Alan Davies interview: Jonathan Creek, QI, “Creek Geeks” & more…

We chatted to Alan Davies about forthcoming Jonathan Creek Easter Special, the new series, QI, stand-up, and more...

Jonathan Creek is back on the Beeb, and not just for Easter special, The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb starring Alan Davies, Sheridan Smith, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer and Joanna Lumley, but also for three brand new episodes due to film this autumn. We caught up with lead Alan Davies in a round table interview to talk magicians, detectives, Sherlock Holmes, “Creek Geeks”, QI, and more…

Congratulations on the episode, I know you can’t give too much away…

I know it is hard this, you want to big it up but then you can’t say anything that will ruin it, yes it is all so delicate, the clues and the mysteries and everything; you can’t really talk about it.

In light of the recent BBC success with things like Sherlock, what is it that keeps attracting people back to mysteries, murders and locked rooms? What keeps this tradition, which is hundreds of years old, going?

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Well once you get hooked at the beginning of an episode, you do want to stay to see what happens, it’s just great storytelling. This one has lots of things going on; something in Joanna Lumley’s childhood which is a weird mystery about the girls in the school, and then something else going on with a body in a locked room and then there is another mystery behind the scenes which emerges towards the end, so yeah you get a bumper load. When David writes a special, he has the old school BBC view of, if it’s a special it needs to be special, get more big names, more mysteries and more length.

There was a period after 2003 when we had done the last run of episodes where David said ‘I can’t think of anymore’ and he did Love Soup for three or four years with Tamsin Grieg and Sheridan and then when that came to a close he sort of thought of a new idea and then I get a message saying ‘I have an idea for one’. You never see the script until he has finished. He describes his process of lying face down on the carpet trying to think of things. As far as the longevity of the show goes, because it is so well-crafted, and it stands up and it gives a nod to classic story telling with locked room mysteries and a lot of references that make you feel quite superior as a viewer, you understand that medium and that style of storytelling, plus it has plenty of humour too.

There isn’t really anything like it around.

No, the initial concept of a magician who solves crimes is quite a strong one, if a little warped. 

Has the recent resurgent interest in Sherlock Holmes acted as a form of competition to Jonathan Creek or does it help keep the interest going?

I think certainly the nature of the side-kick is the same, it is Holmes and Watson in lots of ways, David is a huge fan of that. You can’t have this genius just thinking things all the time, you need someone next to him saying ‘so what do you mean?’ so at least the audience can hear the thought process, tantalising them but not enough to actually work it out themselves. It follows along that tradition and always has done right from the early episodes with Caroline Quentin and Julia Sawalha.

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Do you have a favourite Creek mystery?

My favourite one was the first special we did, which Rik Mayall was in; Black Canary fifteen years ago. The whole shoot was very enjoyable, the mystery was great and we had Francis Matthews and Murray Melvin in as well as Rik, so it was a very funny shoot off set or off when the camera wasn’t running it would be hilarious. Everyone ate together in the lunch bus and things like that, it is so unusual now with phones and things. As soon as they call ‘lunch’ everyone is just off in the corner doing this (mimes texting on a phone). It was quite nice in the old days to just sit and eat and talk.

Did you get any of that with Rik Mayall this time around?

It’s so great having him on set, he just makes people laugh all the time. He uses inappropriate language a lot and makes you laugh.

Sheridan referred to ‘Creek Geeks’ as people who are real die-hard followers, have you ever encountered a genuine Creek Geek?

We have never had anyone who dresses up as Creek; never had those. We have some ardent fans and there was a time, and I don’t know if it still happens as much now, but certainly in the nineties, fan fiction was a big thing and people would write their own mysteries and post them to you. You would read them and they would be terrible. What David does is much harder than it looks, still it was quite entertaining. There was a fanzine for a while, people know the episodes better than you know them yourself, they know the names of them long after you have forgotten them and things. Now there is a new generation of people because there has been such a gap between 2003 and 2008 and then another gap where we didn’t think they were going to want Creek back. The controller of BBC1 liked Jonathan Creek and David had another project that didn’t come to fruition and so then we found ourselves back on, and I was asked ‘How do you feel about doing another one?’ 

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So is this the start of a more regular series then?

I don’t really, I mean you never know, even from the very first series, the first one was commissioned and then the second one, and then they said right we’ll stop and do more next year. Even with QI it’s the same, you only know when you get told. They have just said to us we can have two more years of QI on condition that we freeze the money. They are chipping the money down and down. When we get to series Z we’ll be paying them fifty quid to do it.

Is it because Danny Cohen (BBC One Controller) is a fan that Creek has come back?

I think so yes, he recognises the good stuff and wants David on the channel and want David writing for the BBC. David has written for the BBC since the seventies so getting on for forty years of service, there should really be a bust of him at Media City. It is one thing looking for new blood all the time, but there is lots of good old blood with plenty to offer.

Looking at the new episode, it is a pretty awesome cast with some great characters coming in, is there anyone you would like to get on the show? Stephen Fry maybe?

Fry with Creek? Yes that’s possible. Although he has his new stage career! What I would like is if Stephen is in it but plays an absolute idiot, a total halfwit.

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And Jonathan Creek could then just keep saying ‘I can’t believe you don’t know this’. Every time he gets something wrong, the QI claxon could sound.

Now we’re on to something!

It writes itself. Do you find it quite fulfilling to go from QI where it is played up that you are the person who doesn’t know the answers and the voice of the audience to then go to being Jonathan Creek with all his superior knowledge?

It is odd to be the most stupid man on television and the cleverest at the same time. It is quite fun to do that. It is just extraordinary that QI has gone on for so long really!

What happens when you reach series ‘Z’ of QI?

I think we’ll retire probably. I will be quite elderly. We’ve just done series J, so next month we will start K. I am 47 this week so if we keep adding it up, we will be well in our sixties with our bus passes. 

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Do you ever have a say about casting for Jonathan Creek? Are you able to make suggestions?

No David does it all. David turns up to meet the casting people at the BBC with his dream cast, and the dream cast might be Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Allen and they say ‘Okay, we get the picture, let’s see who will fit’. Sometimes he can say ‘Right I want Rik back’ and things, but sometimes it’s just a bright idea or he has worked with someone before, or someone he has always wanted. Like Joanna Lumley, he has always wanted her to be in Creek.

And in this one you have Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer. Was that a conscious decision from David or a casting coincidence?

I am not sure, Nigel has been in it before in a completely different role. He played a bumbling idiot before and now he is playing a genius.

What is up for you next?

QI next, and I’m doing lots of stand up, so I am doing festivals in the summer nowadays. I used to do Glastonbury and Edinburgh and that was it. Now every town has a festival, so I am doing lots! More Creek in the autumn, and then my DVD will be out in time for Christmas, so yes, that’s my year!

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Is it great to be back doing the stand up?

Yeah having had ten years away from doing it, it’s great. I went to the Pleasance Theatre Studio near where I live in North London, and did lots of work in progress which was quite harrowing for all concerned, especially the audience. You get drawn back to it really; you just can’t help but come back to it. It’s the one thing you can do where you are in complete control and you can’t be cancelled after one series, no one has to commission you, you can manage if you have kids, because you can manage how many days you work and where you work and when. Whereas filming is a very big commitment, a lot of hours so there are lots of pluses. Also I think when you get older you are sort of more qualified to be a stand up comedian really. You have more to say.

Alan Davies, thank you very much!

The Jonathan Creek Easter special is due to air at 9pm on BBC One on Easter Monday, the 1st of April.

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