Jonathan Creek (on) Acid
"In this case, from the effect it had both times, I'd say a particular kind of poison, like some sort of bad acid, something that would kill him, but would turn his brain inside out along the way." (Jonathan Creek)
Read more: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=jonathan-creek-1997&episode=s01e05
So I was watching this old episode of Jonathan Creek(y) the other day, called House of Monkeys.
It’s not nearly as fun as it sounds. The monkeys don’t really make many appearances (apart from providing some Ace Ventura inspired cuteness). There is also an animatronic gorilla that shows up. According to David Renwick, writer, this beast was pinched from a John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle called Fierce Creatures, and used to fill in for the two chimpanzees he had had planned. The unfortunate robo-ape plunges from a not-so-high stairway during the episode — rather an unbelievable death . It also features One Foot in the Grave’s Annette Crosbie, who looks like she’s longing to escape from this jerky gibberish and run back to the comfortable angst and carping of Victor Meldrew (God rest his soul).
And someone’s poisoned by a fairly nondescript psychedelic whilst licking an envelope and ends up impaled on a samurai sword.
There’s a lot to dislike about this episode. The thinly stretched plot, misuse of TV animals, the 90s BBC obsession for adding a “sex” plot-line even if it isn’t that necessary or interesting…but a thing that really ground my metallic-gorilla gears most was this line that you could see at the top:
In this case, from the effect it had both times, I’d say a particular kind of poison, like some sort of bad acid, something that would kill him, but would turn his brain inside out along the way. (Jonathan Creek)
What exactly is our eponymous sleuth jabbering about? Bad acid man. We are never told exactly what kills “Elliot” or “Doctor Strange” (yes he’s really called that) but sure as hell it’s one of those…..super-dangerous-drugs-that-the-kids-are-taking-that-don’t-need-explaining-or-thinking-about-rationally. The drug is “something that would kill him, but would turn his brain inside out along the way.” Along the way? Licking the “poisoned” envelope, deliriously climbing onto a bookshelf, falling onto an antique sword and then staggering around pinioned-unto-death takes the victim all in all: 1 minute 32. That’s a lot of kill, and not much way.
Ok so this murder mystery was probably in competition with whatever ITV had on that night (I have tried to figure this out exactly, but searching through old TV listings hurt my eyes). Our expectations may not be that high (or at least not as high as poor Elliot). But really. Not only is the rather ridiculous recreation of an acid trip (where the intimidating suit of samurai armour doesn’t freak the victim out, and yet a menacing bookshelf does?) completely cheap looking, it’s a crappy end to a crime caper. Then we learn about the person who committed the murder:
"Within three days, forensic investigation "confirmed Tyree, an unemployed graduate "with convictions for radical activity and drug trafficking, "as the missing link in the strange case of Elliot Strange and the House of Monkeys.
Read more: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=jonathan-creek-1997&episode=s01e05
Oh right so it was political activists that done it (ho-ho and “missing link?” Very punny, very punny indeed). Police took weeks to figure out the devious means involved in the Skripal poisoning in 2018. And we’re supposed to believe that our malevolent envelope-lacing felon was identified in three days??? In 1997? You’re having a laugh (forensic drug testing normally takes about 4 to 6 weeks — yes I’m a nerd and checked. Unless they found some other major clue to the murderer’s identity. But seeing as all we’re given is the bad acid as a clue, we haven’t much to go on).
Moreover, it’s established in the episode that “Elliot Strange” was unpopular for his treatment of animals. The victim had no suicidal intent expressed, and no poisons are listed as being in the house, or found in a police search. The only thing we know about him is that he’s a creepy old clinician with a fetish for oriental weaponry. With that in mind — let’s say that the toxicology for the murder did eventually come back from forensics and bad acid was found to be the cause. The finger then points to “Tyree,” or someone like him. And so… what exactly was the role of our Jonathan in this “saga?” Did we really watch this whole sorry affair because having a magic-loving misanthrope trudge through your house is a week or two quicker than using a laboratory? Considering that (IRL) people have been poisoned with things ranging from food, to doorknobs, to the tips of umbrellas, and the fact that this guy “Strange Elliot” had enemies, the feds would have got there eventually. House of Monkeys is not on quite the same “mystery” level as a lot of other Jonathan Creek adventures, where no police officer has a chance of knowing WTF is going on. It took a sniffling recluse with a penchant for conjuring tricks to figure them out. This is just lazy as episodes go.
But this is not the crux of my problem with the episode, or the thing that made me go a bit ape-poo-poo. Did you see the way “unemployed graduate” “convictions for radical activity” and “drug trafficking” were all thrown together? It’s like an orgy of headlines with decidedly Daily Mail-esque dimensions. Fair enough —in the real world animal rights activists have targeted doctors who do experiments — it’s not such a massive leap. But the glib profile we are given for the fictional “Tyree,” is an utter hack job. He’s a bit of a Schrodinger's fictional villain in some senses, in that he is both utterly incompetent (his bad acid killing the gorilla) whilst also devilishly ingenious. You can just imagine Renwick coming up with the profile:
Hmm well, a malevolent pensioner from Stoke who loves macaques just doesn’t quite do it. So let’s make them unemployed (see layabout and probably bitter), with some convictions for (highly undetermined but no doubt fiendish) radical activity. And they also need to be a drug trafficker? Cos that sounds a lot more dangerous than just someone who takes just drugs. They probably sell them to 10-year-old school girls as well. Plus, they obviously need a big income to brew up this killer LSD shit (that rather miraculously kills people in 1 minute 32 seconds). That’s perfect! I have my Moriarty!
