The John Bensalhia column: Come back, Jonathan Creek!
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It's time to end the disappearing act for one of Britain's best-loved amateur sleuths...
One minute there's a Christmas present. The next minute it's taken away from you. Presumably, the sizeable army of Jonathan Creek fans found this when rumours of a 2012 Christmas special recently surfaced on the web. Alas, it turned out to be a false hope, since the main man himself Alan Davies said that the news was no more than a rumour and that nothing had been set up to compete alongside Time Lord festivities, Brucie's frosty-looking wig and Scrooge-esque happenings in Albert Square.
So what is it about Jonathan Creek that still brings the viewers back for more? The last Christmas special, The Grinning Man (broadcast in 2009) gained nearly 10 million viewers, a strong showing for the festive competition, suggesting that there was still a healthy demand for the unassuming fellah in the duffle coat. Basically, for the most part, it's a two-pronged mystery. Not only can it feature whodunnit elements, it also runs along Columbo-tested lines of posing a howdunnit as well. The episodes present an apparently implausible scenario – An arthritic man commits suicide in a closed-off bunker with no way out. A valuable porcelain statue is stolen in front of several witnesses. A smarmy rich bloke returns from the grave after falling to his doom. So part of the fun of Jonathan Creek is to deduce not only the perpetrator of the crime, but also how the crime was rigged in the first place.
Much like deducing an impossible magic trick, but Jonathan Creek himself isn't your average showy, flashy wizard. That's left to egotistical showman Adam Klaus – Jonathan devises the fiendishly clever stage tricks from behind the scenes. And with that in mind, Jonathan's not quite your archetypal TV hero either. This is a man who walks around in a grubby old duffel coat, lives a quasi-reclusive existence in a Sussex windmill and has the haircut of – uh, well, I guess me, when I was three years old in 1977.
Creek is another good example of writer David Renwick's anti-hero leading characters. Many of Renwick's works revolve around a main protagonist who's frequently bemused and cynical of the modern world, whether it's Victor Meldrew bellowing “I don't believe it!” in One Foot In The Grave or Alice Chenery tutting quietly from behind a cosmetics sales counter in Love Soup. And of course, there's Jonathan, the cynical anti-hero writ large. Don't forget, the first episode went out in 1997, when beery laddism ruled supreme. Turn on the TV, and there'd be Chris Evans or Johnny Vaughan braying at boorish audience oafs. Switch on the radio, and there would be the Gallagher brothers rolling with it. Even if you'd visited your local pub in the summer before, you wouldn't be able to move for bellowing tattooed giants crowing along to Three Lions. So plonk a quietly spoken, fiendishly clever chap in the middle of all this in-yer-face '90s madness, and you have a recipe for Renwick genius.
"He's not your typical cop who throws angry killers around like cricket balls. No, he's a quietly reflective genius who's a return to the traditional old detectives such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, who solve the mystery with pinpoint precision"
Jonathan does not conform to the traditional hero stereotype. He's not full of boasting bravado – in the first episode alone, Maddy is surprised that the audacious Iron Maiden trick isn't the work of Adam Klaus, but the chap who previously stabbed her with a cocktail stick. After going out for a spot of lunch, Jonathan demonstrates a trick in the restaurant in the most mundane fashion possible. It's a work of genius, but it's broken down in an ordinary, straightforward fashion. On the subject of Maddy, Jonathan also isn't your archetypal laydeez man a la James Bond – he's shy and generally a bit useless with women. The will-they/won't-they sub-plot of Jonathan and Maddy crops up throughout the first three seasons of the show, and with so many missed opportunities for a straightforward lurve affair, it's no real surprise that Maddy ups sticks and leaves for a book tour in America.
The other notable aspect of Jonathan's persona is that he values brains over brawn. He's not too good in a scrap, cowering from jealous boyfriends with Hoovers or psychopathic nut-jobs in parked cars. He's not your typical cop who throws angry killers around like cricket balls. No, he's a quietly reflective genius who's a return to the traditional old detectives such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, who solve the mystery with pinpoint precision. In one episode alone called The Scented Room, Creek works out how a priceless painting was stolen in little more than a click of the finger – if only arrogant critic Sylvester Le Fley hadn't slated one of his shows.
The Brains Over Brawn mantra extends to the whole show. It's a TV programme that works on repeated viewings, since invariably, there will be something that the viewer had missed the first time around. It's testament to Renwick's writing and the superlative direction that in essence, all the clues are there as to how the crime was committed, but it's only in hindsight that the clues are more obvious than you realise. In the first episode, The Wrestler's Tomb, close-ups of great big plates of meat and the sight of Francesca being wrapped up as a mummy are very subtle clues pointing to the fact that she shot popular artist Hedley Shale with her feet, after binding herself with duct tape. It's clever stuff, and unlike other disposable murder mystery shows, Jonathan Creek is a prime example of a programme tailor made for the DVD age.
Do the scenarios require dramatic licence? Well, I guess in some cases, you could argue that. A former camera lighting man rigs up a bit of scaffolding and lighting to trick an old woman into thinking that she saw a dead woman who had been fatally killed in an explosion (just to provide him with a handy alibi). A doctored CD manages to make its way into the hands of an elderly lady, who then has the foresight of a businessman's death. But don't forget, this is fiction we're talking about here, and since the episodes are weaved together with careful thought and precision, the sometimes implausible scenarios don't really matter.
