Warning: this review contains spoilers.
The last full series of Jonathan Creek, back in 2014, divided critics and audience; at the time our own reviewer complained that the central mysteries lacked the intricacy and peril of previous instalments, and there was a feeling that the spark had gone out of the show ever since Creek put away his duffel coat and moved out of the windmill.
The signs are there from the outset that this is going to be a more exciting affair: a big spooky house, a mystery involving several deaths and a Satanic ritual, and of course a delicious sizzle reel for the Hammer-esque films of Ken Bones’ schlocky director Nathan Clore. It’s a jarring but thrilling teaser that grabs the attention and sets the tone for the next ninety minutes; the only shame is that the script doesn’t lean more heavily into the Hammer parody tone.
All of the elements are in place for a slice of classic Creek, though it takes the titular detective nearly half of the special’s running time to get properly involved. To help fill out the time we are introduced to Warwick Davis’ Reverend Wilkie, Jonathan Creek’s self-proclaimed biggest fan. It’s an obvious comic turn by the ubiquitous Davis, but if you’re a fan of his work you’ll find a perfectly charming performance here – which is just as well, as the reverend is given the bulk of the heavy lifting for the first forty minutes, and there are times when you wonder whether you’re watching The Warwick Davis Mystery Hour (programme commissioners, you know where to find me).
The reason for Creek’s early absence from the case is the interference of his wife Polly, played once again by Sarah Alexander. For such a talented comic actress, it was disappointing in the 2014 series that Polly’s role was usually that of wet blanket, rolling her eyes and haranguing Creek for getting involved in a case. Polly has mercifully mellowed slightly, and over the course of Daemons’ Roost, we see her become more intrigued by and involved with the case; eventually they settle into a relationship more akin to the dynamic that worked so well between Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin in the early series.
An episode of Jonathan Creek lives or dies on the strength of its mysteries, and it feels like writer David Renwick has been saving them up: the impossible powers of a 19th-century Satanist, the tragic and unexplained deaths of a mother and two of her children, the last message of an muted film director (some fantastic eye work from Ken Bones, there)… Even the mystery of the striped unicorn, which at first just seems thrown in as a bonus mystery for the first half of the episode, proves to be not only tragically relevant to the story but a clever subversion of the format.
And for the most part, the payoff is worth the wait. A few of the smaller mysteries are a bit disappointing – the ‘phoney’ reveal feels like a particular stretch – but the secret of the sorcerer is brilliant in its obvious simplicity, as all the best mysteries are once they’re revealed. But by far Renwick’s cleverest stroke is the reveal that Ryman isn’t Nina’s husband; the characters – and by extension the audience – happily assume that the pair are married, and so the ‘twist’ comes as a real rug-pull moment that leaves everyone feeling a tad guilty.
There’s one subplot that really doesn’t seem to work, though, and that’s the ‘return’ of the murderer from Series 1 episode The House Of Monkeys (the one where Jonathan and Maddy briefly ended up in bed together), who has been released from prison and is hell bent on revenge. There are a number of problems with this part of the special: firstly, the villain is presented as a mindless psychopath, with even less depth than your standard Power Rangers monster; secondly, he’s such a disposable presence (once he’s fulfilled his plot function of getting Jonathan and Polly to Daemons’ Roost) that Jonathan callously and entirely nonchalantly lets him burn to death and nobody bats an eyelid; and thirdly, the basic facts are wrong – a quick Google reveals that the killer in The House Of Monkeys was called Alister Tyree, not Patrick as shown here.
This may seem like a nitpick out of keeping with the festive season, but the whole subplot leaves a bad aftertaste at the end of a rather good episode of Jonathan Creek. It really feels like the ship has course corrected after the last series, and Daemons’ Roost reminds us how compelling the show can be. And with no closure in sight (outside of a final glimpse of the windmill), perhaps there’s life in the old duffel coat yet.