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 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:

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