Spoilers Alert: Best go and watch the episode first before reading the review to avoid barking like a sea lion in indignant fury.
“That's all magic is. It's an illusion.” And when you think about it, that's what murders in murder mystery crime dramas are.
On the surface, a murder creates an illusion in a number of ways to fool the detectives and to put the police on the wrong track. Fake footprints can be left at the scene of the crime in order to implicate another person. The culprit can pay someone to pretend to be them or can switch the time of the murder to give themselves the perfect alibi. A classic locked room mystery can give the impression that the killer can somehow walk through walls.
Maybe that's why murder mysteries are so popular. They are the gruesomely fictional equivalent of a trip to the magic show. It's left to the detective to reveal how the trick was pulled off, and why. With that in mind, one of the ideal TV sleuths is Jonathan Creek.
Jonathan Creek is the brainchild of David Renwick, the man who gave you the likes of One Foot In The Grave and Love Soup. He's the brains man for magician Adam Klaus, coming up with all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas for these stellar magical extravaganzas. What better choice of employment to deduce some of the terrible crimes being committed in the country? No sooner has he provided a neat magical trick that involves a hapless assistant, a giant pack of playing cards and a blazing torch, he finds himself entangled in the baffling case of the murder of a popular artist called Hedley Shale.
The Wrestler's Tomb (the name on the gate of Hedley's swanky pile where he lives in disharmony with his wife, Serena) is a feature-length episode to kick off the series. Which was kind of a rarity in the 1990s. If, by chance, you've read my general overview of the show, then you'll have stumbled across my bleatings of how the show stood out from the crowd in that decade. In a new telly world full of tedious docusoaps and lowest-common-denominator pap, it was actually refreshing to see a high quality programme of this kind make it to BBC1.
Programmes of this kind were few and far between, with the money being spent on endless period dramas, usually from the pen of Jane Austen. The problem was, I always found that there wasn't much in the way of good fantasy or escapist drama in the 1990s. Doctor Who had been put out to grass. Sci-fi drama was in short supply. There weren't really that many murder mystery shows, since ITV had cornered the market with the Poirot series (the Miss Marple mysteries with Joan Hickson had finished by the early '90s). So Jonathan Creek made a refreshing change.
An oddity (and I've babbled about this at length in the JC overview) is that Jonathan himself isn't your archetypal '90s lad. The first thing we see him do is to politely dispute a malfunctioning supermarket cash register with an eye-rolling cashier. It's the most mundane introduction you can get, but it already showcases Jonathan's eagle-eyed attention to detail and his quiet bafflement with the modern world. As he says to Maddy at one point, he feels like he's been born 100 years too late.
It's curious that in the documentary on the DVD, Renwick insisted to Creek actor Alan Davies that Jonathan isn't a nerd. He's a hero, a chap who saves the day. But it's not the most conventional type of hero that most '90s audiences would expect. To the untrained eye, Creek has all of those nerdy qualities: he's quiet, a little bit socially awkward; he collects magical memorabilia; he's a bit useless in a scrap – especially confronted with a jealous husband and a hoover. Creek doesn't conform to the usual hero pattern, and in the image-conscious '90s, it's a gamble that pays off in spades. Davies – needless to say – is pitch perfect casting as Creek.
The other major player is down-on-her-luck writer/journalist, Madeline Magellan. While Maddy is introduced as a stronger, more confident character than Jonathan (she poses as a counselling specialist and a TV rep in this episode alone, without so much as a pause), the early scene of her defacing her own picture with felt tip gives you a clue that she's not quite as indomitable as she makes out. Couple that with a return of 10,000 books boomeranging their way back from Australia, and you're given a picture of someone who isn't exactly at a peak of their writing career. Even her boyfriend seems like a couldn't care less waste of space. No wonder she's necking cheap champagne from a mug like it's water.
What I like about the initial set-up of Jonathan and Maddy is that it's done in a measured, logical way with no sense of contrivance. Having stabbed her by accident in the hand with a cocktail stick, Jonathan only meets Maddy after he's delivered a fancy gift to Adam's new beau (and apparent lover of Hedley), Francesca Boutron – who's receiving some cod mental therapy from the eager writer. After an awkward post-cocktail-stick glance between the two, Maddy only twigs that Jonathan may be the one to get help from in cracking the case after Francesca explains that he's the brains behind Adam's show.
Judging from what I've read on forums and in comments, the pairing of Jonathan and Maddy remains the favourite. I think a couple of scenes in The Wrestler's Tomb prove the point already. The first is when Jonathan and Maddy share an introductory meal and Jonathan agrees to perform a magic trick for Maddy. All she has to do is to think of a well-known city (Constantinople), give Jonathan a tissue, think of Constantinople very hard... and eureka! The tissue vanishes from Jonathan's hand to magically reappear under a tray of condiments with CONSTANTINOPLE now written in pen across the middle. What I like about this scene is the way in which Jonathan explains how the trick was done, reducing the impossible to the “mundane” (Jonathan slips a tissue from Maddy's bag, gives it to the waiter who then writes Constantinople on it and places it under a tray, while the one chosen by Maddy is thrown so fast that she misses it). It sums up the show's whole ethos in that something that can't quite be possible is, in fact, deceptively easy.
The other scene is when Maddy visits Jonathan at his cool windmill home in the country. The design aspect aside (the main room is decked out with all kinds of weird and wonderful magical paraphernalia), there's that great moment in which Jonathan puts forward a theory of how the murder could have happened (thanks to an even more detailed set that he made himself of Serena's office!). But what's interesting is that while we get to learn lots about Jonathan (parents emigrated to Philadelphia, the windmill's been lived in for generations, he's a massive fan of all the classical illusionists), Maddy keeps her cards close to her chest. She doesn't offer one crumb of information about herself.
For all her brash bravado, Maddy, at this point, is something of an enigma – and it's testament to Renwick's writing, and also to Caroline Quentin's excellent portrayal, that we get to see her character's background and personality come through bit by bit over the next three years. Davies and Quentin achieve that perfect chemistry too, which is already seen in their screen test from early 1996. I'd agree that the Jonathan/Maddy partnership remains the best of the series.
It's the only time that Anthony Head gets to play Adam Klaus. If Stuart Milligan portrays him as more of a bumbling, comical character, then Head portrays him as the suave kind of smooth talker that he played in those old coffee adverts from the late '80s and early '90s. Alas, Sunnydale was a calling for Head, but his portrayal of Adam remains an interesting curio. For the remainder of the season, he's either suffering from ear infections or getting into trouble with elephants. He's only seen as a disembodied head on a T-shirt. Which is pretty apt, given the actor's surname.
Because the first story clocks in at a generous 90 minutes, that allows more time for the mystery and the characters to develop. It's a good 12 minutes before Jonathan comes onto the scene, so before that, we get a good idea of who Hedley and Serena are, what their relationship is, and what they do for a living. Hedley (Sixth Doctor actor, Colin Baker, sporting a terrible 1990s ponytail) paints pervy nudes for a living, but for him, it's all about real beauty rather than the traditional perception of the skinny, blemish-free models. Serena (Sheila Gish, on top form here), on the other hand, works for a magazine that promotes the kind of beauty that Hedley's not so interested in. Already, Renwick's cleverly providing an ironic juxtaposition between two differing viewpoints. The two are chalk and cheese, and given that Hedley's been having affairs behind Serena's back, this puts her in the frame for shooting the maverick artist, as well as tying and taping up one of his models, Francesca.
That's the mystery – and in true Jonathan Creek style, he has to work out an apparently impossible conundrum: How could Serena escape from her office, walk past her PA, Joy, and commit the murder?
Renwick plots this one extremely well. I suspect he's been swotting up on his murder mystery rules in that he takes almost gleeful relish in throwing subtle clues as to where the story ends up. After the murder is committed, there's a quick shot of Joy the PA slipping her shoes on (relating to the fact that Francesca shot Hedley using her feet to pull the trigger of the gun). The elaborate iron maiden trick of Adam's initially sees Francesca as the victim, but she turns out to be the masked deliverer of death. Even Katrina the Cleaner's surname of Topliss must be a jokey reference to the fact that Hedley's not only used her for one of his nudey paintings, but that she's the one he calls up to make him “bark like a sea lion”. Crikey. Who would have thought that the Sixth Doctor would be capable of saying such things?
The production generally stands up well, although obviously, there are some awful 1990s haircuts on display (the guy in Serena's office computer-paintbrushing a picture has a bad case of curtain cut) and the Steadicam borrowed by Jonathan looks a tad clunkier than it did when the episode was filmed in 1996. But otherwise, you could comfortably show this as a repeat today, and it would still fit in fine.
Renwick's script sparkles as brightly as his One Foot In The Grave offerings. It's another show to use his unique take on black comedy and sarcastic one-liners. The choice cuts here include Jonathan's line about being “artificially inseminated with a supermarket trolley” while struggling with the camera gear, Serena's quip to Hedley's line, “I haven't had a live model in months” (“You must be losing your touch”) and Jonathan's reference to Adam's poor taste (“It's written to be a family show, Adam – you're reducing it to the level of a bank commercial!”).
As a pilot show, The Wrestler's Tomb already sets the stall out in style for Jonathan Creek. It's occasionally a bit rough around the edges (the big explanation from Jonathan and Maddy seems to be a bit rushed, with mainly close-up shots of the actors and not much in the way of different camera angles), but overall, this is a fine piece of work. Tautly plotted, superbly written and boasting a charismatic detective duo, The Wrestler's Tomb can only be judged a triumph. Already in its early stages, Jonathan Creek looks set to be an instant classic – bring on the next episodes!