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.

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories