These ‘lost days’ between Christmas and New Year have got me thinking that the second best thing to cosying up with a good Christmas crime book at this time of year, sprawled on the sofa in your pyjamas, eating chocolate and drinking your favourite tipple, is doing all of the above but watching a Christmas Special of your favourite TV Crime Series.
I love mysteries and puzzles and I (mostly!) love winter and Christmas so combine them all and I am one Happy Bunny.
Just like Imogen!
Where better to start than with a classic: Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, featuring David Suchet as the archetypal Poirot. It’s a quintessential country house murder mystery, set during a snowy Christmas week, with Christie’s trademark clever plotting, red herrings, suspicious characters and despicable victim.
This episode of ITV’s Poirot is from 1994 so is without some of the glitz, glamour and big-name stars of some of the later adaptations but it is relatively faithful to the novel, bar a couple of tweaks for timing and series continuity (i.e. including Inspector Japp instead of Colonel Johnson), and is full of twists and secrets and a festive feuding family.
Honourable mentions go to The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (filmed in 1991 as Poirot: The Theft of the Royal Ruby), for more snow-covered yuletide shenanigans, as well as 2004’s Marple: The 4.50 from Paddington which, although not particularly Christmassy, is set over the festive period and Marple: The Sittaford Mystery from 2006 which, despite being absolutely nothing like the book, features a spooky winter murder and a cast of suspects snowed-in at a Dartmoor hotel.
Much more modern, but still full of classic mystery, is Jonathan Creek, one of my all-time favourites which currently has four festive specials to choose from, all of which are brilliant!
The first, 1998’s Black Canary, contains at least three separate puzzles and includes a magic trick gone gruesomely wrong, a body that appears to have been dead hours before it could possibly have been so and some mysterious alternative medicine – all within the perfect setting of a snowy country house.
Black Canary is lead by the original pairing of Jonathan (Alan Davies) and investigative journalist Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin) and has guest stars including Hannah Gordon, Kate Isitt, Sanjeev Bhaskar and the wonderful and still very much missed Rik Mayall.
The 2001 Christmas special, Satan’s Chimney, is the first episode to feature America-bound Maddy’s replacement, Julia Sawalha as theatrical agent Carla Borrego. Again it features multiple mysteries – including the 16th Century Catholic torture of Protestants, a present-day locked-room murder and a disappearing escapologist – as well as supporting roles for Bill Bailey, Elliot Cowan, Bill Ward and Steven Berkoff.
New Year’s Day 2009 saw JC return after a five-year absence in The Grinning Man, including Sheridan Smith’s first appearance as Joey Ross, ‘paranormal investigator’, and Jonathan’s employer, illusionist Adam Klaus (Stuart Milligan), making an amusing investment in 3-D porn…
Less humorous aspects of the episode include the repeated and unexplained disappearance of house-guests from the ‘haunted’ attic of a gothic mansion, the kidnapping and possible death of a magician’s assistant and the malign influence of a creepy painting – the titular Grinning Man. Stars include Katherine Parkinson, Ciarán McMenamin, Nicholas Boulton and Judy Parfitt.
The most recent special is 2016’s Daemons’ Roost (marking a return to form after a dodgy Series 5) featuring Jonathan and his wife, Polly, played by the lovely Sarah Alexander, investigating strange goings on and suspicious deaths at (surprise surprise!) a macabre isolated house. Featuring Warwick Davis.
Back in more cosy territory is Midsomer Murders. Although this series has now been running for nearly 21 years and has racked up well over 100 episodes, it has only had two explicitly Christmassy episodes.
First up is 2004’s Ghosts of Christmas Past which features the original Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, Tom (John Nettles), his second Sergeant, Dan Scott (John Hopkins), the usual supporting characters and a guest cast including Kevin Doyle, Lydia Leonard and Haydn Gwynne. In this episode, the dispersed Villiers clan and friends meet for Christmas in their crumbling pile, reunited for the first time in nine years following a family tragedy, but festive fun turns to fear and tempers fray when a threatening note is found in a Christmas cracker…
It is perfectly set in a big, snow-covered, country house and the central plot is full of buried secrets, family tensions and a deep sadness. Fortunately, the mood is somewhat lightened by scenes of a Barnaby family Christmas, complete with in-laws and light-hearted mysteries and mischievous secrets of their own.
2013’s The Christmas Haunting features the second DCI Barnaby, John (Neil Dudgeon), and the debut of the first ‘not-Jones’ of the series, DS Charlie Nelson, played by Gwilym Lee (FYI, Ben Jones was the best Midsomer Sergeant ever, FACT). The plot balances spooky murders during ghost hunts, infidelity and family tensions (natch) with a comic subplot concerning the imminent arrival of the Barnaby baby and how this will impact on the family dog, Sykes. The top cast includes Mark Heap, Emily Joyce, James Murray, Elizabeth Berrington and Les Dennis!
Finally, two quick shout outs:
Firstly, to the two Christmas episodes of the gentle, warm-hearted, 1950s-set Father Brown. In 2016’s The Star of Jacob, the probing priest solves the case of a baby kidnapped from his parents’ Christmas party as well as sorting out the problems caused by laryngitis in the church choir. In this year’s The Tree of Truth, he rights a past miscarriage of justice while starring in the local pantomime. Both the Christmas episodes have been on TV in the last week or two and are still be available on the BBC iPlayer.
And, while it’s not always strictly crime, the macabre geniuses behind Inside No. 9, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, did a cracking yuletide episode last year, The Devil of Christmas, featuring Jessica Raine and Rula Lenska. If you think you can cope, it’s still on the BBC iPlayer, but be warned: just when you think it’s got as weird as it can…know that it hasn’t…
Those are the recommendations I’ve come up with this week, although I’m sure there’s loads that I’ve missed!
I hope you enjoy some of these suggestions and that you have a happy rest of the festive season.
(And – with regard to the last one – don’t have nightmares!)