Jonathan Creek: The Judas Tree review

A one-off special episode of Jonathan Creek, does The Judas Tree leave us thirsting for more? Here's our review...

Two young women are driving through the countryside in the summer of 1980. Unsure of their whereabouts, one of the girls, Emily suggests asking for directions at a nearby house. Just seconds later the house mysteriously disappears… Then she is molested by a old man crawling around in a field.

So to the present. Emily, now a very attractive fortysomething, is recruited as assistant housekeeper to noted crime writer Hugo Dore and his family. Whilst being shown her duties, Emily is warned about a strange unsolved Victorian murder mystery by wise old Mrs Gantry, the family’s long-serving housekeeper. One of the property’s former owners was killed whilst sitting alone in the middle of the lawn some 130 years before, and died in mysterious circumstances at a precisely predicted time.

History appears to repeat itself when through a whole series of carefully constructed events and a clever build up of circumstantial evidence, Emily finds herself in the frame for murder. Can Jonathan Creek’s theories convince the jury and save Emily from imprisonment? Why has Emily been framed? What, exactly, is the significance of the Judas Tree? And… who is victimising Adam Klaus with spoof Internet videos?

The Judas Tree is the much-anticipated new episode of Jonathan Creek, a welcome if increasingly rare treat. Alan Davies and Sheridan Smith return as Jonathan Creek and Joey Ross in this Easter special which features guest appearances from Paul McGann as Hugo Dore, Natalie Walter as Emily Somerton, Doreen Mantle as Mrs Gantry and Ian McNeice as Father Alberic,

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Alan Davies seems very comfortable playing the tousled, windmill-dwelling, master of the inexplicable. Like an old pair of slippers, Davies is clearly happy to don the duffel coat once more. Over the years, Creek has become more sage-like. Initially he was the quiet but cerebal magician’s assistant often infuriating Caroline Quentin’s journalist Maddy McGellan. These days he is vaguely irritated by Joey Ross’ neverending “thinking out loud” approach to solving the case in hand. As always the viewer wants to know what he is thinking.

Back for another Creek outing is Sheridan Smith then, a ballsy northern actress, familiar from The Royle Family, Two Pints…, Love Soup and the excreble Grown-Ups. Suffice to say Joey too is a ballsy northern girl, the inevitable feisty and spirited foil to the laid-back Creek.

To be fair, the show needs a sparky character to illicit Creek’s theories, so adept has Alan Davies become at being a slow, thoughtful reactor to events. Sheridan Smith is reunited with Paul McGann, star of the audio Doctor Who adventures in which Smith played ballsy, northern and feisty (just for a change) Lucy Miller. Typecast? Maybe, but surely there are other archetypes David Renwick could have used when redefining the sidekick role.

Carrying much of the exposition, Smith’s character theorises to the point of distraction. It’s almost a relief when she finds herself stuck in a ming vase! Davies’ Creek, by contrast, appears to be almost the voice of sanity (albeit one voicing rather difficult to believe scenarios!).

Natalie Walter is vulnerable and frightened in equal measure as the edgy Emily Somerton. The always excellent Paul McGann as Hugo Dore doesn’t appear that much but always holds the attention when he does. Sasha Behar as Dore’s charmless wife Harriet, portrays a mixture of deviousness and unsentimental coldness, arguably losing some subtlety along the way as she telegraphs the idea she is “not a likeable character”.

Doreen Mantle, with whom David Renwick worked on One Foot In The Grave, is suitably spooky as Mrs Gantry. Like One Foot‘s Mrs Warboys, Mrs Gantry is never prone to tact, she clearly knows more than she should. Heavyweight actor Ian McNeice (soon to be seen as Winston Churchill, no less, in the forthcoming Doctor Who story Victory of The Daleks) is delightfully eccentric as the concerned local parish priest Father Alberic.

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One major reservation about the plot, which is typically non-linear and generally well constructed, is the ‘convenient’ use of a character unseen and not even mentioned hitherto as quite an important part of ‘the reveal’. One almost feels cheated as without this key bit of information it is almost impossible to establish what happened in the summer of 1980. That said, the explanation is a marvellous reversal of a natural assumption made when we are initially introduced to the two girls.

Meanwhile, in a frankly dispensable subplot, magician and ageing lothario, Adam Klaus (Stuart Milligan), is the victim of an online joker capitalising on an unfortunate racist remark Klaus made whilst working for Magic Relief. The revelation of the perpetrator is hardly a surprise.

It seems apt though that Jonathan Creek should be BBC1’s Easter Day treat. Creek has always been something of a televisual treat to be savoured. It was transmitted in relatively short seasons from its first appearance back in 1997. Part of its continued success can be attributed to the fact this, always compelling slice of hokum, never outstays its welcome. The death of Executive Producer Verity Lambert in 2007 cast doubt on the future of the series. Alan Davies in particular was badly effected by the loss of the legendary producer.

This adventure is only the second since the show returned from a five-year break with The Grinning Man, 2009’s New Year special. It’s fair to say the show is in safe hands, writer David Renwick ensuring his vision makes it to the screen intact by taking the director’s chair once more. Intriguing, confident, engaging and perplexing in equal measure with just a dash of magic, Jonathan Creek proves perfect holiday fare.