Spoilers Alert: In the event that I end up with a machete-like knife in a melon from angry spoiler-mad fans, go and watch the episode before reading this review.
Here's a funny one, here's a funny one. Have you heard about veteran comic, Jack Holiday? He only went and shot himself in his nuclear bunker, despite having crippling arthritis!
Don't get it? You're not the only one. The facts don't tally. Veteran comedian Holiday has arthritis so bad that he can't even peel a banana on his own, never mind put a gun to his head and pull the trigger.
But on the other hand, no one could possibly have committed murder. Holiday is found in a virtually impregnable nuclear bunker. Right in the centre too. You can only access it via a heavy metal door, descend a long flight of stairs and then seal yourself in a gloomy old toilet room, which is again, sealed off by a massive metal door. It takes a squad of policemen armed with battering rams and cutting gear to penetrate the sanctum, and when they finally find Jack's corpse, there's no one there. Not even a tunnel or convenient hiding place, nada. The only logical explanation is that a criminal mastermind has invented a super invisibility ray, while stocking up on enough food and drink to fill a supermarket.
None of the evidence squares. Compared to this new brain-teaser, the case of The Wrestler's Tomb was a doddle. Nevertheless, Jonathan is roped into this new puzzle by Maddy, who again, has achieved a two degrees of separation involvement. With little prospect of better book sales or the phone going haywire with job offers, Maddy has become moral crusader on behalf of convict, Alan Rokesmith.
Playing an important part in getting him freed from a lifetime of gruel and endless courtyard pacing, Maddy has incurred the wrath of Jack Holiday's wife, Kirsten, who blames her for her husband's suicide. Turns out that Rokesmith apparently did time for the murder of Holiday's first wife, Jennifer, but with shaky evidence, Maddy believes that this isn't the case. With Rokesmith free from prison, the implication is that Jack Holiday was so depressed at the news that he took his own life. Kirsten's subsequent expletive-filled letter to Maddy isn't one for the fan mail pile.
But this is where Jonathan comes into play, as Maddy tries to alleviate some of that guilt by getting the brainbox to prove that it was an elaborate case of suicide. Jonathan, contrary as ever, believes that it was nothing of the sort. Especially with a dimmed light bulb and a toilet triggering something in his brain...
Jack In The Box provides the first and also one of the best examples of the show's fortes: the locked room mystery. Part of the fun this time around is not just to work out whodunnit but also howdunnit. It's a case that, on the surface, leaves you scratching your head in bafflement however you look at it. Can't be suicide (unless Holiday uses some very clever gadget to lift the gun and pull the trigger). But the facts also imply that he can't have been murdered, since there's no sign of escape for the culprit. His two nearest and dearest, wife Kirsten and old friend Oliver have no reason to want him dead. Rokesmith's gone on holiday. While the irate TV commercial producer doesn't exactly see eye to eye with Holiday over a tacky new advert starring the veteran comic, there' still no strong motive or opportunity leaping out.
However, once you've seen the episode, you'll realise that the answer to the problem was so blindingly obvious. That's the fun with Jonathan Creek – the show stands up to repeated viewings, since there are various subtle clues peppered throughout. Even on the third or fourth repeat, there's still likely to be something that you missed.
Jonathan Creek is a show that's tailor made for the DVD, Blu-Ray and Streaming age, since there's almost too much to take in on the first go. Jack In The Box not only provides a puzzling locked room mystery, it also serves up some sumptuous location filming, top-flight performances and also another multi-layered script. If you can digest all of that in one go, I take my hat off to you.
The location filming first. It's dazzling. Filmed on the sunniest of days, the episode looks like it was filmed in Cornwall. One site says that a 1997 episode of the series was filmed at a location called Rinsey Head, which is near Praa Sands. I've just Googled the location and it looks like it could be the one used for Jack In The Box. Something about those Cornish cliffs and beaches stands out, not to mention the twisty, turny roads that Maddy has trouble navigating. Cornwall always makes for an ideal location for TV and film. It's been used in Doctor Who, Doc Martin and weary Sunday night angst Poldark to name but three. Something about that olde worlde charm that Cornwall has in spades makes it a frequent favourite for location filming. It's certainly put to good use in Jack In The Box, functioning as an ideal Holiday home.
Sorry, the pun was irresistible.
It also serves as an effective contrast between Holiday and Rokesmith. Whereas Holiday lives in a luxurious beach house full of vintage memorabilia, Rokesmith and his family look like they have stepped out of a dreary Play For Today episode from 1976 about a downtrodden clan on the verge of bankruptcy.
Rokesmith himself is a nerdy, seedy little chap, who only has his equally dowdy sister and sweet little old mum to welcome him home. Holiday's life was full of glitz and showbiz. Rokesmith's life was the equivalent of a 1979 bring 'n' buy sale in a freezing church hall.
Robin Soans plays him well though, bringing a creepy detachment to the part. He's one of the first of many Doctor Who guest artistes popping up in this instalment, having faced the raven with fatal results. Explaining the wonders of protective nuclear bunkers is Geoffrey Beevers (AKA Private Johnson from The Ambassadors Of Death and The Master from The Keeper Of Traken, which also featured Soans as ineffectual Luvic). Jack's put-upon ad campaign chap is Colin Stinton, who played the US president in The Sound Of Drums.
Two more Who veterans turn in the best guest performances of Jack In The Box. Maureen O'Brien gets far more to do (and very well she does it too) as grieving widow Kirsten than as Susan wannabe, Vicki in the William Hartnell days of the show. Stealing the show though is Bernard Kay as Jack's good friend and confidante, Oliver. Having appeared in no less than four Doctor Who adventures, Kay was one of those rock-solid, dependable character actors. Here, he works wonders with the part of Oliver, adding some effectively subtle nuances – mainly through facial expressions. In the big reveal, look closely at Kay's expressions – a man who's desperately trying to hide a big secret, but is ultimately boxed into a corner. I also like the way in which Oliver's bluff, tough self sometimes crumbles, such as when his voice breaks when he remembers Jack's childlike enthusiasm at his brand new nuclear bunker.
We don't see that many gifted actors like Kay any more – a lot of parts these days tend to be awarded to famous face celebrities. While they may be the bigger draw for viewers, it's still the poorer return, since a good character actor can do even more with the part. While Jack In The Box doesn't boast any big name celebrities, it's all the better for hiring first class performers such as Kay, O'Brien, and let's not forget John Bluthal who makes the most of his limited part as Jack. The scene in which a stage hand peels a banana for Jack is both funny and sad, thanks to Bluthal's facial expressions. Again – all in the face, you see.
Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin make quite the double act. If there was the glimmerings of something between Jonathan and Maddy in The Wrestler's Tomb, then it's coming up to simmer in this one. Jonathan sounds like he's been hanging on for Maddy's call, while Maddy herself doesn't seem too averse to teasing the amateur sleuth. Professionally, the two work well together, musing over toilet seats, hidden messages on letters and the mysterious presumed-dead disappearance of Rokesmith from his holiday cottage.
David Renwick's script doesn't give easy answers as to who's in the right and who's in the wrong. It's rare in a script that an outspoken character such as Maddy can admit to being wrong, but Jack In The Box forces her to eat a hefty slice of humble pie – which is possibly what she wolfs down in that lovely, olde-worlde Cornish pub.
BTW, Spoiler alert – go and watch the episode, and eat some pie while doing so.
Because Maddy's loyalty to Rokesmith has been misguided. It's a neat but logical twist to make Rokesmith the killer all along – not only of Jennifer, but also of Jack, who asked Alan to get rid of her while he was conveniently overseas. While Oliver does his best to justify Jack's reasons for doing so (the marriage to the much younger Jennifer was a disaster – she slept around with a “cast of thousands” and would have taken him to the cleaners in the event of a divorce), you can't help thinking that he could have resorted to less extreme measures.
It's a murky morality – and one that extends to Rokesmith himself. He's done the time, but he's still out for revenge on the chap that abandoned him to his fate, despite the stamp-sized hidden messages of promise. The bitter twist – and a clever one at that – is that Rokesmith kills both Jack and himself. After Rokesmith shoots Jack and makes it look like suicide (clever stuff – how can he have known that Jack had arthritis?), he swallows a ton of pills and seals himself behind a rebuilt toilet wall (which is what provides the literal lightbulb moment for Jonathan). It's a grim plot twist, although wouldn't there be a lot less of Rokesmith, given that it's been a few weeks since he killed himself? As it is, his gurning, leering mug looks like it's only been that way a couple of days, tops.
But this is a minor complaint. Jack In The Box is a masterpiece of clever plotting with some fine performances and breathtaking location filming. Much of the first season stands up well 21 years later, and Jack In The Box is an undoubted highlight.