Working in television writing since the seventies, and with a string of well-loved hits behind him including Not the Nine O’Clock News, One Foot in the Grave, and of course, Jonathan Creek, we spoke to David Renwick about bringing Creek back to the BBC, walking away from projects, and killing off Victor Meldrew…
So onto Jonathan Creek, first of all I was going to ask you about the three other episodes that have been announced for later this year…
Hopefully? Is it still dependant on something?
Well it might not happen if I fail to write something good. I shouldn’t be spreading doom and gloom and doubt and insecurities, although that’s my role! We hope to go into pre-production sometime in the summer so it will be tight!
There is a sort of little stock pile of ideas, and then it is about reorganising things and getting the plots together, it is all fairly terrifying at this stage. I wasn’t necessarily planning to go back into Jonathan Creek mode at all, after the last one, three years ago. Each one, I have tried to address as a one-off really. I fancied doing a serial of some kind after Jonathan Creek, something in a similar mode to Jonathan Creek. Maybe a mystery that had six weeks to expand and breathe a bit more so you don’t feel so constrained. I wrote four of those and it was turned down! So that took up a large part of that year. I toyed briefly with doing a Jonathan Creek novel so I spent two or three months just thinking about another trick, which is always the starting point really. I started developing something for ITV, which took up a large chunk of time and six hours was commissioned, it was a show called Ergo and Robert Webb was going to be in it but it fell through! It fell through because I walked off! I felt we were going in different directions really.
Is it something that still might happen?
No, not now. It was a domestic comedy, my attempt to do something like One Foot in the Grave in the country really; partly reflecting my own life as I have just moved to a more rural environment over the last decade. The relationship was between two people of similar age but she was his step-mother and she had married his father and there was a big falling out with the father and then the father died. They’re kind of thrown together in a rather ungainly relationship. I thought it had interesting possibilities, and that was one of the things that appealed to ITV. We slightly came unstuck because they wanted to concentrate a lot more than I did on the dead father who was in the back story. I wasn’t ignoring it totally but I am a great believer in an audience relating to people they see on screen rather more than they do if a figure is conceptual or abstract. I mean this man is seen in a coffin at the beginning of episode one and never again! It was a bit Rebecca-like in that respect. They want to explore more of the relationship with the husband and the father. That and a million other things meant it didn’t happen.
It must be quite frustrating to have come that far with writing it and then it doesn’t happen?
Yes, very frustrating at the time. You kind of feel like a pinball machine, you go from one hit here to one hit there and there aren’t that many networks to ricochet from really anyway.
Who was going to play the step-mother?
That was still to be decided and also part of the problem; casting was part of the problem. There were all sorts of availability problems.
Is that a problem with Jonathan Creek as well? Availability? It has such a fantastic cast.
It is always a problem, I mean Alan very generously and helpfully always tends to be available but even he of course was limited on occasion because he was doing his stand ups which is why we had to film during December and January, which was not ideal with the weather. He is usually there in the frame which is great, but you know it is the same in any show; people have careers and their own lives to live.
Where do you find the inspiration for the tricks, if that is the starting point for Jonathan Creek? Do magicians ever say ‘Oh you should try this or that?!’
Ali Bongo used to come in and occasionally help us with this and that, he was never remiss about just telling you how everything was done. Quite helpfully this time we had a different special effects designer who worked with Paul Daniels so he brought that expertise to the set where it was helpful. I have always had a great interest in magic as a child, I used to go to the magic circle festivals and things.
It must be quite hard to come up with the ideas?
You can use books, I have read Houdini’s secrets and all of that. Everything is there somewhere if you can look it all up. Most of it is fairly boring of course, this is the trouble. One of the problems is coming up with a solution that you still feel fulfilled by. Very often you come up with something that seems so tantalising and mind boggling and you’re on the edge of your seat and then the explanation makes you think ‘Oh is that it?’ It’s like when you see David Copperfield flying around the stage, you know it must be wires! But to see all the complexities of the gantries and wires and rails wouldn’t be particularly illuminating or enthralling. You just want to see the trick! Certain explanations are very rewarding and fulfilling and others you think ‘Okay, technically that is true, but not very interesting.’
Is there a favourite you have written over the years?
I don’t know, I am mentally spooling through twenty-eight episodes and solutions.
One of my favourites was the The Black Canary, where you had Rik and Alan together for the first time, why did you want to bring Rik back this time?
You sit down and you try and come up with anything that will bring a fresh energy to the plot. Why hadn’t I brought him back before? I don’t know, probably because of my congenital aversion to recycling anything if I can help it of course. Everything is better as a one off! Even though I suppose it was fairly obvious at some point we would have brought him back because he is very good value. Then you have to think if you do bring him back, what do you do with him? I think a lot of my decisions for his character were triggered because of the accident he had himself. Although he had the accident before he came to Jonathan Creek the first time, for The Black Canary. That was the first thing on television he did after his accident.
When you write each new episode now, do you have it in mind that this could be the last one?
Yes, absolutely. I just keep thinking, ‘Will I be able to think of anymore?’ I fear I am clinging on by my fingernails in this business anyway at the age of sixty-one, and you think; ‘They have probably seen the best of it’. It gets harder and harder to sell something new and to write something new; to think of something that hasn’t been done before and doesn’t conform to the prescriptive requirements that controllers and channels and networks tend to have upfront now, they tend to have a definite view of what they want. Obviously something like Jonathan Creek was a pre-existing property and doesn’t fall into that category.
Do you think you would have to kill Jonathan Creek off in the same way you did to Victor Meldrew to give it that definitive end?
I think that might be a bit of biting the hand that feeds you. Alan always joked that he hadn’t been run over in a car by Hannah Gordon so he felt there was a possibility it might be brought back. I don’t know, I don’t rule anything out particularly. That was a different age of TV though, it was in an age where people would always say ‘Are you going to do any more One Foot in the Grave’. I hadn’t done anything apart from a Christmas Special in five years and people were talking about a ‘One Foot in the Millennium’ special which I didn’t fancy doing. I felt if I did anything I would like to do another series but it would be the last series and I will kill him at the end! So that was how that came about.
David Renwick, thank you very much!
Jonathan Creek Easter Special, The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb, airs on BBC One on Easter Monday the 1st of April at 9pm.
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