Jonathan Creek series 5 episode 1 review: The Letters Of Septimus Noone

Review Rachel Bowles 28 Feb 2014 - 22:00

Jonathan Creek is back but not in the best of shapes. Here's Rachel's review of the first in a new three-episode series...

This review contains spoilers.

5.1 The Letters Of Septimus Noone

The Letters of Septimus Noone marks the return of Jonathan Creek after the one off special aired over Easter 2013.

When a West End star ends up stabbed in her locked dressing room, it is up to Jonathan, his wife Polly (played by Sarah Alexander) and his overly enthusiastic young sidekick Ridley to solve the case. Unlike in previous episodes of Jonathan Creek, the machinations and devices used to pull off the stabbing are revealed straight off, along with who committed the crime and why. This leaves a small selection of less exciting cases to be solved including some vaguely saucy letters written to Polly’s late mother by a lover who seemingly was dead three years before the letters were written, and a newspaper article with a coffee ring that disappears miraculously.

That’s it. That’s the episode.

Jonathan Creek’s long-awaited return to television after nearly a year off our screens is marked by an attempted murder shown within the first twenty minutes and some letter writing. The other stories and mysteries unravel slowly, but they lack suspense or invitation to work them out yourself which really detracts from the main draw of watching an episode of Jonathan Creek.

Sarah Alexander makes her second appearance as Jonathan’s wife Polly, however this time takes the role of female sidekick, left vacant by Sheridan Smith.  Alexander plays a very different sidekick from Smith; more in keeping with Caroline Quentin’s style - intelligent, loving and capable of her own detection and logic. Polly is slightly more cynical and determined for her and Jonathan to get a fresh start in the country away from the lure of locked room mysteries in London, an earnest intention that holds strong for all of seven minutes. Their marriage however makes a refreshing change from the ‘Will they, won’t they’ partnership style seen with his three previous sidekicks.

Unfortunately the main problem with The Letters of Septimus Noone is the writing itself. As a huge fan of writer and creator David Renwick, it pains me to say it, but the writing in this particular episode is unsophisticated with some of the key plot points so obviously signposted from the beginning, that the viewer is left desperately hoping for a red herring, or sting in the tale to hit you round the face later on, neither of which are forthcoming. It feels as though the episode is a little too tame and too contrived for its weekend BBC One prime time slot.

Weekend BBC primetime brings me on to the other unavoidable issue, that I will simply refer to as the ‘Sherlock Syndrome’. Arguably David Renwick had no choice but to reference Mr Holmes as the comparisons with the dry deductions and problem-solving ingenuity have been prevalent since Jonathan Creek returned last year. As a fan of both shows, I half expected there to be a tongue-in-cheek nod to Creek’s BBC crime solving team mate, to demonstrate to audiences that they were aware comparisons would be drawn.

What I hadn’t expected, however, was the joke to be laid on thick with a trowel in the opening fifteen minutes of the episode. Jonathan’s enthusiastic sidekick Ridley, a university student with a penchant for forensics and problem solving, bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Holmes with his dishevelled hair, long coat and fast-talking deductions. The editing team even go so far as to replicate the crash zooms into key clues and close-ups of intricacies missed by the untrained eye. The hilarious joke in this instance is that Ridley isn’t very good. His deductions are incorrect and he puts noses out of joint throughout the episode with his arrogant assumptions and declarations of how the crime was committed, all of which are incorrect.

On paper, it is quite a nice idea, the problem in this instance is that the writing around the joke isn’t sophisticated enough to support it, so the punch line is too overt. It is the equivalent of that friend you don’t really like poking you repeatedly in the forehead through the episode and saying “D’you see? D’you see? Because they’re talking about Sherlock! Do you see? It’s so obvious, D’you see?” To play devil’s advocate, this could also be because this episode will have aired very close to the last episode of Sherlock. If there had been more space between the two, perhaps the joke would have felt a little less contrived.

My hope is that with two further episodes to come, this series of Jonathan Creek is going to find its stride and depict some more exciting mysteries, where the mechanics are not revealed at the start of the episode. There are some nice touches which I hope are developed; the great partnership between Alan Davies and Sarah Alexander being one. As an opening episode however, I was left disappointed and not on the edge of my seat as I have done with previous episodes of Jonathan Creek and... Sherlock.

