#191: Five to Try – My Favourite Jonathan Creek Episodes

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Once upon a time he was fully justified in looking this smug…

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.

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I refer, of course, to this.

‘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.

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‘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.

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And the bit with the teacup!  I’d forgotten about that!

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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…

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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.

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24 thoughts on “#191: Five to Try – My Favourite Jonathan Creek Episodes

  1. Hiya JJ – good to see the 4th series getting some love here (especially as I think, unlike you, that most of the later specials were pretty good). I thinks excluding the feature length and two-part stories is a bit of a cheat as BLACK CANARY, GALLOWS GATE and SATAN’S CHIMNEY are just too good to leave out. I would also have to include MOTHER REDCAP in my top 6 (ahem). But great list for a great show – hope one day you change your mind about the last special. I would love one more story that reunited Creek with Klaus and Maddie though …

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    • Black Canary and Satan’s Chimney are great episodes, no doubt, but they always seem to rise to the top of this sort of endeavour and so some great minor ones get routinely missed off. And, yeah, Mother Redcap nearly made it in there, too, but I felt I’d already stretched the criteria far enough with my (ahem) 5 choices and so a sixth one would be going too far…

      Hope all’s going well in Oz, Sergio, and you’re getting some good books in!

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  2. Some surprising and unusual entries on your list, but not all of them unjustified. Angel Hair is massively underrated. Granted, the story, as a whole, is not one of the greatest ever told, but the impossible problem is both superb and original. Personally, I would not place Miracle in Crooked Lane or The Three Gamblers on my list. However, I can see why some would like them.

    But The Seer of the Sands? Really, JJ? You really liked that abortion of an episode? The only reason why it did not acquire a bad rep, as one of the worst episodes, is that it was immediately followed by The Chequered Box and Gorgons Wood, but it is just as bad as those two. Renwick really had to do some mental contortions to make the plot “work.”

    I mean, why wasn’t the secret code word asked on the beach? Simple, the people behind the bottle trick had no idea what the code word was and therefore asking that question would have ruined the performance. Logically, asking for the secret code word should have been the first question asked. Also, why was the handwriting never compared with that of the dead/missing ghost hunter? Again, it would have ruined the whole trick. It’s just a terrible episode all around.

    So, I would have swapped Miracle in Crooked Lane, The Three Gamblers and The Seer of the Sands for Danse Macabre, Time Waits for Norman and The Tailor’s Dummy – which has an impossible situation on par with the one from Angel Hair.

    Oh, The Black Canary is still the greatest episode/special from the series.

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    • It’s possible the code word wasn’t menioned on the beach because he American woman at that stage doesn’t realise what’s happening…it’s only when she’s seen enough to demand proof that she thinks it’s called for. But, yeah, I get your point. I suppose these more ornate ones always have more than can be taken out of them.

      I like Danse Macabre, too; it’s creepy as hell and has the distinction of being the first one I solved — woo, go me — back when that was a challenge. I also love The House of Monkeys and No Trace of Tracey and …and…and, but, well, unless I did a “Here’s why vittually every episode pf series 1-4 of Joanthan Creek is great” I’m always gonna disappoint someone. And even then someone would be like “I can’t believe you don’t like The Coonskin Cap…!” 🙂

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  3. I own the first four series, and one special . . . and then I think they stopped making them available on US formats. I may be wrong. I loved the series when I watched it. When you all started chatting about it a few months ago, I tried starting again. I found I remembered the solutions, plus I ran out of time. I’ll peruse the series again, and these “best of” lists will help.

    I have to say that one episode was actually TOO creepy for me – it REALLY disturbed me. That was the one where JC is trying to figure out how people disappeared from a tower bedroom. The solution to that one was truly unpleasant and stayed with me for a while.

    Oh, and ever since you announced the Ten Teacups do, some arsehole has had that book checked out of the library. He freaking BETTER be planning on taking part in this because I have been left out with the bathwater . . .

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    • Yup, that is a rather creepy episod, no doubt. Danse Macabre (2.1) had the same sort of effect on me for certain developments therein. And, I’m not kidding, that hand under the door in The Three Gamblers freaked me the hell out as an impressionable teenager, and still disquietens me to this day.

      I’d just watch all of it, if I were you, since there’s obviously such a great range of opinions on this. Then you can do you own list and peple can tell you how wrong you are…

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  4. Great list JJ, and if I had made a top 6 (or 10) it would have featured many of these choices here. It was a great idea to do just the hour episodes, as you say many great ones get missed out otherwise.

