A look back at Jonathan Creek – and what made it so magic
Selina Pearson | On 07, Mar 2014
Photo: BBC/John Rogers
Amateur sleuths with unruly hair and distinctive jackets are nothing new for the BBC. Before there was Sherlock, a generation of viewers were already familiar with the solving of impossible crimes. Every week, Danse Macabre hailed the arrival of duffle coats, curly hair and an ingenious man living in a windmill who designed magic tricks for a living.
Jonathan Creek first aired in 1997 and ran for four seasons. Working for the amusingly inept magician Adam Klaus (first played by Anthony Head, and later by Stuart Milligan after Head took a role in a little-known series about vampire slaying), Creek (Alan Davies) catches the eye of Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin), an investigative journalist with… flexible morals. Maddy bullies Jonathan into helping her with some of her more interesting cases and the pair of them spark.
Like Sherlock, Creek’s mind doesn’t seem to work like other people’s. Maddy takes the Watson role as audience surrogate; mostly asking lots of questions, sneaking about and trying to catch up with Jonathan.
So what made the BBC show so magic? It was partly the baffling nature of the mysteries and, unlike the new episodes, the discovery of their ingenuous solutions. The genius of the premise is that when it comes to solving the mysteries, Jonathan’s mind is honed to look for the mundane in the fantastical, in very much the same vein that a magician performs magic tricks. But the brilliance of the chemistry between the two leads is what made it so comedically compelling. At its best, their double act rivalled Sherlock – and Creek surely owes a debt to Conan Doyle’s literary hero.
Davies’ performances as the titular sleuth were consistently believable – contrast Creek’s genius with Alan’s fuzzy silliness as QI’s token idiot. Quentin’s Maddy was also nicely balanced; she was bossy and unscrupulous, but David Renwick’s writing meant you always liked her – an important characteristic of an audience surrogate.
In the show’s original format, there were four seasons, with six or so standalone stories (with the odd exception) at 50 minutes to an hour long. The first three seasons starred Davies and Quentin, and are by far the best. The stories also tended to be lighter in tone.
In 2001, though, Julia Sawahla picked up the role of Carla Borrego, essentially replacing Quentin’s Maddy. Then, after the fourth season, Jonathan Creek all but disappeared. Christmas 2009 saw the return of intermittent specials and a new sidekick, Joey Ross (Sheridan Smith), a mystery enthusiast. While initially promising, the quality of the specials varied; Caroline Quentin was such a tough act to follow, neither Sheridan nor Sawahla could really fill her shoes.
In 2013, Sarah Alexander co-starred as Polly Creek, who reintroduced Jonathan to crime solving. The current fifth season is picking up from there. Consisting of three hour-long episodes, it will be interesting to see whether Renwick’s writing can still baffle, amuse and grip the way it did 15 years ago. Is it the reveal of the mystery that made it so magic? The chemistry between the lead couple? Or simply nostalgia? Judging from the first episode of the new episodes, the secret to repeating classic Creek’s success may be a puzzle too impossible for even him to solve.
What are your favourite episodes?
All five seasons of Jonathan Creek are available on BBC iPlayer until July 2021. It is also available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.