Read Rachel's review of 2013 Easter special, The Clue Of The Savant's Thumb, here.

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I agree. I really looked forward to this and it was a major disappointment. The writing was lazy the sgerlock parody akward and the mystery was dull. Being told the crime is fine if you are columbo and you see the clever old sod putting the bits together the idea is that jonothan creek is cleverer than you and as the episode goes on you try and solve it. Its like watching the sixth sense and in first minute you find that mr willis is a ghost and the rest of the movie is showing you hes a ghost.

Bruce Willis character is a ghost ????.........spoilers....I was going to watch Six Sense this weekend as well!

Why reveal the solution to the mystery at the start? Was it some attempt to emulate Columbo as well as Sherlock? If so, it didn't work. As for the mini-mysteries, the solutions were so obvious I was expecting there to be additional twists.
Most of the time, Alan Davies looked like he wasn't even sure why he was there. I'm not so sure either.

After being totally appalled at how bad the one off special was (the one where Rik Mayall's police detective had become a paraplegic over acting buffoon). I actually quite enjoyed this.
Weirdly I missed the first fifteen minutes so I didn't know who had dunnit!. I think if I had seen that I would have the same opinion as everyone else here.
I used to really love this show.

I really enjoyed the latest special but this doesn't sound any good at all. I'm glad I missed it.

As someone who loved the show in its heyday and has become exasperated with the recent specials, I actually rather liked this.

OK, so the "play along at home" angle was non-existent (and who *didn't* see an upside-down "Holmes" at first glance?) but I don't see a problem with them trying out an inverted mystery for once, especially since the mechanics of the central "trick" were solid.

The show has suffered in recent years by trying to be too clever - but then failing to rationalise the barmy mysteries with logical storylines. This felt like stripping it down and going back to basics; an advantage of a more slender running time.

As for emulating Columbo; it's been an obvious inspiration from the start.

I think most of the comments and reviews I've seen of this episode have missed the point. I got the feeling that first and foremost it was a "reboot" of the series, shedding some of the sillier (e.g. Stuart Milligan, Rik Mayall) and more annoying (e.g. Sheridan Smith, Rik Mayall) elements of recent episodes. And it was a parody, both of Sherlock (obviously) and itself (less obviously). Hence the locked-room-mystery-that-wasn't-a-mystery-at-all. If you were in any doubt about what the central (albeit rather thin) plot point was, it was in the title.
I hope the remaining episodes have rather meatier plots, rather less parody, but I'm sure they will - this felt like a one-off restart, a bit like each time Doctor Who gets a new companion. But I enjoyed it a lot more than any of the recent Sherlock series - I can forgive Jonathan Creek being somewhat whimsical and comedy-based, as that's what it always was about. I had rather hoped Sherlock would be a little more Conan Doyle-based.

Having what seemed like, to all intents and purposes, a dig at Sherlock would have seemed like sour grapes at the best of times (not to mention a little biting the hand, given that technically Holmes came first).

But if you are gonna have a pop at another show, you need to make pretty sure your own show stands up in its own right. And this didn't. At all. The mystery wasn;t a mystery and rather than any kind of twist, we just had a horribly bleak ending that just seemed completely unnecessary.

And what 'clues' there were to solve the mystery (that we already new the answer to anyway) were contrived to the point of being laughable. I mean, all that fuss about the name on the painting and it's supposed to be a big reveal that it was upside down. Really? Cos it never occurred to anyone it was odd in the first place that the artist had signed the painting in the top right hand corner, rather than the bottom left which is considerably more typical.

Add to that, Davies looking bored and sleepwalking through the whole thing and the complete absence of any chemistry between the two leads (which is all the worse, considering they're supposed to be married!) and this was just a bad, bad hour of telly all round.

Ah yes, the whimsy and comedy of a woman committing suicide due to the guilt of attempted murder and grief over the death of her child.

Even after that happened, I was waiting for an additional twist... like she'd actually been pushed or something. It all just seemed so OOC for this show. Unless the actual aim was to reboot the show in the style of a bleak, Scandinavian crime thriller.

I too was really looking forward to this, and was hoping that it would be better than the Easter 2013 special. Unlike the reviewer, I thought that the audience being aware of how the murder occurred was odd, but in context it worked better than I would have expected. It allowed the 'Sherlock' style sleuthing of Ridley to be shown up and nonsense from the very start.

If I have a gripe, it was the changes that infected the Easter Special. I accept that Jonathan is now a great deal older than when this started and would have changed, but I do not think they have added to the show.

Creek is a man who create illusions for a living, he is unlucky in love and he lives like an eccentric recluse in a Windmill - those are part and parcel of the reason the character was so well loved. He is also a reluctant participant in solving the mystery, he has to be forced down that road, his wife Polly is unlikely, given her character, to be the one who does that.

Finally, does Alan Davies look a little like a man who has had enough of this - he looked bored and listless throughout. I will watch the others, and hope that it will regain some of its old vigour.

I actually said after the first bit of Sherlock parody "That was great but I hope they leave it there." They didn't. To be honest 90% of the acting was terrible even in the originals but that was part of why I loved it so any complaints there are pointless.

My main problem, I didn't like any of the characters outside of the main two.

I thought the writing was deplorable, the mystery was almost non existant, and the final plot piece at the end was just awful - the thought that someone would try to "comfort" their bereaved spouse with a surprise lurid affair is just psychopathic - I dont think anyone would be comforted or find it easier to move on and be happy to learn that their 20-30? year marriage had been a sham, her mother would have had to be mentally ill to think it would be a good idea! And what about the insane young mother - she was completely non- credible as she crazily stabbed the singer then expressed remorse before the knife was even out of her victem, all while her jealous husband "just happened" to be stalking them at the same moment- and the horrible and gratuitous sex scene between those two, there for literally no reason, almost turned my son gay as he wondered if women normally freak out about nothing during sex...This episode marked a terrible departure from Jonathan Creek's usual excellent mysteries!

I personally liked the mockery of Sherlock, which is a show I don't think bares any comparison with JC.

However, as much as I love David Renwick, the mysteries and revelations in this show were very dissapointing. The locked room mystery was essentially told to us; and the twist at the end, that the make up artist was actually responsible, wasn't exactly explained clearly. Septius Noone was neither set up well nor concluded well; whilst the one mystery that was set up well, the ashes bit, just turned out to be a joke in the end.

One thing I would say however, in response to some comments on here, is that I thought the last Easter special was still on a par with the other episodes; so that I hope this one episode was just a small aberation.
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I think you're missing something if you think Budget Holmes was just a sly pop at Sherlock. It was indeed a tongue-in-cheek parody but in the end just as much of a satire on Renwick's own work in early Creek (along with the robot vacuum cleaner). Renwick even had Sarah Alexander spell out early on precisely where the show was headed - "those are the very things we're trying to put behind us. It would be nice to live in the real world".

I enjoyed the episode overall, though the Alien references became a little laborious (but I did enjoy the very last one with the hosepipe).

I enjoyed it. yes there wasnt really much of a mystery to be solved but for a friday evening viewing it was fine.

Yeah, can't say I liked this episode myself. The turn around from the usual structure of Creek mysteries didn't do it any favours, especially with the boring, uninteresting subplots.

Also, did anyone else think the Ridley character bore a striking resemblance to the Doctor (particularly David Tennant's incarnation)?

That's kind of how I saw it (I also enjoyed it more than the last batch of Sherlock, although it's far off what both shows have been capable of in the past). It was re-establishing the characters and the setting, and I don't think it did too bad a job at that... although I do hope it gets meatier again next week.

I've been trying to work out why we see the murder happen - narratively speaking, I mean.

It's occurred to me, that the one thing it does contribute, is it means we, the viewer, know that all of Ridley's theories are horseshit. If we didn't know how it happened, we could be listening to the frozen blood thing and going, "Yeah, that sounds basically plausible by the rules of this show," but because we know he's wrong, there's no danger of that. We're all on the same page. We know that's ludicrous, and we know Jonathan's on the right track. Ridley's discredited from the off, and there's no doubt that Creek is the superior intellect, right from the start.

