The BBC crime drama Jonathan Creek absorbed much of my late teens and early twenties. Shown semi-regularly between 1997 and 2004, the show starred comedian Alan Davies as the title character; a socially inept, but brilliantly minded creative consultant to stage magician Adam Klaus.
Remembered for his duffle coat, his windmill residence and his ability to unravel mysteries that absolutely baffle everyone else, Alan Davies, in my head, will always be the awkward and cynical genius Jonathan Creek.
The first three series saw him hooked up with Maddy Magellan, a pushy and bolshy investigative journalist played by the brilliant Caroline Quentin. Creek was the yin to Magellan’s yang, and the partnership was absolute magic on screen. With equal parts of sexual tension and generous dislike between them, Creek’s ever reluctant and cynical attitude to every mystery they tackled butted heads with his partner’s excitable nack for jumping to conclusions that often involved the ridiculously bizarre or even the paranormal. They were the light-hearted Mulder and Scully of their day.
2001 saw the departure of Caroline Quentin from the show, which was never the same again. Creek was subsequently paired up with theatrical agent Carla Borrego, played by Julia Sawalha, and then online paranormal investigator Joey Ross, played by Sheridan Smith. The regularity of Jonathan Creek episodes waned, switching more to one-offs and Christmas specials.
2013’s one-off episode, ‘The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb’, saw Creek having left the world of magical theatre to become a high-powered businessman with a wife, Polly Creek. The brand new series 5 showing this spring sees the return of Sarah Alexander as wife Polly, alongside the much-changed man himself. No longer donning his duffle coat (which, incidentally, was Davies’ own coat which he wore to his audition), living in his infamous windmill, or doing his unusual crime solving, can it ever be the same as it was in its heyday?
While Creek still fails to quite grasp the social norms of society, his wife yearns for an assemblance of normality, stating that “It would be nice to live in the real world now, if we can.” As all viewers know; simply by saying this out loud, she is only asking for trouble.
In the opening episode, ‘The Letters Of Septimus Noone’, Creek is, inevitably, dragged into yet another mystery: a classic locked-room murder. The victim is actress Juno Pirelli, the star of, appropriately enough, a gothic melodrama ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Room’. It’s all a little play-within-a-play, but highly coincidental elements are not something new to Jonathan Creek fans.
Creek’s wife Polly doesn’t play the haplessly incorrect side-kick as expected. It is Polly’s friend’s son, Ridley, visiting from university where he studies Criminology and fancies himself as a forensic detective, who supplies the outlandish theories and the comic relief. But it’s all a bit too comic. Overplayed by Kieran Hodgson, Ridley and his impressive sideburns offer more melodrama than ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Room’, leaving me wondering which half of the story is the play-within-a-play.
But what struck me as truly bizarre in all of this is that the entire mystery is played out backwards. The joy of Jonathan Creek was always the way in which something someone says, a throw-away comment, would spark a connection in Creek’s brain, a connection no one else can see, and leaves the audience guessing until the final reveal. But we see the answer to the mystery before it even happens. There’s no big reveal, except, perhaps, in how Creek works it out.
Peppered with other apparently sub-mysteries, including one involving Polly’s late parents, the whole episode feels like an introduction, a showing-off of what Creek can do. But after a ten-year gap since the last series aired, perhaps the BBC felt it was important for a potential new generation of fans.
While ‘The Letters Of Septimus Noone’ has all the atmosphere and feel of authentic Jonathan Creek, it fell a little short. It was hesitant and restrained, and somewhat muddled in its approach. Because, as the title shows, the real mystery in this episode has nothing to do with the stabbing at the theatre; it’s a mystery unveiled in the large gothic house Polly inherits when her Father dies that is the real centre of the story. This is where we see the reveal.
I had expected Polly to play the part of antagonist; trying to stop her husband from returning to a life of solving mysteries, but she is far more of a facilitator, leading him towards them instead. Despite her protest of “I sometimes wonder what I married. Free admission for life to the Twilight Zone?”, she seems to enjoy the whole thing and, although she may appear to be a bystander, plays a vital role in the show.
But unless I’m missing something, the stabbing at the theatre is merely a construct for introducing Ridley and, no doubt, his part in the rest of the series. A character I believe we could do without. Writer David Renwick hasn’t hidden the fact that the episode sought to satirise Sherlock, particularly through this character, but I feel it was pandering to current trends too much, too desperate to pull in ratings. Jonathan Creek was always something unique and different, but it may well find itself now fading into the white noise of similar shows.
While the episode may look and smell like Jonathan Creek, I feel it’s a vanilla version of it. There were too many comic characters, too many hints and signposts, too many storylines that seemed to have little to do with the main plot. But at least Jonathan Creek has been returned to a more suitable residence. To really bring me back, the series will need to gain more bite, bring back the more sinister edge that it had previously had. I wonder if the BBC may have underestimated the original audience’s affection for the show, seeking instead to piggyback current hit shows rather than return Jonathan Creek to his former glory.