Jonathan Creek returns for a spooky episode thischristmas.
To mark 20 years of impossible cases, baffling illusions and quirky comedy, Jonathan Creek returns with a sinister one-off special. We embark upon a magical mystery tour with its creator, David Renwick…
He’s the former magician’s consultant with a talent for solving impossible crimes, a duffle coat as iconic as Sarah Lund’s sweater in The Killing, and a mildly grumpy demeanour that conceals a sharp, logical mind. Jonathan Creek may be a comedy creation, but he’s also one of TV’S greatest detectives.
A one-off Christmas special, “Daemons’ Roost”, will mark two decades of Jonathan Creek for its star, Alan Davies, and the series’ creator, David Renwick, who’s sweated over every one of its 32 episodes.
“I suppose it’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes’ ‘three-pipe problem’, getting as few distractions as possible – that’s the only way I can concentrate,” Renwick explains to Crime Scene. “I then find that I tend to slip further and further out of the chair and that’s when I end up on the carpet. Then what frequently happens is I just fall asleep, and so I wake up and realise I haven’t thought of anything. It’s a long and very painful process – it’s a sort of miracle that you can come up with anything at all, really.”
At least Renwick sees the funny side of his creative agony. An hour in the company of the Luton-born writer is a reminder of the healthy pessimism that made One Foot In The Grave such a perfect sitcom. Initially, he had enough ideas to write six-part seasons of ingenious, often hilarious crime stories, inspired by classic locked-room mysteries and magicians’ secrets – the result was an immediate ratings winner.
“The starting points were just humour and puzzles,” says Renwick. “I became interested in the idea of the impossible crime and started reading John Dickson Carr stories, the Father Brown stories – the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. From that, I worked backwards to the idea of Creek being a magician’s assistant – really, in order to give him the basic qualification to unravel things that were impossible.”
Gothic locations, sinister characters and inexplicable phenomena often heightened the mysteries, which included a man who had supposedly sold his soul to the devil (“The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish”) to the mansion attic that seemed to swallow up its guests (“The Grinning Man”).
“What appears, at face value, as being supernatural is either a very clever, calculated illusion or, in some cases, something that happened accidentally that has the effect of appearing supernatural,” says Renwick. “But it doesn’t get any easier and you do sort of feel, how many lockedroom stories can you come up with?”
Almost three years on from the last series, Renwick’s come up with another 90-minute special that star Alan Davies has described as the spookiest to date.
“I never cease to be amazed by how scary people have said that they’ve found the shows,” scoffs Renwick, who admits to a hint of “hokum” concerning his horror plots. “Although there’s humour, the guiding principle was to make the funny bits funny and the threatening, dramatic bits threatening, and keep the danger level real. But I never imagined it would be that frightening. It’s very much in the spirit of your average Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes. It’s about puzzles – it’s a kind of escapist version of the crime drama, rather than anything particularly gritty. It’s not serial killers or child rapists.”
In the ’80s, Renwick used humour he found in horror movies for comedy series The Steam Video Company, which featured such sketch titles as “Amityville II, Luton Town 3”. Over 30 years on, “Daemons’ Roost” features a horror director.
“He’s a sort of Roger Corman kind of character,” Renwick says, “who was responsible for a lot of hammy horror films back in the ’70s.”
The “hokum” behind this episode involves the legend of a 19th-century sorcerer, who supposedly summoned the powers of hell to terrorise victims staying at Daemons’ Roost. The plot sees film director Nathan Clore (Ken Bones), the forbidding current owner of the house, planning to reveal the chilling facts behind an incident that happened there 15 years earlier. As gruesome rituals are revived, Creek is called in to get to the truth.
The sinister, feature-length episodes often bring out the best in Renwick’s creation, such as “The Grinning Man” (2009) and “The Judas Tree” (2010), featuring Sheridan Smith as paranormal investigator Joey Ross.
“With a 90-minute show I like to keep two or three strands going in parallel,” Renwick explains. “So if the audience guesses one of them, then maybe there’s a couple of others that they won’t guess. And I’ve always believed in trying to up the scale when it’s a special.”
The one-offs have also featured such memorable guest stars as Rik Mayall, Bill Bailey, Paul Mcgann and Joanna Lumley.
“We’ve had some wonderful people over the years,” says Renwick. “We’ve had most of The Young Ones, most of the Absolutely Fabulous cast, just lots of good comedy people. We’ve got Warwick Davis in this
one – he’s playing a vicar. We’re not referring to his stature or anything, I just find him a very, very funny comedy actor.”
Creek’s sidekicks are also key to the series, which managed to survive the departure of Caroline Quentin back in 2000. Afterwards, he was partnered with TV presenter Carla Borrego (Julia Sawalha), Joey Ross (Sheridan Smith) and now his wife, Polly (Sarah Alexander).
“It’s yet another dynamic which refreshes the franchise a bit,” says Renwick. “He’s now happily married with a wife who obviously isn’t very keen on these cases. It’s a kind of reversal of how it all began, which was that he was the reluctant investigator. So it’s a slightly different chemistry.”
Although Creek has managed to maintain its appeal with different sidekicks, the show’s longevity has been tested by what Renwick calls “challenging” budget constraints. Incredibly, for such a popular series, Renwick wrote this episode on spec and was only able to film it by topping up the BBC One budget with money from BBC Scotland. “Daemons’ Roost” was shot near Glasgow – locations included the Ardgowan Estate in Inverkip and West Kilbride’s Hunterston House – though it isn’t actually set north of the border.
Over the last two decades, Jonathan Creek has evolved as its hero’s matured, and his windmill home is long gone.
“Well, I think it’s been right that we have observed the change in his age and his status, to keep it moving on,” says Renwick. “I mean, people say ‘Oh, it’s not so good since he left the windmill’, but we stopped filming him in the windmill 15 years ago. That was a big sort of cost issue.”
Davies, who turned 50 this year, is now playing a part-time sleuth who’s settled down with Polly and has even entered the corporate world. But the 20th anniversary will see the return of an old friend.
“There is a moment for the fans where you see the duffle coat in this episode,” reveals Renwick. “It’s a flashback to an earlier investigation. So for this little snippet into his past, there was a lot of dye put into his hair and he re-donned the duffle coat. So the coat still exists – I think it’s Alan’s own personal duffle coat.”
Davies remains as attached to the show as he is to that coat. “Alan has always been incredibly loyal,” says Renwick. “If he weren’t interested or felt that he didn’t want to do any more then that would be fine, and nor is he insisting that I keep writing them. He’s well aware of how hard it all is, plus he likes to spend time with his wife and children. So we’ve both got a very relaxed attitude about it. The difference is I’m 15 years older than him so I kind of feel more retirement age.”
Renwick has gone on record about the TV stars who turned down playing Creek,
which included Nicholas Lyndhurst and Hugh Laurie. But Davies was a perfect fit for a series which was partly modelled on a famously dishevelled TV detective.
“It was when we were doing One Foot In The Grave,” Renwick recalls, “and the producer, Susan Belbin, and I said it would be a nice to do a detective show, something like Columbo that’s just about puzzles but with a lot of humour. We still try to keep that element of humour going and it comes out of the comedy department.”
TV comedy has been Renwick’s career for 40 years and his CV includes writing for Les Dawson, Kenny Everett and The Two Ronnies, in addition to creating One Foot In The Grave and Love Soup. However, his crime credentials shouldn’t be overlooked: as well as Creek, he wrote four episodes of Poirot in the early ’90s, winning an Edgar Allan Poe Award for the episode The Lost Mine.
“That was before I even started One Foot In The Grave, actually,” he says. “It was because Brian Eastman, who produced all the early Poirots, was a friend of mine and just asked if I fancied doing some, which was a lot of fun.” Jonathan Creek, as is the case with Poirot, is always being repeated (look out for it on UKTV Drama) and the viewing figures for any new episodes are remarkably consistent. Yet for all of its enduring appeal, the show has been carefully rationed in recent years, as Renwick attempts to invent new plots. He effectively called time on the show in 2004, but was tempted back, four years later, by the opportunity to feature Sheridan Smith in Creek and to direct his creation for the first time. “The BBC have always been wonderful,” he says, “and they have never said that they didn’t want any more.” There’s also the prospect of an American remake. “BBC America are having a go, they’re trying to pitch it again this year. That would be quite fun if it ever happened. I think there’s a suggestion that they might reverse the genders and make it a woman with a male sidekick.”
A US version would offer an alternate Creek for fans, just as Elementary is a Stateside take on Sherlock Holmes.
The two sleuths will face a ratings battle for the first time this Christmas. In the last series, Renwick poked fun at Sherlock via the character of Ridley, whose forensic approach and confident deductions turned out to be hopelessly inaccurate.
“I don’t see us as particularly similar shows, really,” he says. “Sherlock is so different, it’s so high-energy and just full of production, it’s so elaborate. I think we’re kind of much more in the Columbo department, we’re rather more slow-paced and more measured.”
Despite the big anniversary, Renwick remains nonplussed about all the fuss: “It had to be pointed out to me it was 20 years. It’s certainly quite horrifying, really, to think that it’s been that long.”
Asked about TV plans, Renwick smiles and says, “I’m planning nothing other than possibly happy retirement.” Given Victor Meldrew’s grumpy existence after he stopped working, though, we suspect Renwick will come up with another ingenious case for Creek before too long.
Maddy andcreek outside his iconic windmill home.
Bill Bailey played Kenny Starkiss in two episodes. Sheridan Smith tempted Renwick to revive the show.
Creek survivedcaroline Quentin leaving in 2000.
Jonathan Creek is returning to BBC One this Christmas.