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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

Marvel
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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia