Friday, November 24, 2017

Ranking the Jonathan Creek cases

David Renwick's duffel-clad mysteries were the peak of '90s Saturday evening programming, and they're still intermittently making them 20 years later. But do any of the modern puzzles hold up to the classics? And is it a good idea to rewatch something you considered the height of flabbergasting genius in your youth, now that you're grown up and can spot when it's a bit ramshackle and convenient sometimes?

Here's what I thought when I watched them all again the last time they made some new ones. Newly arranged into an unreliable ranking for the sake of convenience and arguments.

Sassy sidekick key:

Caroline Quentin (1997–2000)
Julia Sawalha (2001–2004)
Sheridan Smith (2009–2013)
Sarah Alexander (2013–2016)

31. The Sinner and the Sandman

It's not like this is a terrible episode, but after letting them off for subverting the formula a bit in the first outing of the reprisal year, I'm not feeling so forgiving when we're back to mediocre mysteries.

Now settled in a country parish, the Creeks occupy themselves with odd jobs in an odd contrast to their sleek marketing 'careers' and are still unintentionally stumbling upon cases involving various disappointing guest actors. Like last time, this is more a series of vignettes stapled together that Jonathan ties together at the end with less flair than we've grown accustomed to. There's also an effort to bring childhood trauma into the mix with Polly's eerie, cloudy memories that she also pieces together at the end, but that turn out to have nothing to do with the plot, slight as it is.

Another disappointing area is the humour, which was on top form last time but here slides into innuendos (and not very good ones). With no murders, the stakes are lower than your average Creek, and with only three episodes on offer this time around, I could have done without the whimsical interlude.
"Bugger" - Jonathan Creek

30. The Coonskin Cap

The TV shenanigans were fun when they added a meta element to previous episodes, but in series four, Carla's show-within-the-show doesn't take long to get annoying, her unlikely 'romance' with Brendan even more so. I didn't warm to Adrian Edmondson's character the first time around, and his lack of self-awareness makes him more of a caricature than I'm used to with this series. He's even more annoying than Adam's become.

In the year-and-a-bit since we last saw Jonathan and Carla together, they apparently enjoyed a brief dalliance that was cut short for plot purposes, prior to her embarking on her new life. This first case of the new run isn't especially interesting - another locked room murder with no obvious killer in sight, like we've seen plenty of times already, including in the previous episode - and with all the focus on cops' personal lives it feels more like The Bill.
"Real life can be very badly written" - Jonathan Creek

29. The Omega Man

The first episode I didn't really enjoy all that much, this takes the paranormal theme that runs through the third series a bit too far. We're not into Indiana Jones 4 territory or anything - the conveniently disappearing alien body is never in danger of being confirmed as the real article - but the U.S. Military cover-up stretches credulity. The X-Files was at the height of its popularity over here at the time, and it's clear that Renwick and/or the BBC were keen to tap into that, even dropping a "truth is out there" quote.

Meanwhile, Jonathan's fame is on the rise (particularly in the screeching teen fangirl demographic) as his presence eclipses the author's in Maddie's latest book, but the two of them spend most of the episode being shuffled around by the army and puzzling over self-defeating cryptic clues provided by the last person who'd want the secret getting out. The mystery itself is smart as usual, but the whole concept left me cold. Minus 37 degrees to the exact.
"We create the truth, all of us, because we can't live with the fear of being alone" - Lance Graumann

28. The Letters of Septimus Noone

We've had time to warm to the Creeks since the abrupt shock of their matrimonial debut in the previous special, and Polly is at least a slightly different direction from previous 'assistants.' This story turns around the show's usual format by revealing who dun the murder 'mystery' at the start, and it's clear that Mr. Renwick's parody of Sherlock is also a stab at his own character's formulaic superhero deductions of years past. Hopefully we'll be back to that next time, treading over the same old entertaining ground.

Neither Adam nor Joey appear in these newer episodes, and I can't say either of them are really missed, but the guest characters are as entertaining as ever. I'm thinking specifically of the Alien-themed family... the depressed woman with the dead baby not so much. There's dark humour in spades, but also some actual darkness that's just quite sad.

