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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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