in such high regard though is Mayall’s performance as Pryke. The character fits alongside Creek perfectly and, revisiting this episode, I found myself wishing that we had seen him more often. It is, in my opinion, one of the best guest performances on the show and I think that difficult relationship is perhaps the episode’s most memorable elements.

Which brings me to the end of my current run of Jonathan Creek posts. I plan on taking a short break from writing about the show until after the New Year when I plan on offering up some thoughts on The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish.