Reviews

Jonathan Creek: Season Three

There's still some magic in these British murder-mysteries -- just not as much as before.


Jonathan Creek

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Alan Davies, Caroline Quentin, Stuart Milligan
Network: BBC
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 2009-01-20
Last date: 2000
Amazon

One of the most important names in the history of Jonathan Creek was that of its producer: Verity Lambert.

In 1963, at the insistence of an eager BBC head, Lambert was given the role of Producer for a strange little show called Doctor Who, in which an elderly man travels through time with various young companions, stopping would-be historical atrocities before they happen. Lambert was an influential figure on the show's early years, and for good reason: she made sure that everyone understood the importance of the relationship that exists between the enigmatic Doctor and his human companions, as it's that very chemistry ultimately drives the show -- the force that will draw casual audience members in and have them stay after their first taste.

Decades later, Lambert was able to use the same principles to help shape David Renwick's Jonathan Creek, in which an enigmatic, brilliant magician's assistant named Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies) is pared up with a blathering, outspoken investigative reporter named Madeline Magellan (the scene-stealing Caroline Quentin) to investigate seemingly-impossible crimes that have no easy answers to speak of. Their chemistry (both romantic and otherwise) was unmistakable, but, as this DVD set proves, not all good things can last forever.

Series Three (which originally aired in 1999-2000) features the show getting curiously meta, as Maddy's books about her adventures with Jonathan are slowly becoming best-sellers, and a small cult audience is developing around the perpetually-shy, windmill-dwelling Jonathan. This all comes to a head in the series' fifth episode, "Miracle in Crooked Lane", in which Jonathan and Maddy are invited to have a small tent at a local convention, wherein many J-Creek fanatics show up to ask questions of the duo, all who, unsurprisingly, look and dress almost exactly like Jonathan. The unexpected attention that Jonathan receives spurns Maddy a bit (so far in the series, the most that she and Jonathan have done is kiss each other), and it isn't until later in that same episode that Maddy and Jonathan face the inevitable and physically express their desires for each other.

What's curious about this development is just how little is made of it: the duo continue in their same bickering way in the episode that follows, ultimately proving nothing and leaving those viewers who care about their relationship in somewhat of a disappointed state. After three seasons of unrequited passion, all we get is a shot of them in bed together and no change to Maddy and Jonathan's dynamic? What a remarkable let-down.

The disappointment is shared all around, truth be told, as some of the mysteries hatched this time around are some of the worst that Jonathan has ever been associated with. It's not that the episodes are, by themselves, bad -- it's just that some of the conclusions/ explanations that Renwick has devised are nothing short of outlandish. In the season opener of "The Curious Tale of Mr. Spearfish", a man named Lenny (Andrew Tiernan) sells his soul to the devil (or at least a man representing Mr. Beelzebub), and soon realizes that he has become immortal. Bullets reflect of his body, an assassin dies after simply staring at him, and his portfolio profits are skyrocketing at an alarming rate.

Without spoiling too much, the solution to this riddle is a bit strange, given the millions of pounds that it would've cost, and how the party responsible isn't even named -- it's merely guessed at by Jonathan. The same goes for "The Eyes of Tiresias", in which an elderly woman dreams of and therefore predicts the murder of a French businessman detail-for-detail, right down to his last words before being fatally shot.

The solution, again, is a rare one-in-a-million shot that stretches the very believability of this already-outlandish program. By focusing on solving the case of the psychic lady instead of the simple murder of the famed Parisian suit, the show loses a lot of the life-or-death stakes that it has going for it.

Fortunately, the rest of the series mostly makes up for these two low-points. "The Omega Man" is a fantastic episode wherein Maddy is called on by a noted alien researcher to take a look at a strange, otherworldly skeleton that he has uncovered, hoping that this fringe journalist will be able to break the story before the government interferes -- which they immediately do. Swarmed by U.S. Army soldiers, the skeleton (which burns those who touch it), is shackled in a gigantic box and immediately transported onto a secure military compound. Upon opening the box, the Army finds that the alien has, in fact, vanished.

When Jonathan is brought in, he winds up getting tangled up with the alien researcher who called Maddy in the first place. The man -- a certified doctor and certainly no fool -- proves to be quite the intellectual match for Jonathan, as his belief in otherworldly life proves a direct challenge to Jonathan's logic-based reasoning. The two men acknowledge their differences yet also carry a mutual respect for each other, climaxing with the doctor giving Jonathan a hint as to where the alien may have gone to: one of the nine planets -- in fact, the coldest. The solution is, quite simply, both surprisingly simple and utterly brilliant ...

... which is also what can be said for the fantastic season-closer, "The Three Gamblers". Three criminal low-lifes meet a derelict dealer in a remote cabin to discuss a forthcoming drug shipment, but things turn nasty and the gun-weilding derelict, making unsavory passes at the female crook, loses his firearm and gets shot in the head six times, leaving him unmistakably dead on the basement floor of this crummy stone cabin, the paranoid trio soon going up the stairs, locking the door behind them, and barricading it with a giant wooden dresser.

Months later when the crooks are caught, they tell of the deal that went bad and bring the police back to the cabin to uncover any new evidence that might be of use. Upon opening the cellar door, the crazed derelict's corpse is found right on the top step, his withered hand reaching out at the investigators, as if his evil spirit couldn't let a simple thing like death prevent his revenge. One of the crooks goes crazy, Maddy finds herself in dire peril, and Jonathan -- all the while -- finds new uses for his deck of cards. The solution this time out is classic Creek: the answer of the crawling corpse being so ridiculously easy that we, the viewer, are ashamed that we didn't think of it ourselves.

Yet that's always been part of the fun of watching Jonathan Creek: these mysteries, as impossible as they seem, are always answered in realistic terms, making things like ghostly murders and disappearing bodies appear as projections of the frightened: it's always easier to explain something with magic or witchcraft than look at the actual, real-world solution, as unbelievable as it may be. At times (as on the episode "Ghosts Forge"), something as simple as changing one's name can lead to a world of hurt down the line, but other times (as on the "Miracle of Crooked Lane" episode) people will go to extraordinary lengths to get away with the simplest of crimes.

Jonathan's solutions rarely unearth diabolical criminal masterminds at work: just very sick, depraved people with a score to settle and a finite amount of resources. Ultimately, we see a dark side of ourselves in the episodes of Series Three -- but, unfortunately for the show, we rarely get to see much else.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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