I guess it’s worth situating this episode historically, rather than just knocking it for:
1. Its overall lameness.
2. Its right-wing, lazy attitude to young people and drugs, (despite a lot of his JC episodes I like Renwick’s writing).
BBC viewing at the time was tightly packaged for the terrestrial TV market. Self-contained stories, like the ones in Jonathan Creek episodes, were the televisual norm — so plots needed wrapping up, however unbelievably. Furthermore looking at the political culture of those years, 1998 saw the government introduce the Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain document. It focused highly on “the yout,” and their drug behaviours. Section (i) is entitled: Young People — To Help Young People Resist Drug Misuse in Order to Achieve Their Full Potential in Society. Alongside well-meaning attempts to offer treatment to repeat drug offenders, is an underlying worry: if you do drugs you will end up a drain on society and not find your productive place within capitalism. I think those sorts of fears are underlying Renwick’s story.
We were (and still are) in that time period which liked to pick on “single mums,” and “dole scroungers,” and “lazy students” and anyone who might not fit into the stable job and a respectable family ideal. Those kinds of ideas would have (and yes…they still are) been floating around at the time of writing. Drugs, nearly always in prime-time, TV reality, are a signifier for evil (unless they’re prescription of course — that’s fine). In 1997, they certainly weren’t a way to cope with the banality of Cool Britannia, or to tune out from oppressive marketing and messaging, or find any kind of connection with people through a new, shared experience, or enhance or feelings around music or dance. They were and are, to quote a new cartoon comedy new on the scene in the very same year:
But life is not so simple.
I remember walking around a playground at the age of about 10 or 11, talking to a slightly more streetwise friend of mine. He told me about a story about someone who was probably the friend of a friend’s gardener’s uncle’s grandmother’s hairdresser, (or some equally long degree of separation). This person had taken LSD and thought that they were an orange…running around asking people to peel them. I remember being horrified, whilst also very amused. But that story was about as realistic a narrative as most of the chats we had about drugs and during school. No discussion of effects and feelings. Sentences that began with “DO NOT” and “YOU MUST.”
We weren’t supposed to ever be that mythical, self-degrading person, mistaking ourselves for citrus fruits. We were supposed to preparing for university, a good job, and…
Oh, wait the bankers screwed up everything in 2007.
You can go, as many people did go, from being that 2.4 children rearing, estate car driving, mortgage-paying head of the family, to wrack, ruin and suicide at the whim of the international market. In the lick of an envelope.
To return to House of Elliot (Strange), it’s an interesting piece of naff entertainment. I have spent a lot of time in this blog knocking Jonathan Creek. Whilst I feel it deserves those knocks here, (and I resisted the urge to get into the annoying, romantic fumbling between “Jonathan” and “Maddy”) it did provoke in me a thought or two. I feel perhaps this is a late point in the blog to get all philosophical but…
At the level of the plot: 1. A group of people (“Doctor Strange” and family) choose to live their unconventional life (surrounded by monkeys and a gorilla) in a way that could definitely be classed as a limit experience (an experience at the edge of what we consider polite and/or possible, that we might do to find out more about ourselves or what we consider enjoyable). But this experience is made possible by the scientific, respectable background of “Doctor Strange” and his wife. Their life is weird but stable. UNTIL…2. Another type of limit experience, in this case a powerful hallucinogen, kills “Strange” — something totally from outside and unexpected (it would seem). This feels in some way like a morality tale. Too much pleasure and indulgence can be a terrible thing. The bad acid is not just supposed to be a threat to life, but also a threat to your existential being — it messes with your head and makes your behaviour unconducive to living in the neo-liberal, capitalist Present.
The monkeys, the drugs, the unconventional sexual relationship between “Strange” and his daughter-in-law (another plot point I had to ignore for this blog)… Renwick / Creek is punishing a transgression and telling us in his nasal, disapproving voice:
Drugs are not part of the acceptable realm of experiences. Feel free to be an eccentric with dangerous interests, but don’t be one of these freaks who ends up on drugs. You went too far. Magic is, after all, just an illusion. One shouldn’t dream the impossible, or escape too far from this life of drudgery. Just grow sour and petulant and live in a cold, old windmill like me.
There are norms to what we consider reasonable enjoyment, and even though we might think we’re safe, there’s always a price to being a hedonist. And hanging out with a great big gorilla of course.
Bad acid man.
LINKS / REFERENCES:
Jonathan Creek (1997) s01e05 Episode Script | SS
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