Finally, Jonathan Creek is back. Not just literally on our screens, but – after a spate of recent changes to the character and disappointing episodes – with a genuine return to form in this intriguing, if overlong, mystery.
This review contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know more than you should, look away now…
First, a recap. Originally Johnathan Creek took a fairly regular path – four series aired until 2004 – before retuning for two specials in 2009 and 2010. As a slightly tongue-in-cheek detective show, it never took itself too seriously with much dark humour juxtaposed with borderline farce, and won many fans because of that.
2013 saw a further resurrection, ‘The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb’, but suddenly the duffle-coated mystery solver was no more. Creek was restyled for the digital age as a high-powered businessman, no longer the bumbling magician’s puzzle advisor.
He also married Polly, unanimously derided as a complete non-event of a character whose sole role seemed to be preventing her husband from sleuthing. For a show that never recovered from losing the perfect complementary construct of Caroline Quentin’s brash Maddy as a sidekick to Creek’s humble quirkiness, to end up with a partner – after several other failed attempts – who’s desperate for Creek to give up solving crimes, seemed more than a little at odds with the whole premise of the series.
Despite this death knell hanging over Renwick’s second best creation (the first being well and truly buried), a three part 2014 mini-series was commissioned, but again disappointed many fans as the strange character restyling continued to the detriment of the actual puzzle solving.
And so to 2016. While it’s great to still have Alan Davies’ detective on our screens, you can’t help but go into this new episode with a certain amount of trepidation. One more false step and it would probably be time to hang up the duffle coat for Creek and the series.
Thankfully, something seems to have clicked with the writer. From the offset, we’re on familiar territory – there’s horror movies, Satantic rituals and genuine mystery, all set in a typically haunting country manor house.
We open with a clip of B-movie horror director Nathan Clore (played by the excellent Ken Bones) introducing his own film centred around the legend of Jacob Surtees, a demonic man who ravished women and made them watch their lovers being launched across a spooky dungeon room into to a fiery furnace.
Clore, now living in Surtees old country mansion, is nearing death and incapacitated, so invites his daughter Alison – the only surviving family member following the death of his wife and oldest two children – to tell her his, and the house’s secrets. She’s the main link to Creek, with her husband Stephen Belkin the centre of one of Creek previous cases, ‘The Striped Unicorn’, albeit not previously seen by the viewer.
Creek’s own story, is also more familiar, putting him back in the more rustic countryside, away from the city. Polly’s idea of fun for the couple now involves downscaling, decluttering old magic memorabilia and junk from the windmill – given its first glimpse in years – and entering the village local scarecrow competition.
Although still incredibly frustrating, it does at least allow Sarah Alexander’s character – whilst still unnecessarily meddling, determined that Creek avoid any case-solving – to be far less cynical and slightly expanded from the one-dimensional character of previous instalments.
Indeed, all mention of Creek’s recent new wealth and status is also gone, while many of his past exploits are back in the writer’s mind. The couple now travel in the once familiar – albeit different – knackered old estate car, and even the infamous duffle coat makes a return in a flashback.
There too seems a forced effort to weave several Creek canon references into the script. Local vicar Reverend Wilkie (which sees Warwick Davies successfully continuing the show’s tradition of ‘famous personality as comic stooge’, following in such footsteps as Rik Mayall and Bob Monkhouse) appears as a self-proclaimed Creek superfan, dropping several references to old episodes by name. There’s also much talk of the crime-solver’s previous work with magic and even a subplot that stems directly from the Series 1 mystery ‘The House of Monkeys’.
Unfortunately this proves to be one of this episode’s weaker points – the killer (not seen in that original episode; he murdered via poisoned self-addressed envelopes) comes back to hunt down Creek in a strange act of revenge after his prison release. It’s a nice nod to the past, but features a basic continuity error with his name – changed from Alistair to Patrick Tyree (played by Ryan Oliva) – and complete character change from clever environmentalist distance killer to brutish physical thug.
When the two plots eventually collide, it gets stranger still, with Oliva seemingly being refused a speaking role. Through various hammy acting and vocal sound effects he tracks down and threatens Creek, before drawing a knife and forcing the detective to trap him in a fiery pit, left, presumably, to die. Burning a man alive, even for Renwick, seems a sidestep too far.
Aside from this, the main mystery ticks along nicely throughout, and with both the historical case of the dodgy husband and several smaller puzzles left up to the viewer to solve, on that count is a fine return to form.
The wordplay clues, however are somewhat more of a stretch. ‘Anti-money’, a strange sign-off on a letter in a scientist’s bedroom is missed by Creek as a reference to ‘antimony’ the chemical element, but the detective somehow manages to piece together a dying man staring at a mobile phone, then a film poster containing the word ‘Yeti’ to surmise he (obviously) means the man stood near him is a ‘phone-y’. Similarly a young girl mistaking ‘haemoglobin’ for ‘hobgoblin’, in reference to her mother’s cause of death, seems a bit far-fetched.
We do, however, get treated to a genuine red herring that fools both Creek and probably many playing along at home. An early misguided joke about Polly accidentally mentioning ‘cotton picking’ in front of one her new black acquaintances, proves crucial as we’re lead to assume that her husband working at the property is the black CCTV installer, rather than a white bearded taxi driver seen momentarily at the start.
While the outdated tone of this signposting is widely misjudged by Renwick, the reveal is a genuine ‘kick yourself’ moment, and indeed Creek, whose case suddenly all falls into place. For the viewer, however, there’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required for the crucial moments, and indeed throughout the episode the quality of output varies widely.
Indeed, you can’t help but feel that maybe the Christmas special format is somewhat stifling Jonathan Creek, with Renwick spreading himself too thin over 90 minutes. With an unnecessary subplot and too much waffle before Creek reaches the main location of the mystery and some terrible comic set pieces – Polly’s mistaken vodka ice cube ‘drunken’ scene being a new low for her character – there’s easily half an hour that could’ve been shaken out.
Similarly, the last few minutes are given over to a strangely forced emotive storyline that involves Creek’s brother Terry – who despite all the nostalgic elements featured, is one plot point that’s never been mentioned in the previous two decades. While it’s great to have Creek back as the awkward underdog we used to love, seeing Polly make him dispose of his most treasured possessions, literally trashes it all at the end.
It’s a shame, and a mixed statement from Renwick in what is the best Creek in ten years, with some wonderful reminiscent moments. It can’t help but make you yearn for a return of Adam Klaus and, of course, Maddy Magellen – indeed Caroline Quentin said she’s happy to return so you can only surmise animosity there between some of the personnel involved.
There’s an argument to say all this return to form and deliberate closing of a chapter feels somewhat like a finale from Renwick, if not an intentional sign-off, but maybe an air of resignation. By visibly removing the magic elements from Creek’s life – both figuratively and literally – let’s hope he’s not doing the same for the future of the show.