Sunday, May 6, 2012

By the Light of the Television: Jonathan Creek, Season 2 (1998)

It's a cool night!  Pull yourselves up and get warm by the glowing television! It's Jonathan Creek!  A murder has just been committed...By a dead man....

I only watched Season One of the British mystery series Jonathan Creek for the first time last summer, but was rather impressed with it.  Earlier I had only seen the first three episodes of the third season and could not quite see what all the fuss was about.  Having watched all of Season Two to go along with Season One, I now definitely see what all the fuss was about.

As the fans already know, Jonathan Creek is an homage to the subgenre of impossible crime/miracle problem mysteries most strongly associated with Golden Age detective novelist John Dickson Carr, but which also appeared in the work of other writers from the period, such as Clayton Rawson, Hake Talbot, Anthony Boucher, Ellery Queen and John Rhode/Miles Burton.  Even Agatha Christie gave us a "locked room" mystery in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (though her sister Crime Queen Ngaio Marsh heretically once had her detective, Roderick Alleyn, declare: "Don't let's have any nonsense about locked rooms").

Today we live in an age that scoffs at mystery miracles, even rationally explained ones, and the miracle problem story is not what is used to be, though it still pops up, notably so, for example, in the Bryant and May series (2004--) of Christopher Fowler--and in Jonathan Creek, which ended as a regular series in 2004 but had one-off episodes as recently as 2009 and 2010.

an impressive set of impossible crimes
 is found in Season Two

In Season Two, Jonathan Creek, trick designer for magician Adam Klaus, is still confronting incredibly bizarre crimes, along with his Watson, journalist Maddy Magellan.  Season Two, from 1998, had five episodes (one a two-parter); plus there was, much later in the year, a Christmas episode.  These are:

Danse Macabre, Time Waits for Norman, The Scented Room, The Problem at Gallow's Gate (two-parter), Mother Redcap, Black Canary (Christmas episode)

Except for one episode, Time Waits for Norman, where the resolution of the problem seemed limp to me, I thought this was a collection that would have done the master himself, John Dickson Carr, proud.

Danse Macabre deals with the Halloween murder of a bestselling, schlock horror writer (hmmmmm) and the subsequent disappearance of her murderer from a sealed garage.  How did this happen?  I hadn't a clue--well, actually I had, plenty of them, but I didn't interpret them correctly, as Joanthan Creek did!    I thought his solution was brilliant, though motivations were a bit implausible.  There was plenty of the macabre too (especially that ending, which explains one last little element of the mystery....).

The Scented Room is not sinister and it does not involve murder, but it offers a very clever problem anyway: the seemingly impossible theft of a valuable painting from a small room, the only entrance to which was under observation the whole time.

The two part episode, The Problem at Gallow's Gate, is possibly my favorite of the series.  Here the murder, the strangling of a woman in a locked house, seems to have been committed by a man who a few weeks earlier just happened to commit suicide by leaping out a window.  Like Danse Macabre, there are plenty of creepy elements in this story and some very nice miracle elements.  Also, simply as a fairly clued classical mystery, the episode was utterly superb.

Mother Redcap concerns the fatal stabbing of a British judge marked for death by a criminal gang, in his bedroom, which was under police observation the whole time.  Somehow this links in with a series of unexplained 1940s deaths at a sinister old London inn named Mother Redcap.  The explanation of both occurrences is clever indeed, as is the way they are linked.  The murder means reminded me of those in a couple Golden Age novels, one by John Dickson Carr and one by John Rhode.

Black Canary offers a classic scenario: a corpse is found dead, shot, in the snow, with no footprints in the snow except those of the victim.  This was the type of scenario worked superlatively in his heyday by John Dickson Carr, and it is carried off superlatively in Jonathan Creek.  For good measure the victim is an identical twin: figure it all out if you can!

After watching Jonathan Creek
I feel this great urge to live in a windmill
Besides the clever problems, what makes Jonathan Creek work are the characters.

Jonathan and Maddy are not matinee idols--and what a nice change of pace that is!  Jonathan is kind of a nerd, with Peter Frampton hair (all the rage in 1977, I'm sure) and Maddy can be kind of frumpy (her appetite is a running joke).  Yet they have fantastic chemistry together and are a humorous, delightful couple.  There's an ongoing will-they-or-won't-they plot common to mystery series (see Castle, for example) that I thought might get irritating but is really enjoyable, because it is handled with such humor.

I was familiar already with Alan Davies, who plays Jonathan, but not, I think, Caroline Quentin, who plays Maddie.  I can see why she was missed when she left the series after season three--she is just a delight, a totally indomitable, unstoppable force.  If she's asking you questions and you go into the men's room to get away from her, she won't let that stop her, oh no!  She's about the best Watson ever.

our delightful mystery couple

A staple of the series also is its sexual comic relief, much of it involving Stuart Milligan, who plays Jonathan's infinitely lecherous magician boss, Adam Klaus. I have to admit some of these bits are really funny.  I particularly liked Adam's latest ill-advised affair in Black Canary and how that ironically dovetailed with his fear of hospitals.  It was nice seeing him get his deserved comeuppance!