There were still a few intriguing mysteries and cryptic clues that smarter viewers than me could piece together with what was available. I got the title one and the painting one at least, but the disappearing ashes were gleefully mocking us and the extremely subtle paper folding thing made me confident that this show isn't past it yet.
"I sometimes wonder, Jonathan, exactly what I married. Free admission for life to the Twilight Zone?" - Polly Creek

27. The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

Probably the best of 2014's three, there are enough intriguing clues to keep me engrossed and it doesn't steal from past cases. Still, this long-awaited fifth series wasn't the triumphant return I'd been hoping for.

With a kidnap victim whose problem solving skills rival even Jonathan's, there's lots of license for overly cryptic clues, with the usual red (or rather, bronze) herrings, running gags and unrelated tomfoolery to fill out the hour.

I can't say I've missed Adam Klaus in the zany B-plots, but Polly assisting her mouthy cleaner with disposing of a corpse didn't tick the dark humour box for me. I also really could have done without the patronising flashbacks in the final wrap-up, just in case we'd forgotten seeing those things the first time around. Do they think audiences have got dumber since the 90s?
"Strange as it may seem, I'm not in the habit of inviting semi-domesticated water fowl around for morning coffee" - Jonathan Creek

26. The Tailor's Dummy

Another convoluted and time-consuming scheme that would probably collapse if viewers posed the question, "why would they bother though?" Still, that's one of the reasons we keep watching.

Beyond the race-swapping suicide mystery, there's a welcome return for Bill Bailey's bumbling street magician, a great improvement over his introduction in 'Satan's Chimney.' I can't really explain why I find Kenny's ineptitude funny while Brendan's emotionless obliviousness irks me.
"It's more of a dramamentary" - Brendan Baxter

25. Gorgons Wood

Not the strongest as finales go, especially as we'd be left waiting five years for more, this one still gets credit for the creative method used to make a priceless statue disappear (it isn't made of frozen mercury this time), but it's let down by an overly complicated second half that drags in unsavoury criminal elements.

Unusually, I think I preferred the stupid B-plots this time around, as Adam signs up for a humiliating reality show (that I think became a reality itself a few years later?) and Carla discovers her new exercise video isn't being targeted at the customers she hoped, something that soon becomes the least of her worries when she discovers her image is being abused in other ways.

Farewell, Carla Borrego. It's been alright.
"The chances of anyone spiriting this away from under my nose are absolute zero" - Owen Glendower. He hasn't seen this show before.

24. No Trace of Tracy

This early case of a disappearing teenager and conflicting versions of honest accounts didn't impress me as much as the previous ones, partly because the solution - while involving a villain's typically painstaking, time-consuming efforts in the tradition of 'The Red Headed League' - was fairly obvious in its conception, we just waited for the specifics. But also because its humorous swipes at ageing rockers and eco hippy cults are pretty basic and disrespectful.

Outing Jonathan as a teenage prog fan isn't much of a stretch based on his established nerdy persona, but they could have at least researched what prog sounds like when composing the hits of fictional band Edwin Drood. JC also nearly gets a romance (unless he's lying) when Maddie's even more cynical friend falls for his dismissive charms, while Maddie's food motif continues as she's revealed to be terrible at cooking. These are all written by the same guy, but some weeks the humour just falls flat for me.
"The tree will get as much pleasure from this as you will" - Polly Flowers

23. The Judas Tree

Having made a fairly triumphant return the previous year with a conventional haunted house mystery, this sophomore stand-alone special takes more liberties and is a lot weirder as a result. The setting is still an old house with a ghoulish history and alleged curse, and there's the usual roster of innocent-seeming suspects, but right from the start with the garish technicolor flashback it's clear that this is trying to be a little different. Which is no bad thing, if it had been a great story.

Since anyone who's watched the series before will know its stance on the paranormal, the mystery plot is mainly a frustrating parade of obvious tricks awaiting explanation. Some are obvious from the start, like Pepper's Ghost, while others could have conceivably been carried out a number of ways, but we need to wait patiently to find out which one it was.

Hardcore Doctor Who fans may be delighted to see Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith on screen together (they were companions in several audio series), and McGann's soft, charming demeanour is perfect for the macabre mystery writer, but the main guest star who stands out is Ian McNeice as a vicar and ally to Jonathan and Joey in their unravellings.

Sadly, the show is spoiled yet again by a distracting B-story involving Adam Klaus' latest public faux pas. Featuring YouTube parodies might have seemed zeitgeisty in 2010, but the jokes are so obvious and laboured, even more than Adam's boobtastic disappointment in the previous special.
"I always say, if I have a vice, it's to be screwed on the edge of a bench. And that's got me into trouble on more than one occasion" - Father Roderick Alberic

22. Ghost's Forge

One for the grammar fans, the central 'mystery' this time ends up being far less intriguing than an impromptu vanishing act by Maddie designed to put an irritating knowitall in her place. It's a brilliant turnaround after Maddie spends the first half of the episode being even more beaten down by life than usual.

There's very little of what could be called 'clues' this time, making the step-by-step denouement less satisfying as we're filled in on details we couldn't possibly have known. A B-story chronicling Adam's latest womanising debacle doesn't tread any new ground either.
"Two sorts of people you never want to spend time with. Serial killers and women who spell 'thanks' with an X" - Jonathan Creek

21. Angel Hair

We're out of classic territory, but this is a nice episode that hinges around love rather than ghastly murders. The main plot involves a curious hostage tape and inexplicable hair regrowth, and requires Jack Dee to pull off depression, guilt and drunken silliness. He's best at the last one.

Jonathan gets a romance sub-plot too, which is doomed as always once it's pointed out to him that Tamsin Greig's character is pining more for her departed dog than human companionship. It's one of the funnier parts of this (fourth) series, on a different level to the Ade Edmondson rubbishness.

Carla's coming along nicely too, though her misjudged outrage and vigilante vengeance on a 'sexist' gynaecologist still channels Maddie Magellan.
"Now da bitch on heat / Gonna make her eat my meat" - Booty Posse

20. The Clue of the Savant's Thumb

When you bring back one of the most fondly remembered guest characters from a previous special, comparisons are inevitable. This Easter special from 2013 is nowhere near the standard of 1998's 'Black Canary,' and the return of Rik Mayall's D.I. Gideon Pryke doesn't even add very much, considering they've made the character wheelchair-bound and his near-superhuman crime-fighting vigour has been tempered by age.

Speaking of age, there are some shock revelations about what Jonathan's been getting up to in the three years since we last caught up with him, and a touch of grey in the locks is only the start of his maturity. Now married to the seemingly incompatible Polly (Sarah Alexander), and a partner in an advertising firm, it only takes the flimsiest excuse to get him back in the duffel coat. It's an interesting, if controversial direction for the character that took a while to get used to.

As for the mysteries themselves, the main plot of Nigel Planer's character's disappearing body has the darkness and teasing clues of early Creek, but the rest is just there for padding. That at least means we don't have to endure more tedious tomfoolery from Adam Klaus. Change isn't always a bad thing.
"I'm afraid the last week of November's not good for me as I'll be dead. Any chance we could bring that forward at all?" - Franklin Tartikoff

19. Satan's Chimney

With Caroline Quentin out of the picture and her character unceremoniously shipped off to Texas forever, Julia Sawalha is drafted in to fill the bossy, slightly less astute and occasionally useful female sidekick role. Let's take it as read that Carla Borrego won't be as good as Maddie Magellan and just try to enjoy the change of pace.

This macabre Christmas special from 2001 taps into gothic horror with very attractive location shooting, dusty old books and a spot of hydraulic conjuring. We're tasked not only with deducing a locked room murder followed up with a convenient 'suicide,' but also a disappearing act stretching back centuries. With a double-length running time - a rarity at this point - there are plenty of clues and culprits, making the unravelling process at the end almost comically convoluted, but I still love all that stuff.

Being Jonathan Creek - a seasonal special, no less - the cast is reliably high calibre, with one-time Doctor Who companion Mary Tamm, Steven Berkoff attempting an American accent and Bill Bailey in a slightly annoying role as a comedy prat. Not everything works in this story, and the lack of Maddie will forever relegate the post-millennial series to non-classic status, deservedly or not, but it's far from being a foreboding sign of the end times. I'll never stop being excited at the announcement of new Creeks.
"Life is bollocks really, isn't it? But sadly it's all we've got, so best to just make the most of it" - Carla Borrego

18. Time Waits For Norman

Another brain bender, though somehow not as riveting as its betters. Maybe it's because the whole thing hinges on a single issue - how a person can be placed by eye-witnesses on different sides of the planet at the same time - which only had a few possible outcomes, especially as the evidence starts to pile up.

Still, they throw in a nice cryptic message to think over in the meantime, and after zinging astrology last time, Jonathan further demonstrates the human brain's capacity to make false positives. Pay attention, you'll learn something.

'Temporophobic' Norman Stangerson and his clock-collecting wife aren't up there with the best kooky guest characters, and it's a shame they didn't call in another former Doctor Who actor for the role of the possible Time Lord. Sylvester McCoy can't have had too much on.

Meanwhile, Jonathan gets an unwanted romantic interest that only makes Maddie slightly jealous, though most of the barbs are directed at the unfortunate woman's lack of hair. This show can be very funny when it wants to be, but it has a mean streak too.
"Didn't you get suspicious when you were running your fingers through her hair and she wasn't even in the room?" - Madeleine Magellan

17. The Chequered Box

Another lesson in not taking things at face value, this is a rare example of the daft asides being connected to the main mystery plot, at least thematically, and it's the better for it.

While we're trying to work out whether or not we can trust a cop, and to discern the identity of the mysterious 'Mr. G,' Adam experiments with desperate, David Blaine style publicity stunts and still ends up being charged with sexual harrassment even when buried six feet underground. And Brendan's colonoscopy wins an award.
"It beats an evening in, staring at my husband's colon" - Carla Borrego

16. Daemons' Roost

It didn't take a Creek to deduce from the title that we were in for a retro return to form after the weak fifth series. What remained to be seen is whether it would be any good.

Sarah Alexander's character aside, I enjoyed it about as much as 'The Grinning Man,' the first Sheridan Smith-era special it deliberately resembles (I think Warwick Davis' character even name-checked it at one point), and that's really the best I could hope for. Always got to love these needlessly elaborate machinations.

Did Jonathan's astonishing reveals always rely so much on "clues" that weren't actually revealed to us until later, or am I just getting more cynical now I'm no longer 12? It'd take a rewatch to be sure. Still, I was 100% bamboozled and managed to feel inordinately pleased when I solved the page numbers clue a few seconds before it was revealed.

They're probably going to make more. But if they don't, this is the best potential finale there's been since 2009.

15. The Three Gamblers

There's no sign in the episode that this would be Maddie Magellan's swan song as Caroline Quentin had moved on to other things by the time the show returned, but it's not a stretch to speculate that her traumatic experience as a hostage held at gun point may have curbed her enthusiasm for sneaking around crime scenes in the future. It's a shame she didn't get a proper send-off.

It feels like series three has had a paranormal-debunking thread running through it, which is rounded off with a bit of Voodoo daftness and the seeming spectacle of a dead gangster rising from the grave. There's a consciously spooky atmosphere to this one, enhanced by some Hammer Horror soundalike stings, but at the time it didn't creep me out as much as the deathly terrifying window in 'Mother Redcap.'

After culminating their chemistry last time, Jonathan and Maddie have evidently managed to hold the friendship together, which is a lot less antagonistic than it used to be. But we don't get too many cute scenes of the pair, thanks to Adam hogging the B-story again.
"Stop thinking with your mouth for a second, give your brain a chance to function" - Jonathan Creek

14. The Grinning Man

I have a soft spot for this one, which didn't disappoint as the first new Creek after a substantial drought and could have set things up nicely for a new series that sadly didn't arise. Or at least, was delayed a few years, by which time the status quo had shifted considerably.

With its eerie setting and sinister hydraulics, this could be taken as a remake of 'Satan's Chimney,' which introduced the now-departed Julia Sawalha, but this introduction to Sheridan Smith's Joey Ross ends up being the more interesting of the two (as does she). The mystery is more intriguing, the danger more urgent and the solution comically over-the-top. I'm glad they had Jonathan highlight its absurdity, rather than trying to convince us this was all normal behaviour.

I like Joey - her similar deductive background keeps the flagging Jonathan on his toes, just when he's started to enjoy a simpler life where the only stress comes from dealing with Adam's relentless shenanigans every week. This time it's 3D porn, which is good for some laughs even if it's largely there to fill up space in this greatly extended two-hour special, while the magic performances come courtesy of the latest 'evil' magician.

It's too long and there's too much going on, but you should still be dazzled by the ingenuity of it all and you'll kick yourself when you're shown the scattered pieces you should have pieced together earlier.
"You're staring at a ladder, I'm staring at a hypotenuse" - Jonathan Creek

13. The Reconstituted Corpse

Another early classic, which can be taken as read for the first two series bar one or two exceptions. I was mostly happy that they managed to fool me again (not only twice, I saw these a few times in the 90s), or at least my suppositions of how things were achieved went in a slightly different direction. My solutions would have worked too, but to avoid controversy, let's say David Renwick is the superior writer.

We have two murders to solve here, connected through the characters but very different in execution. In the best mystery tradition, we have plenty of clues to be getting on with before Jonathan pieces it together for us at the end, and then something a bit funny and demeaning befalls him, to keep him from getting too up himself. It's a formula, but it works.

As far as character development goes, Jonathan and Maddie share their first kiss, albeit as a ruse to stall Nigel Planer's advances. Maddie's a tad more repulsive in this one, and I don't mean all the scenes of her eating - the running gags at the expense of her being a bit heavy seem unfair, especially in an episode that critiques the superficial cosmetic surgery industry.

Meanwhile, Jonathan has some 'hilarious' (unseen) antics of his own to deal with behind the plot as a performing elephant dies in less than elegant circumstances. Adam hasn't showed up since the pilot and feels conspicuously absent here. Maybe they're deliberately stalling his return so we're less likely to notice he regenerated?
"I've got this theory that Jonathan Creek himself is an illusion" - Madeleine Magellan

12. The Problem at Gallows Gate (Parts 1 & 2)

I don't know whether this was conceived as a two-parter or was just supposed to be a regular episode that ended up with too much script, but the mystery doesn't feel more deserving of the special treatment than your average Creek case. As it turns out, there are chills, guffaws and head-scratchings galore that make this extended story well worth the extra time.

The first part is a lot heavier on irrelevant character asides than is usual, so I'd wager this is where most of the filler lies. Mostly enjoyable filler, though I could have done without Adam's interfering sister Kitty, whose comedy old lady feels like she's in the wrong show. There's also some stuff about a famous jazz musician pretending to be blind, Maddie's apartment being burgled after she was critical of the police, Jonathan's nocturnal nature pastimes and a random guest appearance by Amanda Holden for some reason or no reason.

The mystery itself is a murder seemingly committed by a dead man. We find out half-way through how the suicide was staged (hardly a spoiler, it was so telegraphed) and the rest involves sniffing out the unlikely murderer. Not the best Creek, but definitive Creek.
"Anything that involves turning my skeleton inside out, I get kind of twitchy" - Jonathan Creek

11. The Seer of the Sands

Another top drawer case from the post-Quentin years with plenty of clues to mull over, puzzles to crack in your own time (or wait for Jonathan's wrap-up), and a selection of suspects to scrutinise throughout, proving that Renwick didn't forget how to write compelling mysteries just because an actress left. Though saying that, the top ten do all have orange titles.

When a rich man drives his boat drunkenly into some rocks after receiving a fax bearing good news, his body does a disappearing act and his spirit seems to dispense astoundingly detailed messages from beyond the grave, JC is called in to wander around the beach for a bit before putting our minds at ease.

Meanwhile, Adam moves into street magic with disappointing results and his attempt to satisfy an equal opportunities staff quotient leads to his diminutive security guard getting swallowed by a snake. I wouldn't have let them get away with that sort of thing in earlier series, but by this point they can basically go crazy.
"Not so much bigamy as bugger me" - Jonathan Creek

10. The Eyes of Tiresias

Another ingeniously conceived set-up that Mr. Renwick must have felt pretty cocky about when he conceived it, this is also the second in a row to suggest that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Jonathan's strictly logical world view... though obviously logic comes out on top, however twisted it may be.

There are two mysteries to be getting on with, which is good value for money. One is the murder of an unscrupulous business tycoon, with evidence pointing to a lackey who couldn't possibly have committed it. The second concerns an old lady's seemingly prophetic dreams that foresaw the aforementioned murder in painstaking detail.

Jonathan and Maddie are both treated to a bit of respective romance this time around, though as usual, things turn out disastrously for them both. They'll have to cut their losses and do the inevitable deed together some time soon.
"Adieu... adieu... adieu" - Andre Masson

9. The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish

What starts out looking like another relatively straightforward mystery turns out to be one of the most convoluted so far. Part precision engineering with chaotic human elements and superstition diverting our attention, there's no way this could all have been pieced together from the 'clues' we were given. Or maybe there is and my deductive skills are just really lacking.

In this curious tale, a pact with the devil seemingly brings fortune and domestic unrest to the eponymous Spearfish, who digs up valuable treasure and achieves miraculous success on the stock markets and even seems to be bulletproof. David Renwick cheats a little bit by relying on happenstance, but it all deepens the mystery for a Creek-craving audience cracking open a new season.

When they're not sleuthing, Jonathan and Maddie get closer still, while Adam masterminds his own humiliating harrassment trial with the objective of boosting ticket sales with pervy French punters. What's he like? Comic relief with diminishing returns, but we haven't hit the dregs yet.
"You're not the first gynaecologist to use that spoon" - Sadie Bechtenstein

8. The House of Monkeys

One of the more memorable episodes of the series thanks to the presence of primates (the ape suit didn't look any more convincing in 1997 when I was eleven), this rises above its gorilla gimmick to be one of the funniest and most intriguing of the first batch, though it's up against strong competition.

I like that things are kept cosy and small, with Jonathan being brought in as a friend of the family and Maddie tagging along as ever, still trying to leech off his skills and become a best-selling crime writer. That's not the only reason these two spend so much time together of course, and the prospect of romance that's been teased in every episode so far is taken further here, before being subverted very satisfyingly.

If you're lenient with the sword-impaling and mammary-fondling, I think this is a great family episode, and was certainly the one that stood out for me the first time around as a kid and left me hungry for more. The supporting characters are as distinctive and entertaining/dramatic as ever, particularly Simon Day as the paranoid son who's quick to leap to paranormal conclusions based on no evidence. With all those monkeys around, it must have been a fun shoot.

It makes a nice season finale too, as we see Jonathan and Maddie's friendship continue to develop and news of his deeds starts to gain traction. It won't be long before devotees in-universe are donning duffel coats and growing their hair out to mimic their hero; in the real world, the duffel coats were already in the post.
"Whatever you do, don't make love to me without a heavy goods license" - Madeleine Magellan

7. The Scented Room

A rare bloodless episode, the crime this time concerns a valuable painting stolen from a secured room, and the victims are a loathsome critic (played by Bob Monkhouse) and his horrible wife. As the critic in question once gave a scathing review to one of Adam's shows engineered by JC, he delights in keeping the solution from him, after cracking it instantly. Unfortunately for Maddie, he doesn't tell her either.

It doesn't scrape into my favourites, but I appreciate the slight meddling with the format that cruelly keeps us well behind. There are several clues to ponder, even if Jonathan's hint that it all revolves around the spam sandwich proves to be an unhelpfully cryptic allegory. Even as I watched through the disappearance a few times with a theory in the back of my head (possibly based on hazy memories, admittedly), I wasn't able to confirm it due to editing.

The weirdest part of the whole thing is that we're dumped with the complete Maddie Magellan backstory by her agent, and that whole therapy plot doesn't really fit in with anything. Still, nice to know, I guess? Adam's up to his old tricks too, courting a police woman ménage à trois and leaving the Queen distinctly unamused.
"The man's a grade-A tossbag, I can't deny" - Madeline Magellan

6. The Wrestler's Tomb

In the feature-length opener, our duffel-clad, windmill-dwelling hero meets the meddlin' Madeleine Magellan when she picks his brain to get to the bottom of a tricky murder case, and right from the start their relationship is one of my favourites in TV history. He's sort of interested; she says stranger things have happened, but seems content enough bossing around Alistair McGowan. It's much more on the they-won't end of the spectrum, but like Mulder and Scully, you know it's only going to be a matter of time.

Sorry to be one of 'those' fans, but I was even more impressed by the introduction of the characters and their first impressions than by the mystery itself - reliably awe-inspiring though it was. Jonathan is more socially awkward than I remembered, which is nicely offset by Alan Davies' casual demeanour that also belies the character's genius, and he clearly spends too much time alone. Maddie's dedication to her work makes her enthusiasm infectious, in spite of a somewhat muddled moral compass (and being short-sighted enough to put her own face on her book covers).

The guest cast starts as reliably as it means to go on too, with a pre-Buffy Anthony Head filling in as sleazy conjurer Adam Klaus before the role passed to Stuart Milligan, and a post-Doctor Who Colin Baker being unceremoniously killed off as usual. I didn't remember this one too clearly from however many times I've watched it since 1997 (must have been a few), but unlike some of the others that I can disappointingly recall blow-by-blow, this one bamboozled me anew.
"I have no desire whatsoever to go to bed with you. Or to see you naked or to enter into any kind of relationship that involves undoing a zip" - Madeleine Magellan

5. Jack in the Box

I didn't devour the Sherlock Holmes cases as a kid, I had this. With a brilliantly simple contrivance that defines the locked room murder sub-genre as far as I'm concerned, it's probably possible to piece together the basics of this seemingly impossible suicide/murder with what we have to go on - some stray cotton wool, a substituted bulb, an uncharacteristic taste for fudge and a nagging doubt about a lavatory. As far as the murderer's identity, they keep the cast fairly limited this time and it's not a real surprise.

Jonathan and Maddie's platonic friendship threatens to cross a line when they share adjoining hotel rooms and she gets merry, but he's far too engrossed in untangling the mystery to notice. It's for the best, as their antagonistic friendship is the backbone of the series.
"Could you just glance at the road, do you think, every now and then? That way, we might get to keep all our limbs and organs" - Jonathan Creek

4. Danse Macabre

A brilliant opening to the second series, this could only have been improved if they'd got it out in time for a proper Halloween special. This is probably the most archetypal Creek case there is, with a high-profile murder in a country house setting, a selection of obvious and unlikely culprits and a vanishing act that requires a radical turnaround of perspective.

While all that's being deduced, Jonathan endures more humiliating tasks as Adam Klaus' bitch - now in his Stuart Milligan incarnation - while Maddie attempts to solve the problem herself before giving in. It's touching that Jonathan's trying to encourage her out-of-the-box thinking, and even gives her dietary tips in the ongoing arc of the character liking food a bit too much.

The guest cast is typically strong, with plenty of familiar faces from 80s and 90s TV led by Peter Davison as an amiable vicar who follows Colin Baker in the pilot as the second of the Doctors to show up. I'm also still enjoying David Renwick's unrealistic character names, though at least Emma Lazarus could be excused as a nom de plume this time.
"Can a body pass through a solid stone wall, or are we all losing our minds?" - Stephen Claithorne

3. Miracle in Crooked Lane

I love this episode. This is the one that always springs to mind whenever I think of the series' propensity for over-the-top, time-consuming plots concocted by criminals with way too much time on their hands. Like Conan Doyle's 'The Red-Headed League,' I'm sure David Renwick's 'Miracle' could have been arrived at through simpler means, but that would rob us of one of the best wrap-ups, as remarked on by Maddie. Her exposition of the series' formulaic structure is just one of several meta-references in a story that takes its inspiration from the filmmaking craft.

Jonathan's rise to cult fame reaches it height here, when he and Maddie are invited to a fan convention and get to meet critical Cosplayers who spend several hours poking holes in prior plots. When the actual mystery arises however - a dead woman being witnessed alive and well - it's treated with the same reverence as always, featuring an infallible witness, a perfect red herring and enough clues and clever foreshadowing that you might actually stand a chance of working it out, if you're a few dozen IQ points ahead of me.

To top it all off, Jonathan and Maddie finally get the pent-up sexual frustration out of their system. Their slight disappointment is the perfect resolution - if only Mulder and Scully had been similarly apathetic, those last few seasons would have been a lot less whiny.
"This is an extremely rare Hot Jugs & Hooters" - Rupert Clifford-Wright

2. Mother Redcap

This was my favourite episode back in the day. Unfortunately, I like it so much that I always remember full well what happened. Every bit. This at least meant I could enjoy watching the deeds take place with cocky foreknowledge, but I never get to have that first time again, like I'm able to with some of the more forgettable ones.

It's a bit convenient how Jonathan and Maddie's separate investigations happen to hinge together on a broken fingernail, but it's a forgivable conceit when it means they get to work out both sides of the story together. Or at least Maddie gets to stand around making snarky put-downs while Jonathan does all the hard work.

Beyond the intriguing mysteries themselves - the murder of a judge with no apparent assassin and a hotel room that allegedly frightens patrons to death - there's the typically fantastic character building for the leads, who both get ill-fated romances. Jonathan can't get past an iguana-like tongue, while Maddie's irked by other appendages.

The guest cast is brilliant as always too, especially Brian Murphy as world-weary hypochondriac cop Ken Speed, which was my grandad's name. He steals most of the best lines.
"Then you've got my daughter, says she's gay. What's that all about? Expecting their first baby next month, courtesy of the local sperm bank. What are they going to put on the birth certificate? Father: some wanker? God only knows what the world's coming to" - Ken Speed

1. Black Canary

This Christmas special from 1998 isn't the most taxing of mysteries, but there's more than enough intrigue, spectacle, dark humour, macabre horror and pseudo-platonic angst to fill out the extended running time, not to mention another superb guest cast led by Rik Mayall as D.I. Gideon Pryke.

The inspector and his androgynous lackey are basically superfluous to Jonathan and Maddie, as the two teams combine clues that would have been gathered anyway and set off on their respective wild goose chases, but I love that they made the character so likeable and a true ally, rather than going down the road of trying to make Jonathan jealous or something. It's a shame Mayall wouldn't be back in the role for another 15 years.

The mysterious death of a former illusionist brings the series back to its conjuring roots, and the sequence of events doesn't patronise the audience too much. When you're dealing with an ex-magician and her twin sister, and your only witness is an old man with various disabilities, it doesn't take a Creek or Pryke to put some of those pieces together. This is thankfully tied up around the half-way mark, so we're left to focus on the specifics before the ultimate reveal of the culprit.

There's also time out for the continuing saga of Jonathan and Maddie's non-existent romance, spurred on by the reappearance of an old flame of JC's while Maddie seeks refuge from her cockroach-infested hovel. Adam's sex drive lands him in trouble again. It's formulaic, but why tamper with a winning formula?
"Can you really take the word of a man named after an inflammation of the foreskin?" - Gideon Pryke

Who is best?

Episode scores divided by number of episodes. Don't ask me what these numbers or units are, but it seems to work as a comparison.

Maddie Magellan: 21.0
Carla Borrego: 10.7
Joey Ross: 13.0
Polly Creek: 7.6

It turns out the original character who made the most appearances and is backed up by nostalgia is the best. Aren't you glad I'm here to provide these stats?

Best series: 2 > 1 > 3 > Specials > 4 > 5


  1. Thanks for this, it reflected a lot of my own thoughts 😊

  2. Usually these kind of lists are way off for me, but I have to say, I agree with almost all of your choices. Good post :) thanks for sharing