Dan at The Reader is Warned shares with TomCat and myself an enthusiasm for the impossible crime in fiction, and has put up this list of his five favourite episodes of once-great impossibilty-fest Jonathan Creek. Much to the dismay of, I’m hoping, every single right-thinking person in the world, Jonathan Creek has gone somewhat downhill of late, so such a review of past glories is probably in order, especially if you’ve only encountered the show in its recent, non-windmill form. Because it used to be amazing.
So, below are my top episode picks, arranged by first broadcast date; I’ve also stuck to just the normal, hour-long series episodes because, well, it’s another way of narrowing down from a superb field. So that’s why ‘Black Canary’ isn’t on here, before anyone asks…
‘Jack in the Box’ (1.2; original broadcast 17th May 1997)
I retain a huge fondness for this because it was my first proper experience of a locked room murder — I’d possibly encountered something elsewhere, but this is the one I remember as my first: an elderly comedian shoots himself in his personalised nuclear bunker (which only locks from the inside, natch), but had arthritis too crippling to enable him to pull the trigger. Not only are the clues both ingeniously subtle and memorable, there’s also a great use of the visual medium to give you a huge hint to the main workings, plus discussion of nonsense false solutions to underline how difficult it seems to make sense of everything, a moderately decent ‘secret message’ ploy, and one of the best visual gags of the show’s entire run.
‘The Scented Room’ (2.3; o.b. 7th February 1998)
A nice twist of the formula, this, as Jonathan works out almost instantly how a valuable painting vanished from an empty room but refuses to tell on account of a personal grudge against the owner. What especially pleases me here is the way subterfuge is employed with the addition of extra clues that point nowhere, and the discussion of things like the footprints in the dust of the eponymous room is pure Golden Age magic. Gideon Fell himself would doubtless approve. And the relevant clues are thrown out all over the place, with a lovely piece of seemingly obscure hinting based around a man’s lunch, but you’ll probably miss most of them. And the wonderful Bob Monkhouse is in this, being great in a rare acting role.
‘Miracle in Crooked Lane’ (3.5; o.b. 28th December 1999)
The amount of pure scheme here is very impressive, but in particular this episode highlights how the comedy of Creek worked so well when not pushed to preposterous, Fawlty Towers levels of nonsense. The Jonathan Creek fan club is an inspired piece of writing (far outdoing the Sherlock parody of series 5…yeesh), and writer David Renwick throws in lovely little moments of matching inspiration — the vanishing in the garden, for one — to culminate in an almost accidental impossibility. Yeah, there’s the argument that it works too hard to achieve its aim, but sometimes you need to go large if you’re going to make something seem impossible, and Renwick manages that brilliantly here for me.
‘The Three Gamblers’ (3.6; o.b. 2nd January 2000)
Perhaps not the most complex of cases in this canon, this does great work in making John Bennet’s gangster an especially unpleasant and threatening presence before killing him, barricading his body in an unescapable room, and then returning to find that his corpse has clawed its way to the top of the stairs in an obvious escape attempt. This is a frank masterstroke in seeing only what you want to see, and that dead hand protruding from beneath the door is one of the single creepiest shots in my televisual life. Plus, this manages to find a way to dispose of someone who is threatening our leads with a gun without, y’know, burning them to death and then just carrying on like that’s an everyday occurrence.
‘Angel Hair’ (4.2; o.b. 8th March 2003)
Possibly sacrilege, but this might be my favourite impossibility of the lot. Not only is the mystery of how a woman is able to regrow a full head of hair in only a few hours — no, they’re not extensions, you’ll need to up your game a bit from there — just a brilliant idea, it’s also resolved in a way that feels perfectly of its time. Renwick is able to exploit several key early-2000s factors here, let’s say, and construct this in a way that is startlingly, staggeringly original. I would love to see someone come up with another solution for this kind of thing, mainly because I don’t believe it can be done; I think he hit his stride perfectly here, and had the perfect vehicle for seeing it through. Genius television, pure and simple.
‘The Seer of the Sands’ (4.4; o.b. 14th February 2004)
When the second half of series 4 finally aired nearly a year after the first, this was the episode that kicked it off and fully justified the wait. You don’t realise how crucial the setting is to this until the trick is explained: sure, there’s a fair amount of chance involved in those answers found buried in the sand before the questions had even been asked, but it uses the characters and their plight note-perfectly, and throws in extra mysteries — the smudge on the glass, the disappearing body, why a man would effectively storm off in an awful mood to his death after receiving long-awaited good news — without ever feeling crowded or unsatisfyingly contrived.
In rewatching a few of these, I’ve come to appreciate just how damn good so many of the aspects of it still are — the comedy is mostly superbly judged, Caroline Quentin does The Sidekick to perfection, and there’s more intelligence in the misdirection here than you’ll find in most TV show proclaiming to do this even half as well — but, oh, check out the music! I missed it on my several previous viewings, but it’s used to such incredible effect throughout, and you don’t even notice the change from Julian Stewart Lindsay in series 1-3 to Rick Wentworth in series 4. Though Wentworth has far darker tones to deal with, he slips into the role perfectly; worth waiting nearly 20 years to appreciate this all over again — gentlemen, thank-you!
Oh, and you say that’s six episodes? Don’t think so; I’d go back and check if I were you…
Also, if you’ve not yet had a chance to read The Ten Teacups/The Peacock Feather Murders ahead of the forthcoming spoiler-filled discussion of it, consider this a week’s warning that it’ll probably be going up next Saturday. Probably. So you’ve got a week to look at it. Probably.