A good example of the thoughtful scripts is that the world of Jonathan Creek isn't a simple black and white one. It's a world full of bitter revenge, jealousy and people who have been hard done by. A good number of the crimes are committed by people who believe that justice hasn't been done. Mother Redcap's killer Fay Radnor takes revenge on the judge who released a criminal onto the outside world, who then killed her brothers. Alan Rokesmith takes revenge on Jack Holliday in Jack In The Box after he did the time for Holliday's planned murder of his wife.
"The criminals aren't as straightforward as they seem on the surface, and what Renwick does is to give them some sort of background, which makes their motives just that more credible"
Even the latest special, The Judas Tree, continued this trend, with Hugo Dore and his wife Harriet framing Emily Summerton for Harriet's apparent death in revenge for his older brother's death caused by a younger Emily and her friend Kim some years ago (in fact, it was Kim who was killed in the fall). It's a frequently cruel, inhumane world, where it seems that the only way to seek out justice is by doing it yourself. It's also a world full of jealousy and rage, with Clare Sallinger simply killing Felicity Vale out of spite in The Problem At Gallows Gate – or a slightly demented Louise Bergman causing the death of her father in The Tailor's Dummy after he cast aside her ideas. The criminals aren't as straightforward as they seem on the surface, and what Renwick does is to give them some sort of background, which makes their motives just that more credible.
As with many other shows, Jonathan Creek boasts a number of varied supporting characters. There's Adam Klaus, the bumbling but flashy performer, whose tricks can end in disarray – as can his propensity for blatant womanising. And then there are the female sidekicks. It's interesting that Jonathan always teams up with the polar opposite type of female. Maddy, Carla and Joey are much more brash, loud and prone to getting their own way than Jonathan is. Out of these, Maddy is arguably the most popular – going back to the laddish trend for the 1990s, Caroline Quentin was also starring in Men Behaving Badly as Dorothy, and you could argue that Maddy is just as forthright and strong-willed as her comedic alter ego. Despite their less than auspicious introduction, it's clear that Maddy grows to be intrigued and even mesmerised by Jonathan's quiet genius – there's plenty of unrequited love scenarios happening in the next three years, and typically it never works out. Carla and Joey are even more louder in temperament, and admittedly they aren't quite in the same league as Maddy – although in the case of Joey, it's still relatively early days. If the BBC do decide to bring the show back, there's plenty of room to develop Joey's character further.
On the production front, Jonathan Creek is a triumph in every respect. The stunning visuals bring the show to life, from the distinctive windmill base through to the gimmicky magic tricks. The show employed a number of highly accomplished directors, including Marcus Mortimer and Sandy Johnson (who has recently carried on the good work in ITV's Benidorm) – the direction results in some imaginative, well-executed shots, propelling the action along at a barrel of knots.
The casting too, is very good. A good number of famous faces turned up to appear in the show, including Rik Mayall, Griif Rhys Jones, Annette Crosbie, and for Doctor Who fans, there's a plethora of familiar faces, including Mary Tamm, Peter Davison and Colin Baker. The regular actors are also superb – it's hard to think of anyone but Alan Davies helming the show with his understated comic timing and pitch-perfect delivery; Caroline Quentin makes for the perfect sidekick, turning what's on paper quite an aggressive, feisty character into a much more likeable and warmer person, while Stuart Milligan is excellent as the comic foil, Adam Klaus (Anthony Stewart Head got the first shot at playing Klaus, until a certain vampire slayer beckoned him to the United States Of America).
And let's not forget the man behind the machine, David Renwick. As with all of his shows, Jonathan Creek displays the man's talent for providing clever, highly witty scripts that are high on both entertainment and innovation. There's an appealing streak of black humour that runs through the show (there's even an episode, Miracle On Crooked Lane, that sees a whole army of Creek geeks dressed up as the man himself) but at times, there's a curious pathos to be had, whether it's well-meaning chief inspector Ken Speed dying after a struggle between the judge's widow and Fay, or the rather pathetic figure of Norman Stangerson trying and failing to live a double life with his current and ex wives.
Will Jonathan Creek return? Should Jonathan Creek return? Two great mysteries worthy of the duffel-coated one himself. As with all of these shows, a lot depends on budget, availability and logistics. The Beeb's budgets have been affected by the recession, so a high-budget show such as Jonathan Creek could potentially pose a problem. It's vaguely possible that the BBC may choose to bring him back for the odd special. The Grinning Man was favourably received by critics and fans, although admittedly, The Judas Tree garnered more mixed feedback – this reviewer personally felt that there was too much screaming and crying and it just felt a bit too laboured and drawn out (especially in a 90-minute slot). Having said that, I'd definitely tune in to any future Creek episodes, if only to see an even more flustered Jonathan trying to make sense of a world that relies even more heavily on social media, trendy bafflegab and quasi-reality TV shows that seem even more of a mystery than his most difficult cases. It's a top quality show that rewards repeated viewing, and one that relies on clever, thoughtful writing rather than tacky dumbing down.
Not too sure about that rather pompous theme music though...
John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.
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