    What I think seems to link the episodes you have chosen is the elegance of clues or solutions. Every choice on hear has clues that stick with you long after: a lightbulb in the wrong pack, the smell of roses, football cards missing from an album, wet trouser legs, the spam sandwich, its just wonderful. It’s this kind of visual and object based clues that seem so absurd at first then slot together so perfectly (and so obviously) that keeps me coming back to this series. And for elegance of solution, what could match the pure simplicity of Angel Hair and The Three Gamblers (at least on TV), oh man!

    Also a surprising entry with Seer of the Sands, (I am with TomCat on that one!), but then again on reflection the resolution of the disappearing body has always been killer, and still gives me chills every time. At least you didn’t choose Ghosts Forge, which seems to crop up on other top creek lists I have seen and I have no idea why!

    And you don’t like The Coonskin Cap? Would be interested to hear about that!

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    • I have an issue with anything that relies on someone having prophetic dreams that it turns out were influenced by external factors — hence Ghosts Forge and The Eyes of Tiresias don’t feature too highly in my favourites. Each has nice little ideas, no doubt, and there’s much to admire in their construction and execution, but the second you’re relying on dreams to further or provide your plot I just zone out. Too much nonsense.

      And you’re spot on about the weird or obscure clues; would never have thought of those episodes in that way, but I do love a “How the hell is that relevant?! Ohhhh, I see now…” moment in my detecting. Cigarette ash and partial footprints are perfectly fine, but give me a corpse on which glasses suddenly appear or a bookshelf on which every single page 73 has been torn out and frankly I’ll follow you anywhere.

      And if anyone wishes to write a book using those two examples above, I promise to buy it…

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  5. Your point taken about dreams providing plot, I hadn’t thought about that before but that could be tenuous and shaky ground indeed. I think what I liked about The Eyes of Tiresias particuarly was again the absurd main clue (the fish food is bought in the market), and again the simplicity of the solution, which when I watched it first time years ago, I didn’t see coming at all.

    I love that ‘Oooh I see now’ moment in this type of clue you have drawn out, because it’s the frustration created by the obscurity of it which is so compelling. I think Christie does this well too, particularly with Marple, when she crops up mid conversation (knitting away) and says something like ‘I suppose they were wearing a red scarf at the time’ and goes back to her knitting, leaving you like ‘what the hell does that mean!’

    Looking forward to someone writing the ‘Page 73 Murders’, or ‘The Bespectacled Corpse’.

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    • There’s a nice moment in Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Magpie Murders’ (in the novel-withing-the-novel) where his Poirot-alike Atticus Pund listens to a client’s story and then, at the end, effectively goes “It’s particularly telling that [an object] is pink” and doesn’t expand on it for about 80 pages. Loved that.

      But, yeah, any obscure clue or insight along those lines is always going to be more in my line. Thanks for pointing it out, because it legitimately hadn’t occurred to me in all my reading; anyone would think I didn’t pay attention…

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      • No problem, as you may have read on my own blog I am an artist when I am not reading detective fiction (a sculptor specifically) so obscure and absurd objects (in all fiction actually) have always drawn me in.

        That Horowitz book sounds great, have only read one of his, a signed copy no less.

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  6. My top 10 (in order of telecast) are:
    1. Jack In The Box
    2. The Reconstituted Corpse
    3. The House Of Monkeys
    4. Danse Macabre
    5. The Problem At Gallows Gate
    6. Mother Redcap
    7. The Eyes Of Tiresius
    8. The Three Gamblers
    9. The Tailor’s Dummy
    10. The Seer Of The Sands

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  7. I watched The Three Gamblers and Angel Hair tonight based on these recommendations and enjoyed them both. The trick to The Three Gamblers actually came to me early, but I somehow let it slip as the episode went on. It’s funny how the clues that lead to the case being solved went right over my head, even though I had already thought of the solution.

    Angel Hair’s solution seemed kind of obvious to me. Keep in mind though, there is a always a big difference between “I think this is kind of what happened ” and actually fully understanding a solution.

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    • The nature of all these impossibilities is always “Well obvously that didn’t happen as it appears…”, and the best ones leave you thinking “…but I have no idea how it could have happened!”. That was my exact response to Angel Hair — I apprecoate that when one thinks it through there’s really one main concept that probably stands out a mile, but I was so baffled at the time (the rewinding of the videotape threw me completely!) and it’s that memory that sticks with me whenever I watch it.

      Conversely, something like The Chequered Box has that issue of only being an impossibility from one person’s perspective, and all they have to do it have a three-second conversation with the guy involved and it’s all over. The idea there was much more subtle, but in a way I find that kind of thing harder to forgive because it works so hard to expand on a situation that shouldn’t exist in the first place!

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  8. Regarding The Three Gamblers, the book shown in the episode, Cards As Weapons by Ricky Jay is a real book. It can be downloaded from the Internet Archive.

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