I think it did more to undermine the story than it did to help it. It means we never really met Rachel and Angus as characters - the only culprit Creek actually interacted with was the prosthetics bloke! You'd need to have completely rewritten the episode to get rid of it, though, but I can't say that wouldn't have been a better idea. All the other mysteries were really mundane. I mean, it's always been about unweaving magic tricks, but I always used to marvel at the brilliantly simple mechanisms. Stuff like the hollow door in the Scented Room. What was the one with the cursed egg, made of sugar or something? I think that might have been a Sawalha, but it really worked. It looked, for all the world, like a magic trick. Septimus' letters, on the other hand... the effect wasn't particularly magical, and the solution was incredibly normal. "Someone else wrote them." Well, yes.

I liked the bit with the vacuum cleaner. But there was no wonder at all, anywhere, which is a shame. I think all the problems with the ep are based squarely in the script. Nice direction, solid acting, but not enough to work with.

I'm fairly sure that a few years ago I came across a plot where a Noone turns out to be no one in either a sci-fi or a mystery story, but I can't recall anything else. Anyone?

I have to agree. Poorly written as this story was, turning Creek into a corporate sellout with a dull as dishwater fishwife who whinges whenever a mystery comes up to solve is is so head-scratchingly screwed up I am beginning to wonder if David Renwick hasn't lost the plot entirely.

Ha! I'm not alone! I sat there the whole episode going "He's channeling Tennant!"

Milton Jones has a joke on this; but my first gut reaction was that this idea had been used in One Foot in the Grave at one time.

I don't know whether or not that is true, but there were some other OFITG flashbacks here: the spilling of the ashes because the telephone rings and the hanging woman were both scenes from OFITG.

In the ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse, there was an office operating as a front for a criminal organization, which was registered under the name Ian Morris Noone. I would be pretty surprised if there weren't other examples.

Very poor. Utter drivel!

Well just watched JC on catch up. Not very good, in fact it hasn't been very good in years. The writing is sloppy, there's no mystery, no chemistry (SA is humourless and cold and AD looks more bored than ever). A dig at Sherlock was funny but wasn't replaced by JC's genius. The Davies/Quentin show was brilliant, it's been a law of diminishing returns ever since.

Thanks. That's not it, but in any case it's a proof that the idea wasn't the most original.

Thanks, it's not what I had in mind but if you can point me to a youtube clip with this joke I'd much appreciate it.

Tomasz that specific Milton Jones clip is banned due to copywright. Which is ironic since I think it's a very old idea to confound Noone and no one. I'm sure it will have been used elsewhere so that u could well have seen it before.

I could not disagree more, compared to the last few specials of JC this seemed like a delightful reboot. I'm not a fan of Sherlock and enjoyed the overt jabs at its all-conquering, oh-so-intelligent reign over the BBC at present. As a lifelong fan of Creek I'm glad to see the series back and thought this episode had more in common with the classic Quentin-era series than the lacklustre plots involving Sheridan Smith.

I watched it all, enjoyed it in the main but some bits of the story niggles me.. the mental health aspect was a bit dated.."crazy homicidal woman"..JC' s Mrs receiving text about her dad...and nobody thinking was was a strange way to get such news...and it seeming like JC was considered in the wrong for being annoyed by camera use in the theatre (but that's quite a personal bugbear which as a relatively passive person could cause me to go big green and full of rage!! ;-)))...miss the days of Quentin...the chemistry between her and Davies was electric...but it was watchable

I was really looking forward to seeing the new Jontahn creek. They told you the answer before the mystery? What happened!

Thanks again, Simon.

It came back to me now. It was in a novel by Michael Connelly. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, so I won't tell which one.

TBH I don't think there has been a really good episode of JC since the regular series stopped in 2004 and even then it didn't really recover fully from Caroline Quenten leaving IMHO.

Good honest review. I share many of Rachel's concerns about the current direction the series is going. It seems they are throwing away too much of the eccentricity that made the show so great in the first place. Not sure I would call Ridley a sidekick. Jonathan was very reluctant to have anything to do with him and he and Jonathan rarely share each other's company. As far as I can tell Creek comes up against a series of useless theorists throughout the series. Does anyone know if the rumour about Madeline returning is true?

My thoughts on why it was inverted: After working out the mechanics of the trick, Renwick realised there was a shortage of clues that could be analysed by Creek and the audience at home. The only really clue was the upside-down "Holmes" indicating that the painting was also upside down,but this was so glaringly obvious it would have been even more frustrating if we were truly playing along at home.

One other possibility; the show has a running through-line of things being reversed or shown the wrong way (the names, the desk), so maybe this was an attempt at a "theme".

I agree that, if you're going to invert a mystery, then it makes sense to focus more attention on the culprit and have them spar with the detective, Columbo style. But this would have been an even bigger departure for the character and the show.

As I said above, I didn't dislike it and actually preferred it to the episode you mention with the cursed egg (Gorgon's Wood, with its very unpleasant incest subplot) but I would obviously rate it far below the best this show has to offer.

Of all the puzzles in this though, I was rather dissatisfied with the vacuum cleaner one, if only because it would be very difficult for anyone to forget they had such a gadget.

I disagree about knowing the mystery beforehand. I was wondering why I was bothering to watch when I already knew what happened. Even if we hadn't seen what happened, it was a weak locked room mystery anyhow especially if you compare it with House of Monkeys or Jack In The Box. The sub-plots weren't much better - as soon as I saw Noone, I thought "no-one" (that play on words was used in The Librarian).

You are so right about the catastrophic changes to the character. Jonathan Creek was a weird loner who spent his time thinking up ways to saw women in half (I'm paraphrasing Maddy Magellan there). This new episode has taken away all his trade marks, what made him unique, the duffel coat, the windmill, the magic shows and left us with someone who works in advertising!

I also got really irritated with the none-too-subtle comparisons with Sherlock and the Tennant-Who lookalike. What was this? An hour long advert for those shows? Can we expect some crappy crossover with Sherlock further down the line? (God forbid.)

I really like Sarah Alexander, but the show has never really recovered from losing Caroline Quentin, who was the perfect foil to Creek's reluctant sleuth. It was just starting to gain momentum again with Sheridan Smith, but the character of Polly is just boring.

This episode was watchable but like most of the BBC's output lately, can be put firmly in the category of meh.

I saw it in The Librarian. The main character was told to trust no-one who turned out to be Nicole Noone.

Yeah, have to agree with your comments. There seemed to be a profusion of really not-very-funny jokes. Was the part where the mother grieving over the death of her baby and hanging herself supposed to be an amusing end to Ridley's Sherlock moment? Really didn't work.

Reminds me of David Renwick's other series, Love Soup, which started off brilliant and clever and descended into a collection of poor taste sex jokes in series 2.

I guess it has been used very frequently before!!!

I think that too many people expected a Sherlock Clone, and because we didn't get yet another "locked room mystery" with the continuing diminishing returns of their explanations, they were disappointed.
The fact that you finally get to see the mystery up front is a departure that would obviously have been in Renwick's mind as potentially divisive, but when you look at how far fetched Sherlock has had to become in three short series to up the game in the stakes of "just look how bloody clever Sherlock is" its nice to see a shake up, and with plenty of tiny little 'how did they do that" gags to keep the mind occupied, it allowed the show to pretty much reboot as this isn't simply a "Special" lie we've only had for a decade now, but the first part of a new series.
That's why they are establishing his new digs at the old house, and new dynamics around the characters.
There's no Maddie Magellan or Adam Klaus any more, no Windmill, and what it looks like we are getting here is David Renwicks "Empty House". Having thought that he'd effectively killed off his old character, (by modernising him and moving him on, with fewer episodes over longer periods... he probably considered the whole thing over and done) he's now having to reintegrate him into a TV society that now expects "clever detective shows" to have Sherlockesque mad-cap antics resulting in the great man making some obtuse leap of logic, and stunning everyone with his big brain.
The fact that the attempted murder bears a passing similarity to the babbling nonsense of the stabbings in the second episode of this last series of Sherlock, yet actually seemed like it took place in the real world of physics and stuff, made me glad we didn't get another round of the sort of cock and bull Ridley was spouting throughout.

I agree.
Jonathan Creek IS a comedy series. But it's the same sense of hunour that made One Foot such a success. it;s NOT Terry and June, or Fools and Horses.
If it's not to someone's taste or sense of humour, then they shouldn't blame it for not being bloody Sherlock, the biggest "joke" of the last three episodes being the one where Holmes tortured Watson over their imminent death in an exploding train, after hilariously dressing up as a comedy waiter to surprise him with the revelation that he was alive...
When Renwick was given the gig originally he didn't work with BBC Drama, as he wanted to work with people he knew from his comedy work. he felt the people at Drama might try to alter his vision, and that was why JC has always had a very dark sense of humour.
I have a funny feeling that this episode was D.R. thumbing his nose a little at the high heejuns of the BBC.
I imagine a scenario where the BBC wanted more Sherlock, realised there's Bob Hope of them getting more than 3/2years or so, and then some bright spark remembered 15 or so years ago, when Sherlock was called Jonathan Creek.
I can envision the meeting...
"David, we'd like you to do a new series of JC, but make it a bit more like Sherlock eh..."
"How much you offering?"
*scribbling figure on a piece of paper* "Is that enough"
"That'll do nicely! So you want it to have a Sherlock element eh? I can do that... " *aside" "Tossers..." (Immediately makes notes on the character of Ridley.)

No... no...
The Mystery was the letters.
I know it might not have appeared so to some while watching, but the clue was there in the title:

"The Letters of Septimus Noone"
NOT
"The Mysterious Stabbing of Juno"

The stabbing, (along with Jonathans realisation that the twist on the name was a clue to "Orez" which was in turn a hint at No One) was simply a part of the bigger picture.
All the little mysteries had hints to the bigger mystery that was turned slightly in it not being the blood soaked stabbing but.the far more personal, and character driven question of Polly's mother's infidelity.
We've been lulled into thinking that for a mystery to be important to the story it has to be the most outrageous crime in the story.

Renwick has probably been a bit too clever for his own good, well, certainly for a lot of viewers who seem to have missed the point a bit.

Locked Room mystery stories have been twisted, tweaked, and re used dozens, nay hundreds, of times in literature, TV and movies.
The UK's current most popular detective series gets away with flat out rehashing one author's body of work and is loved for it, and they achieve this by making a virtue of it. (Or should that be a "Vertue"? *sorry*).
I'm pretty sure that given the breadth of detective fiction in all it's forms out there, (US TV series kicking out 20+ "mysteries" per year each) you show me something "Original" form the last 5 or even 10 years, and I bet I can find a similar plot that's already been done, that will suggest it isn't that original after all.

I kept falling asleep. Absolutely no tension, and the humour felt about as tired as Alan Davies looked.

Why did no one comment on the lack of belly button in the star`s last appearance with the flesh-coloured "corset" around her midriff?

To be honest, I didn't set out to criticize the episode or the writer for lack of originality but it didn't help the overall weaker than usual story. I do appreciate Mr Renwick for coming up with so many inventive and diverse ways to kill someone in a locked room.

So, it's perhaps unfair to be harsh on Mr Renwick for slipping up and being less than original when everybody else is doing the same, but I don't see myself overly excited to see a show described as a rehash of tired old plots and 'unexpected' twists that have been done to death. As you point out the letters were the main mystery, so given that the same plot device was used at least three or four times by the last count, who could've guessed the identity of Mr Noone as soon as they saw the title? No one.

Since you clearly refer to Sherlock, I think there is a not so subtle difference between rehashing plots and retelling stories for modern audience. If anything, Mssrs Gatiss and Moffat have proved themselves to be very clever writers by injecting so much fresh blood into the grandfather of crime mysteries that it captured the hearts of millions, though a lot of credit has to go to the crisp visual narrative and the chemistry between the actors/characters in Sherlock. Can you say the same about the chemistry between Jonathan and his wife?

great partnership?? There is zero chemistry between the two main characters, and given her shrewish, materialistic nature there is no way those two would have ended up together anyway. She spends her entire time blaming him for everything and trying to turn him into an 80s banker type. And if the plot is given away in the beginning, there is nothing for the viewer to do, except sit. The sidekick is so over the top he is just irritating.
A pale shadow of what the series used to be.

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