“A Continual Quest for Invention”

Graham Kibble-White interviews David Renwick

First published December 2008

One of the highlights of this year’s Christmas on BBC1 comes on Thursday January 1, at 9pm. It’s the long overdue return of Jonathan Creek for a one-off special, teaming star Alan Davies with new sidekick Sheridan Smith. OTT caught up with the show’s creator, David Renwick…

David Renwick

David Renwick

OTT: What made it right to bring Jonathan Creek back?

DAVID RENWICK: It’s a kind of boring answer. I had nothing else to do! I wasn’t bursting with any other bright ideas after we finished Love Soup, which I’ve been doing for the last two or three years. And, erm, it was sort of a safe decision. I had three options, I suppose: Retire, which is becoming increasingly tempting as the months go by; Go away for the best part of six months and struggle to come up with something else that interested me and then sit and write and decide whether I liked it and try and interest someone else in it – which even if the BBC had bought it would have taken me the best part of a year, just going through the system – and all that delay; Or resurrect Jonathan Creek! And I’d never drawn the curtain down on that in quite the same way I did with One Foot in the Grave. Alan [Davies] always says whenever people ask him, “I wasn’t run over by Hannah Gordon, so there’s always hope”. So on that basis, it was always floating at the back of Verity [Lambert] and my mind – the possibility we might one day come back and do a special. So that was, really, I suppose the boring answer – it was a way of deferring retirement.

Fortunately I did get immediate interest from the BBC when I mentioned it. I suppose the other catalyst was the idea of working with Sheridan Smith and putting her into that mix. My wife claims credit for having suggested pairing her up with Alan – she’s probably right. I can’t remember when that idea was floated; it was probably about a year ago. It was only around Christmas time last year – we’d lost Verity by then, but I had mentioned it to her and got her blessing. That was the impetus, really, putting Sheridan in as a sidekick and the five-year breathing space. Not having to sit down and design a locked room mystery, which recharged the batteries a bit.

OTT: Did you always have an idea of what story you wanted to tell?

DAVID RENWICK: No, no. Not at all. I mean, it wasn’t really until I got the interest from Jane Tranter who said, “Yes, we’d love to have it for next Christmas,” that I took a leap in the dark. The only starting point was who the other investigative character would be. Then it was just the usual agony of having to sit down in the New Year and having to come up with it. So it wasn’t a question of being inspired and coming up with a great idea. It was just the usual torment.

OTT: Because the plots are quite complicated in Creek, were they always increasingly difficult to come up with?

DAVID RENWICK: Yes. I made a rod for my own back, setting up a series all about impossibilities that have to have a rational explanation. By definition it’s going to be pretty challenging stuff for a writer. God knows why I embarked on it in the first place – but that’s the premise and that’s what I have to continue. I suppose that was a large part of why I stopped doing it five years ago. I do see the echoes and resonances from previous plots, and the way I’m sort of rearranging ideas – a mirror that’s a sheet of glass, a sheet of glass that’s a mirror – and getting every permutation of it. So that does become tricky.

OTT: Is writing always painful for you?

DAVID RENWICK: It is, yeah. You enjoy it when it’s going well, don’t you? You enjoy having written. There are two stages, but I suppose it’s all painful. There’s the ideas and then the composing of the words, both of which I find equally difficult. But having come up with the inventive thought – hopefully an original one – it’s a glorious feeling. I suppose it’s like Alan getting a big laugh on stage. Wonderful. But I’ve never found it easy.

OTT: But your scripts seem very playful, with bits of business going on all the time. Is that the agony coming up with all that?

DAVID RENWICK: Yeah. I kind of know how I want it to come out, give value for money – it’s a continual quest for invention, really. That things continue to surprise and interest. That’s the idea. Because, though, that challenge is so great, it’s arduous. And the more you go on, the more I think, “I’ve done that”.

OTT: You mentioned the challenge of writing a brand new project and the interminable delay. Does that put you off ever writing anything wholly new?

DAVID RENWICK: Yeah. Yeah. It does! It took forever to get Jonathan Creek on the screen, and that was at the height of One Foot in the Grave‘s popularity. I’m not embittered about it or anything – I got it read and considered in record time, which in itself was a huge achievement. But it still took the best part of two years – for purely financial reasons, not due to any lack of enthusiasm at the BBC, because it was coming through the Comedy Department. It was this strange hybrid – which it remains to this day. I initiated it through the Comedy Department, which doesn’t traditionally have that kind of finance available to make shows on this scale. So that was a big impediment early on – money always is a huge consideration. So there’s that at the BBC’s end of it. By then my end of it is actually producing the material which is also incredibly time consuming. You have to look at time like a geologist really. Ten years is nothing at all in terms of getting a show on the air. So, yeah, that’s going back to that. Jonathan Creek has that brand identity to start with “Oh yes, we know what that is, let’s get on with it”. But setting up something new for – well, never mind me – anyone in the business is a long, long haul.

OTT: Why did the series come to an end in the first place – because it was getting harder to come up with ideas?

DAVID RENWICK: I think that was partly it. Yeah. And it’s hard to transplant myself into that state of mind, five years ago when I stopped. It was petering a little bit, because the last two years I just did three episodes a year. And now I’m wondering how I did six episodes a year for the first three series. I think it does get more time consuming and more difficult. That’s what I found.

OTT: With this special, how did the writing begin?

DAVID RENWICK:  I honestly can’t remember. It’s the same with writing anything, really. Particularly with comedy, there’s an element of free association that goes on. You just let your mind wander through a million different topics, ideas or scenarios until you get little germs of things that suggest themselves. Ninety-nine times out of 100 they don’t go anywhere, so you come back and try something else. And then a little green light goes on… But in terms of the mechanics of something, it’s probably divided up into two categories, one where I think of a baffling scenario and try and work out how it was achieved, and others where I think of the reverse – you come up with something like a duplicate room, and what possible scenarios could occur as a result of that. I find the latter tends to be more satisfactory in a way, because if I can come up with an explanation for a baffling scenario, I sort of tend to feel the audience will be able to as well. Whereas, if I start off with some rather strange circumstance and work backwards from that, I think the audience are never going to get there, because it’s too bizarre to start with.

OTT: Did you know this was going to be a Christmas special before you wrote it?

DAVID RENWICK: Well, I suggested it as a special. “I’ll write you a Christmas special” were my actual words. It’s the obvious thing to do. It started out as 90 minutes but came in at two hours. They’ve got a two-hour show for the cost of 90-minutes.

OTT: Does knowing it’s for Christmas affect how you write it?

DAVID RENWICK: No, it hasn’t really, other than it’s a kind of ghost story and something that will sit well on a winter’s night, as opposed to a bright spring evening. We did one that wasn’t set at Christmas, but had a lot of snow – our first Christmas special – and I don’t think we’d ever do that again. The work in laying snow was terrible. Verity said, “No more snowy episodes”. So it looks nice, but you’ve got to have the money and resources to make it work.

OTT: Do you have self-imposed rules for plotting Jonathan Creek? A lot of shows fail on this because they cheat – they might do a flashback which we later discover wasn’t actually real…

DAVID RENWICK: Well, yes, we’ve always subscribed to what was classically known as the “fair play” genre of detective fiction. You never spring anything upon the audience at the end which they haven’t seen at some point, however subliminally or indirectly earlier on. That’s what appeals to me about it, the audience has seen everything that Creek has seen, but just haven’t been able to interpret it in the way he has. So that’s a ground rule. I remember having a discussion with a producer when I was doing a Poirot about showing a flashback of something that hadn’t happened. So someone is telling a story about something that happened to them, but in fact they’re lying. Is it legitimate for you to dramatise that and show it as a flashback when it didn’t happen? And he maintained that it wasn’t legitimate… and I think he was right, actually. That’s certainly very important.

In the first series when someone was found dead in a locked room, we got our location and it was full of cupboards and possible means of entry and exit. I’d be at my wit’s end. “How are we going to assure the viewer none of those were involved in the person getting out of the room?” So I introduced all these shots of the police searching the cupboards and tapping the walls. But it becomes so tedious to show all that, you get to a point where you hope if you set up a locked room and say it’s a sealed room and no-one could have got out, the audience are going to accept the fact there aren’t going to be any hidden panels. It would be a bit boring if that was the explanation at the end.

OTT: Do you also play with people’s knowledge of TV drama shorthand? I remember there was an episode with Nigel Planer as a guest. He was the B plotline, and the A plotline was a murder which we thought was committed by a tall guy. Immediately, you watch it and think, although Nigel Planer’s got nothing to do with that storyline, he’s going to have been involved. So do you play with expectations in that way?

DAVID RENWICK: Yeah, I do. Although that wasn’t actually one of the instances. I get ideas like, in that one, the difference between a panning shot and a tracking shot was the turn. That’s what appeals to me most. I love the moments  where Creek will come out with a really obscure remark – the significance of Jethro Tull and Englebert Humperdink – what the fuck’s that got to do with anything? That’s the sort of page-turner element to me. “Do you know the difference between a panning shot and a tracking shot? No?”. And he lets you ruminate on that without explaining it for a while. And yes it revealed if the culprit had been a small man on a box, or a tall man. But I never put that together to throw suspicion on Nigel Planer. Interestingly, he was standing on a box in some scenes, because as tall as Nigel is, he still wasn’t as tall as I wanted him to be. So when he was in the pub, he was standing on a box. Which always amuses me when I watch that. But there are red herrings. I remember Peter Davison played a vicar in one. He said, “It might be good if people think I was the murderer,” (even though he wasn’t), “what sort of little touches would you like me to introduce?”. I said, “You don’t have to do anything. Do nothing at all, play it completely straight. People are still going to think it was the vicar, because it’s a standard”. Everyone’s got different levels of surmise and expectation, and everyone presumably wants to think they worked it out. It’s never any big deal to me, if people say, “I knew it was him all along”. They may well think that about this one! In a cast of maybe four or five principle characters, you’ve got a one-in-five chance anyway. It’s like the Agatha Christie novels where there are 20 people, and the pay-off is, “Oh it was suspect #13″. Who cares? Obviously it’s all about how it was done. In some of them it’s been very clear from the start who was the perpetrator. It’s like Columbo really. I loved the fact that in every episode, it was just about how he was going to nail them.

OTT: Was it difficult to persuade Alan to come back?

DAVID RENWICK: Not at all. Obviously it was quite well known from the start, if he wasn’t interested, that was the end of the whole project. I’d sort of lost touch with Alan a bit but, as I say, tragically, our paths recrossed in the last days of Verity’s life – at the funeral and everything. So I can’t honestly say, “Oh yes, it was at Verity’s funeral we hatched the idea of bringing Creek back”, because I was thinking about it before that. But unquestionably the fact our lives crossed again because of that event meant we were thrown  together and talked about it and it became very clear very quickly he’d come back as soon as it was on the go.

OTT: Does a one-off special mean what it says, or have you been inspired to do more?

DAVID RENWICK: Well, that’s all it is at the moment. We’ll have to wait and see what the reception is when it comes out, and what other things happen in my life and all the rest of it. I can’t think beyond that. You know what it’s like, everyone says, “Oh wonderful, Jonathan Creek  is coming back – my favourite show”. And then they watch it and say, “What a mistake it was bringing that back!” Exactly what happened with One Foot in the Grave, so I tend to expect the worse! Put I’m feeling quietly optimistic. It’s gone quite well. The BBC back-up and support has been fantastic. Just really solid. The bulk of the crew have worked together before on Creek and Love Soup – which was part of the reason I decided to direct it. So it’s team that’s used to working with me and used to working on Jonathan Creek as a project. There’s been a lot of continuity there.

OTT: How’s the directing going [Renwick's directed the episode too]? And why did you chose to do that?

DAVID RENWICK: Well… that’s another thorny issue. It’s more a question of why I haven’t been tempted to have a go before in the last 30 years. And the answer to that is principally laziness, I think. I’ve directed various bits and piece in terms of second unit on Creek and bits of One Foot in the Grave. And since forever I and Andrew Marshall always used to be at the elbow of the producer and directors that we’ve worked with in an increasingly close collaboration. That’s all sort of bound up with a morbid preoccupation of how much longer I’ll be doing it, and I should have a crack before I die. So, literally, that’s really why. And whether there was something in forcing myself to do it… The easiest decision in the world would have been not to. It’s mentally tough and punishing and I have such admiration for anyone who does it. It’s a gruelling job. You’re like Atlas, shouldering the whole creative weight of the show. Constantly.

OTT: It wasn’t because you wanted to get your vision across on screen?

DAVID RENWICK: Well that was certainly a part of it. I’ve always written very visually anyway and defined a lot of the picture in the script. And I did wonder if it would be worthwhile to take that further one stage and look after it all.

OTT: Did you have a sense that people were waiting for the show to come back?

DAVID RENWICK: It’s so hard to measure. As a lonely writer, you put all your energies – along with a team of people who are working on something – and you sit and watch it 100 times at home on DVDs in various stages of development. And then one time you’re watching it and the nation may be watching as well. And it’s no different. The next day you get up and there might be a couple of bits in the paper or on the web. But otherwise you sort of don’t know, really. It’s difficult. That’s a question more pertinent to someone like Alan who is the face of the show and gets it in every cab, or people walk past him in the street and say things. No-one walks up to me and says, “When’s Jonathan Creek coming back?”. But that’s good, because you can hide when it’s a disaster. So I don’t know. Within TV Centre the vibe has been very good, they’re pleased to have it back, presumably because they feel there is an appetite out there. We will see.

This one does acknowledge the fact that there’s been a five-year gap. I was worried to some extent what Alan was going to look like, as indeed was he. He sent me an email saying he was going to the gym and losing weight. I think he looks remarkably Creek-like. He looks fantastic. I don’t have any misgivings that someone’s going to come back looking like Columbo at the age of 80, and people wondering what the hell he’s still doing in the police force. And he’s energised by the extra vitality Sheridan brings to the show. She’s almost a whole generation younger. It really does work.

OTT: From all the series, do you have a mystery that you felt was the tightest, that you were happiest with?

DAVID RENWICK: Erm… I don’t know. Your favourite episode tends to be whatever you’ve seen least, really. You go back to it – “Oh, I’d completely forgotten that!”. Although you never forget how anything’s done and what the explanation is. I can never bring to it that element of surprise and speculation, which is a big part of the gratification for the viewer. I get a lot of pleasure out of all the ancillary stuff with all the characters and the comedy. That’s what I think is, for me, rewarding about revisiting old episodes – “I’d forgotten there was that routine!”. You know, Griff Rhys Jones as the lawyer in that episode, because normally I just remember them by the trick each time. But there are other elements, other ingredients in the show, which is hopefully what rounds them out.