Jonathan Creek

Saturday, November 27, 1999 by

We all remember Saturday nights on BBC1 in the ’70s. Brilliant weren’t they? Saturday night was alright for Basil Brush, Tom Baker, Brucie and Parkie. Saturday night was BBC1 Night from Grandstand through to Match of the Day.

Well … maybe. It’s easy nostalgia like this that’s brought into bat whenever there’s a spate of BBC bashing to be had. But is it fair to compare the ’90s best-day-of-the-week telly to its ’70s forbear? And is it a meaningful comparison, anyway? Probably not, as Sunday nights have long since taken over as the crucial battleground for ratings, leaving Saturdays all but a wasteland when it comes to distinctive quality programming.

But then there’s Jonathan Creek.

In an evening where Jim Davidson sings Boyzone (cf. The Generation GameJonathan Creekis something of a peculiarity – an imaginative, quirky, witty piece which successfully targets the family audience without gunging them. How did this sore-thumb of a programme come to be? My theory is that the BBC, as bean-counting, bureaucratic and boring as it’s currently perceived to be, is thankfully still vulnerable to the notion of the auteur. In much the same way that the Corporation was grateful to take anything Jimmy McGovern would give them (and some could say he exploited that with the McGovern-by-numbers The Lakes) it would seem that David Renwick was similarly entrusted to pull another rabbit out of the proverbial. That’s my theory anyway and whilst it pretty much sounds the death knell for new programming coming from the grass roots, it still represents a chance for imaginative, challenging telly.

Ironically, then, tonight’s Creek was the worst one to date, almost parodic in it’s unlikeliness. The essence of Creek is that through the course of our heroes’ investigations an impossible feat is distilled into a mundane, albeit complicated, one. Tonight, however, a pact with the Devil was finally unmasked as the monarchy secretly funding a bastard offspring. This was the impossible transformed into the highly unlikely. Not such an elegant trick.

Yet there was still much to enjoy. The characters of Jonathan and Maddy are now as comfortable to us and as consistent as Eric and Ernie (another touchstone of the ’70s BBC). Similarly the programme has an established structure which it employs very successfully at each outing; the intriguing impossible mystery and the comical B-story which bears only the barest relation to the main plotline. The former is played out before the latter (which finishes up every episode) and both end with a twist in the tale. Formulaic TV, you reckon? Not a bit of it, because it’s within this sturdy structure that Renwick is consistently able to confound and, therefore, delight us. The plotting reveals itself in sparks, in dizzying leaps of logic and, most importantly, in jokes. The pivotal moment of tonight’s Creek occurred whilst we were laughing at a misassumption that Maddy was Jewish (a throwaway gag that ran happily throughout the episode) as she struggled for a seat in the public gallery of a court room where our B-story was taking place. It was here that the camera began it’s inexorable pan in on Jonathan, as watching Maddy kicked off associations in his mind that, for him, unlocked the mystery. Moments like this jump out at the viewer and provoke their involvement (“What has Jonathan realised?”) in a far more active and participatory manner than guessing who’s going to end up at Holby General and with what injury.

If I was 17 again, or 12, or 8, Jonathan Creek would be my favourite programme on the telly.Jonathan Creek is my favourite programme on the telly. It has the verve and confidence to hold the family audience, neither playing down to the younger viewers, nor tipping a wink to the older ones. It’s Basil Brush, Tom Baker, Brucie and Parkie solving crimes … committed by Jim Davidson, Ballsy and Noel Edmonds. In a night’s viewing of unambitious telly, Jonathan Creekis a revelation. An impossibly good programme.


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