Alan Davies as Jonathan Creek, resplendent in his duffel coat.
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The return of Jonathan Creek: why do we love it so much?

Nearly seventeen years after the first episode aired, Alan Davies’ duffel-coated sleuth is shuffling back onto our screens.

I think it was Caroline Quentin’s earrings that first got me hooked on Jonathan Creek. They were massive, naturally, and in the best tradition of late Nineties accessories, seemed to bear little or no relation to the outfit she happened to be wearing. The fact that her character, Maddy Magellan, was a fast-talking investigative journalist who liked to stop for meals at regular intervals only increased my enthusiasm for the programme. Creek himself (played by Alan Davies) – a magician’s technician who lived in a windmill, wore duffel coats constantly and solved crimes with a mixture of smugness, sarcasm and sleight-of-hand – held far less interest for me.

Of course it was silly. That was the whole point. The excruciatingly contrived plots, the unconvincing costumes, the pun-laden dialogue – they were all part of its charm. Its ridiculousness was never a barrier to its success. Lest we forget, the show won the Bafta for Best Drama Series in 1998. (Ah, 1998, TV’s misty past, when True Detective wasn’t even a glint in HBO’s eye and Matthew McConaughey was just some guy who had been in a terrible sequel to Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) As much as I enjoy being able to watch all of House of Cards whenever I want, wherever I am, I do have very special memories of bellowing upstairs for my sister to “come down here NOW!” as the strains of Saint-Saëns’s “Danse macabre” signalled the start of a new episode.

Caroline Quentin as Maddy Magellan. Phwoar, those earrings.

The first three series of Jonathan Creek, before Caroline Quentin quit to be in, among other things, the appalling BBC sitcom Life of Riley, were a happy time. Quentin and Davies had an odd sort of chemistry that enhanced, rather than detracted from, the bizarre plots, and which writer David Renwick was happy to explore with lots of scenes that required them to crouch close together in dark spaces. They even finally got it on shortly before Quentin hung up those earrings for the last time, but reassuringly it didn’t work out – “it’s like sleeping with your uncle”, Maddy declared.

But oh, those plots. Do you remember the one about woman called “Zola Zbzewski”, who had had an enormous amount of plastic surgery, then contrived to end up dead in a new wardrobe in Maddy’s flat? Or the one where “Lenny Spearfish” sells his soul to the devil? Or perhaps you recall the one where an artist’s model shoots her lover using only her feet, and is found out only after she’s enjoyed a romantic meal of poussin with a magician, played by Anthony Stewart Head? Hands down the best one, though, was “The House of Monkeys”, where a man in an unconvincing gorilla costume roamed a country manor (above), and the master of the house was seemingly impaled on his own samurai sword after an accidentally fatal LSD trip. I’m not kidding.

Aside from the crime theme and the Holmes/Watson-esque dynamic of Jonathan Creek and his parade of assistants (Julia Sawalha, Sheridan Smith and now Sarah Alexander followed Caroline Quentin in the role of female sidekick), Jonathan Creek would appear to have very little in common with detective-drama-of-the-moment Sherlock. The latter is all zeitgeisty slickness, with on-screen word clouds visualising Benedict Cumberbatch’s deductions. It’s written in such a way to suggest that the viewer is supposed to swallow the blatant absurdities of the plot as somehow plausible. Sherlock is still great TV, but for its endearing habit of comfortably acknowledging and even revelling in its own silliness, Jonathan Creek comes out on top.

Jonathan Creek returns tonight for the first of a three-part fifth series, nearly 17 years after the first series began. The list of actors who have guest starred on it is a great record of the trends in British television over the past few decades: Annette Crosbie, Bob Monkhouse, Amanda Holden, Rik Mayall, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Griff Rhys Jones, Maxine Peake, Rebecca Front, Bill Bailey, Tamsin Grieg – they're all there. It’s endured in a way that almost no other BBC drama of the time, and that’s for a very good reason. Jonathan Creek is reassuring, bizarre, grumpy and riveting all at the same time, and there’s really not much more that you can ask from a TV programme. Long may it continue.

 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times