Now all I have to do is dig up that Season Three set and watch those three episodes I missed....They seem to have vanished into thin air! Jonathan Creek, where are you?


  1. Glad you liked this Curt, great review. I've been devoted to it ever since it first appeared on the BBC in the 90s and regularly rant and rave about it as I'm a big fan of its writer David Renwick (a genuinely authored bit of TV as he writes every script). I've written about the show elsewhere myself - well, since you ask, here:

    As I mention there, the Christmas specials and the two-part stories often seem to be best stories in terms of plots but although there are weaker episodes, I think they all offer wonderful things. Of the one-hour stories, MOTHER REDCAP is also one of my absolute favourites, with a complex plot that really does hang together and an impossible crime that Carr would have adored.

    Incidentally, the versions broadcast on BBC America in the US have often been cut to include adverts - I don't know if the DVDs are intact though note that the slot did vary from 50 to 60 minutes between seasons at one points, so that it is not always an indication that something is amiss. Season 2 and 3 were 50 minutes long. 1 and 4 were a full hour.

    The show was definitely at its best with Caroline Quentin as Maggie (she's a very big star on UK TV in comedy and drama and the show was in fact designed for her).

  2. I discovered this series through a passing comment on some mystery website and went crazy looking for it for most of 2006. At the time there were no Region 1 DVDS and I could only find used sets being offered for sale on eBay. I shelled out money for the UK DVD sets and did the unthinkable - watched them on my computer which had a DVD player that would play any region with the flick of a mouse. I thought nearly all of the shows were truly brilliant.

    Now that Season Three is finally available via Netflix in Region 1 DVDS I got to see the rest of the series this year. I even managed to figure out the complete solution to "The Three Gamblers." Most of the episodes of Season Four are uninspiring. Some are even boring. "The Omega Man" was the worst. Easily guessable AND dull. Still hunting for all of the holiday episodes especially eager to see "Satan's Chimney. None of the holiday episodes are on the any of the DVD sets. How did you see "Black Canary?" Was it on some cable TV network?

    My favorite from Season One was "The Reconstituted Corpse" when Maddy finds a dead body in a wardrobe she just bought. It been empty from the moment it left the shop to the time it arrived it her home. I thought the solution to that was outrageous and gasp inducing. "The Hoiuse of Monkeys" (also Season One) has another really macabre and darkly humorous plot with an utterly surreal solution worthy of the clues provided in Carr's Death Turns the Tables.

    1. Not to rub it in John but if you can you really should get your hands on SATAN'S CHIMNEY as it may actually be the best plotted episode of all with a fabulous locked room and a disappearing room in a castle as well! It was a 2-hour Christmas special and the first made without Quentin so you could probably surmise that Renwick was really pulling out all the stops (sic) to make up for her loss. Which I think he did largely, though Julia Sawalha and Sheridan Smith have not been as good in their successive roles as sidekicks, sad to say. I keep hoping they will manage to make more with Quentin.

  3. You can find the series 1,2,3,4, complete series, Christmas specials, Grinning Man, and Judas Tree at the following website:

    You can find Jonathan Creek - The Grinning Man at YouTube

    The top secret code to watch British TV series at YouTube is to use initials such as J.C.T.W.F.N. is for Jonathan Creek - Time Waits For Norman.

    1. The Madman series from Oz would be PAL region 4 presumably, right? So in that sense as unfriendly for American viewers as the BBC release in the UK. And as for that YouTube presentation, that looks very, very, very illegal (just saying) ...

    2. Yes, they are region 4, but multi-region DVD players can be found for around thirty dollars at Amazon or virtually anywhere that sells DVD players. Madman had the Oz rights to the show and with the Internet can legally sell to Americans.

      YouTube would disagree about illegal. But if those holding the rights objected YouTube would yank the shows off and possibly remove the person who provided them.

      The copyright law in the United States is a mess. YouTube would site fair use laws, the same laws that say you can recorded TV shows off TV without paying for the rights.

      I once had my writer's guide I did for the series "Remington Steele" being sold for ten dollars. If it had been a business making a profit from it, the studio would have sued. But it was the collector to collector (aka black market) so they ignored it.

      Those who show entire episodes don't always do it for money. Some do, to promote their collector to collector website. But most of those like the legal NetworkDVD show excerpts and a link to their site. The code versions are for fan purposes only and have cause me to buy the studio's DVD if they are available.

      Sergio, where do you think I find most of my forgotten TV series I review over at Mystery*File.

    3. I didn't mean to suggest there was anything problematic about the Madman release - they've put out some fantastic stuff (their DVD version of the ELLERY QUEEN series from the 70s is definitely the best one to get). I was just referring to region coding being no better than the UK release.

      There is lots of amazing stuff out there Michael and I love reading your reviews. However, YouTube hosting that entire episode of JONATHAN CREEK (for example) is completely illegal in the US and in the UK (and the rest of Europe). Just because the BBC hasn't noticed yet doesn't change that one little bit. Stealing doesn't become illegal only once you are arrested. Fair Use does not cover it under any of the international treaties that the US is now a signatory to or any of the definitions of fair use, which do not, by any stretch, imply that simply because you can't prove you made a profit that stealing somebody else's property is alright. Anybody that tells you different is seriously misinformed. The law can be a bit gray sometimes, but it's not that opaque, though I'm not accusing anybody. I use YouTube too to look at stuff. But there's a big difference between a clip put up by a distributor and someone getting round a DVD's copy protection software, contraventing all the FBI warnings on the label, and then sticking the whole movie on YouTube. Who's going to buy the DVD when you can rip the YouTube file? But I don't mean to hijack Curt's excellent post so shall shut (and yes, I'm a media lawyer by day with a spandex suit a big C on the shield on my chest. How come 'Copyright Man' wasn't in the Avengers Movie ..?)

  4. Just found all the holiday specials on YouTube. They were uploaded in a code of sorts J.C.S.C., for example, for "Jonathan Creek: Satan's Chimney." All four are there, but in the usual fragmented uploads of eight parts each.

  5. I could be wrong, but I think it's only PBS that cuts the films on DVD. PBS cuts them when they air them (which is why I don't bother watching them when they air anymore) and sometimes even issues them on DVD cut, whcih is really unpardonable.

    Apparently they issued the first two seasons of Lewis cut (though not the later two), for example.

    I really do like Quentin. In Season Two I found myself watching for her as much as for the mysteries, almost.

    Black Canary is available on the Holiday set now, with the two most recent ones and Satan's Chimney (I think of these as "Christmas" because they are a grand throwback to the classical Christmas English ghost stories of the the 1930s, like Carr himself wrote).

    I liked all of Season One too, especially Reconstituted Corpse, Monkeys and the fallout shelter one. No Trace of Tracy had a good impossible crime too. Monkeys was hilarious as well as deliriously contrived in its locked room murder explanation in the best Carr/Rhode fashion.

    1. I believe the PBS does cuts the British stuff. I got the download season one of SHERLOCK because PBS reportedly cut a tiny bit. As for BBCAmerica I have read both, they edit and that they don't.

  6. I think the rot starts to kick in with the first episode of season three personally. After two outstanding series, only Miracle In Crooked Land and The Eyes of Tiresias come close to that standard. After that, the specials - Satan's Chimney and The Grinning Man - and the episode The Tailor's Dummy are the only ones that I recall fondly. The last special The Judas Tree was fine, but a bit too far-fetched for my liking.

  7. The BBC has created variant versions for different markets, including BBC America, depending on whether they need to include breaks for ads or not of course. (I assume cuts are not made for the very occasionally mildly racy content). It became an issue in the UK when in error the cut versions were initially used for the DVD release of the show, which was eventually recalled and re-released at considerable expense.

  8. I hope nothing was cut! The PBS cuts cuts can be pretty sloppy, especially bad when it's a mystery. I suppose I need to bite the bullet and just get a multi-region DVD player, but the one I have is such a trooper, it's been working so well for years now!

    I watched three episodes of Season Three and was meh about them to be honest. But I really enjoyed Seasons One and Two, along with Black Canary.

  9. There were problems when the Syfy network over here edited DOCTOR WHO for time. It was one of the reason Americans were happy BBCA got the series.

    The major problem with BBCA is they rather show reruns of STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION than something from the British such as JONATHAN CREEK. You would think after the success of DOCTOR WHO, SHERLOCK and LUTHER over here more British scripted programs would be seen over here and at places besides BBCA and PBS.

  10. Excellent review, Curt, but instead of writing out my thoughts here, I want to direct your attention to the old Jonathan Creek topic over at the JDCarr.Com Forum:

    It takes me a couple of pages to build up steam, but I think I did some of my best commentaries on episodes like The Seer of the Sands and The Scented Room (and that includes my blog posts). Please ignore the sloppy typing skills.

    By the way, I suspect that Renwick swiped the plot for The Scented Room from a short story by Edgar Wallace (see topic for details).

  11. We managed to catch this when we were living in Amsterdam around that time. Really loved the atmosphere and they were a great team.

  12. Hi! At the moment the full episodes are all on youtube as I've been catching up on them. I was too young to fully appreciate them when they originally came out. I agree with you about Maddie, she's such a character that she was sorely missed in series 3. I like the new assistant who is quite plucky (in fact there is a new episode this Easter). The episode 'The Grinning Man' is very clever (like Redcap or Gallows) and was the first episode I ever saw (so I have a soft spot for it).


  13. Well, you are probably already aware of this,but a new special is on the way. It is being shown at the end of March 2013, and includes Sheridan Smith, as well as Rik Mayall as Gideon Pryke, Creek's rival detective from BLACK CANARY. There are also plans for more Creek episodes in 2014, although Smith isn't certain about whether she will be able to appear. Time for Caroline Quentin to return, perhaps?