TV GEMS #24: Jonathan Creek

Before Alan Davies was the “fool” on QI, he was solving mysteries in David Renwick’s darkly comedic crime series. 

Jonathan Creek had me hooked as a youth as soon as the opening theme kicked-in; a beguiling rendition of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” by Julian Stewart Lindsay. It sets the tone for a show that is by turns playful, dark, hilarious, and bloodthirsty. What else would you expect from a crime series created by the man who gave us One Foot in the Grave?

It must be said, however, that I usually hate this stuff. Detective shows have always relied on that one genius intellectual whose powers of deduction are so formidable that they can wrap up any case in forty-minutes. It’s probably why I have such a disdain for these programmes; anyone who isn’t the archetype-defining Sherlock Holmes solving crimes from the flimsiest of evidence usually says more about the writer’s laziness than it does the brilliance of the title character. Jonathan Creek is about as far-fetched as they come but, especially in the first three series, the mysteries are so tight and satisfying that I can put aside the fact that David Renwick’s character is essentially a male Angela Lansbury stumbling onto outlandish case after outlandish case. Luckily, this isn’t Murder She Wrote, and anyone with a taste for the genre who missed the show’s original transmission in 1997 should definitely give it a look on Netflix. It doesn’t matter so much who did it as opposed to how they did it. This is the geek’s answer to guff like Midsomer Murders (now I mention it, how is there anyone left in that town?!).

Alan Davies is more or less known these days for lending comedic support to Stephen Fry on a certain panel show, but it’s easy to forget how good he is (and continues to be) as magician’s-assistant-turned-amateur-sleuth Jonathan. The stand-up apparently got the role ahead of Nicholas Lyndhurst (who turned it down) because he appeared for the auditions in a duffle-coat, a choice that fit the character so well it became his signature look. Under that foppish hair lies the brain of a true idiot savant, and Renwick finds great joy in his unassuming protagonist. There’s no dark undercurrent to the hero like so many screen “coppers.” He doesn’t have a substance-abuse problem, and there isn’t a wife to constantly get in the way either. This is a man who lives in a fucking windmill and drinks green tea.

His day job is fabricating illusions for conjurer Adam Klaus (played in the first episode by a pre-Buffy Anthony Head and later by Stuart Milligan), which contributes to many of Creek‘s most laugh-out-loud moments. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into the world of magic itself, with Renwick giving us a taste of real “sleight-of-hand” tricks and how they work. This really is a genius backdrop to such a series. Of course he would see things the police wouldn’t! Right from the pilot, “The Wrestler’s Tomb,” Renwick has us firmly believing in Jonathan’s abilities, and even in the obligatory “tell all” of the conclusion, we never doubt Creek’s deductions (well, for the first eighteen or so episodes anyway).

Dragging him into a world of deception and murder is Maddy Magellan (the brilliant Caroline Quentin), a crime writer who isn’t averse to lying and cheating her way to a story. The relationship between them is great; Maddy is the one burning to be a sleuth, usually having to convince Jonathan to go along with her cases. Romance occasionally fires, but never as a hindrance to the mystery at hand, and the pair spend much of their time trying to one-up each other and insisting that their friendship is platonic. Imagine The X-Files if Mulder and Scully were bickering every now and then. The leads give great, well-rounded turns and provide the most underrated aspect of Creek.

But what about the stories I hear you ask? There’s certainly enough classics from series one to three. Renwick revels in a whole host of “locked door” murders and baffling heists. Among them is “Jack in the Box,” about an old movie star found shot dead in his nuclear fall-out shelter behind a door locked from the inside. Or “Time Waits for Norman,” where the titular character is seen by reliable witnesses on opposite sides of the Atlantic mere minutes apart. Or even “The Curious Tale of Mr. Spearfish,” in which a man believes he has sold his soul to the Devil and is becoming omnipotent. There are so many great tales in the early goings, and the resolutions, while not always wholly credible, stay on the right side of ludicrous.

There’s also the matter of guest stars, and due to the presence of legendary producer Verity Lambert (Doctor Who), Creek boasts the likes of Colin Baker, Steven Berkhoff, Rik Mayall, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Davison, Tamsin Greig, Bill Bailey, Paul McGann, and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Some of them provide proof that comedians can also be fine dramatic actors. Even if the week’s mystery doesn’t suit your tastes, at least there’s always some great performances.

Of course, a long-running staple like this has seen a steady decline in quality, and it must be said that Jonathan Creek just wasn’t the same after Quentin left. She was replaced in series four by Julia Sawalha and later by Sheridan Smith in the various specials. Her replacements do well enough but they also came at a time when Renwick was running out of ideas. There’s only so many coherent mindbenders you can come up with, after all. This led to the execrable 2013 effort “The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb,” which was a reminder that Jonathan might want to hang up the duffle-coat for good. I pray that the forthcoming three-part series is a return to the high watermark of the early instalments.

If you love British detective fiction, you’ve no doubt already seen Jonathan Creek. But those who somehow missed it and can’t get enough of the genre are certainly advised to give it a look. Here’s what many refer to as the best mystery of the lot…

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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