It’s been two years since Jonathan Creek was last on our TV screens and it’s a reunion that comes with some apprehension, after several lacklustre years of less-than-enchanting crime-solving. Even if you don’t want to watch more Creek, it’s hard not to fall into the traditions of old and bask in the nostalgia – despite it not being festive in any way, how fitting that our old duffle-coated friend Jonathan Creek should shuffle back into our living rooms at Christmas. Daemons’ Roost, though, is a return to form for the series.
The first giveaway is the opening sequence, which sees a masked sorcerer levitating men from a cage in a dungeon into a pit of fire, complete with over-the-top music, garish effects and extreme camera angles. It’s a stylish, unabashedly silly Hammer Horror tribute, the first time the show has so explicitly gone for scares – the wonderfully chosen theme tune of Danse Macabre has never seemed so appropriate. That renewed sense of energy is everywhere, from the central puzzle that needs to be solved to Creek himself.
The puzzle, it turns out, it actually two mysteries in one. We begin with the arrival of Stephen and Alison Belkin at the Gothic country home of her estranged father. He, we learn, is the director of that introductory film, and has summoned Alison back to the estate to tell her the truth about the seemingly spooky death of her mother and sisters years before. Unfortunately, he’s had a stroke since he sent the letter and can now only communicate in glances. Fortunately, Stephen remembers a man who once helped him with a similarly strange incident.
That’s the second case: The Striped Unicorn Affair, which saw Stephen falsely accused of bumping off his wife. “The striped eunuch on a ferry?” asks Jonathan’s wife, Polly Creek (Sarah Alexander), right on cue. It’s a relief to see that creator David Renwick still has his pun hat on, decades after Creek’s first outing – but not as much of a relief to see that his witty eye for strange-but-true mysteries is sharper than it has been for some time.
The reveals – both about the unicorn, the family secrets and even a bit to do with the practical effects of Hammer Horror movies, are genuinely clever and satisfying, something that hasn’t been true of Creek’s later years. (It helps that director Sandy Johnson has 10 episodes of Creek under his arm, so knows his way around a locked room.) The sense of humour, meanwhile – one joke about cotton-picking aside – feels fresher than normal, too, helped by an eager supporting turn by Warwick Davis as a local reverend who is a little too fond of Creek’s golden days. He ensures there’s a constant drip of references to past episodes throughout, a gag that manages to stay just on the right side of self-indulgent and smug – helped by a genuinely amusing bit involving a failed magic trick. (Is there anything more British than Warwick Davis fudging a magic trick in the middle of a rural murder mystery?)
It’s telling, though, that his name-drops tend to hark back to the days of Caroline Quentin, whose sidekick, Maddie, was the secret key to the programme’s success back in the 1990s. That only highlights even further the failure of Polly to step into those shoes. She’s not the first to try, but the co-star role remains the biggest flaw of modern Creek, with Jonathan’s wife devoid of any real character apart from that moniker: she’s ostensibly a skeptic who wants him to move on with his life, but still seems to investigate cases with him quite happily. The result is disappointingly two-dimensional, giving the excellent Alexander little to do other than deliver the above unicorn joke. This is far from the actor’s first outing in Creekville, so it’s frankly unforgiveable that Renwick still hasn’t worked out what to do with her.
His balance of past and present, though, has rarely been better, a mix that’s echoed by the show’s lead, whose ageing only adds to the worn-in feel of the amateur sleuth. Nobody half-finishes dialogue and stares into the bewildered distance quite like Alan Davies, and he’s still got the ability to convince you that Creek’s agile mind really can flip things on their side, no matter how ridiculous the resulting answers may be. It’s that which makes the difference between a Creeky TV show and a creaky one, and this is the Creekiest the Beeb’s detective series has been for a long time. Even a rushed final act is offset by a surprisingly melancholic conclusion, which introduces a tender bit of family history, as Jonathan is urged by Polly to throw away his old belongings. A fun piece of brain-teasing nonsense that proves there are still new depths for Creek’s character to explore? Daemons’ Roost is return to solid form for Jonathan Creek that actually makes you want to see more. After the 2014 series, that really is a magic trick worth savouring.
Jonathan Creek: Daemons’ Roost is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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