Will Dean on TV: Jonathan Creek, BBC1

It may seem Pie in the sky, but I’d rather be up the creek than in Baker street

Top 10 BBC detectives? Go! Here are mine: 10) Wainthropp, Hetty; 9) Marple, Miss; 8) Crabbe, Henry (Pie in the Sky); 7) Holmes, Sherlock (Cumberbatch version); 6) Wallander, Kurt; 5) Bergerac, Jim; 4) Luther, John; 3) Frost, Jack (started on Radio 4, so I’m having it); 2) Detective, The Singing; 1) Creek, Jonathan.

Thankfully, Taggarts, Poirots and DCI Jane Tennison all made a living over on ITV, which made this list much easier to compile. Aside from using it as an excuse to reminisce over Richard Griffiths’s turn as Henry Crabbe – an on-duty cop with a passion for food but a lingering taste for solving crime – I wanted to illustrate a truth non-universally acknowledged. That Jonathan Creek is king of the (BBC) TV cops.

Except he’s not a cop, he’s a magician.

Or he was. I’ve sort of lost track. Last time Alan Davies appeared as JC he was working in his wife Polly’s ad agency. Which now seems to be a marketing firm. Close enough. But, like Sherlock, The Singing Detective and others, we’re not watching Jonathan Creek for verisimilitude. That’s what those DVDs of Pie in the Sky (he’s a cop, but – hey now! – he’s also a chef) are for.

In fact, with the appropriate apologies to the Steven Moffat Barmy Army, I’ve slowly concluded that as far as BBC crimey-solvey serials go, JC knocks the Belstaff jacket off of Sherlock.

Sure, Holmes may have the movie stars, the budget, the young fan-base, the global fan-base, Mark Gatiss, Andrew Scott... Alright, maybe Sherlock is a bit more exciting, but the sub-whelming last three outings of the Benedict Cumberbatch Mystery Hour were a reminder that David Renwick’s own puzzle-solver more than held his own in the late Nineties interregnum between Pie in the Sky (yes) and Sherlock. Since ending its last proper run in 2004, Creek has been dropping back into the schedules at special intervals. There was a great 2009 New Year special – The Grinning Man – the one with the tipping-bath twist that almost did for Sheridan Smith. Then there was last year’s Easter Special which featured Joanna Lumley, a boarding school, nuns and several historic LSD trips.

Last night’s Creek began in the West End. At a terrible musical version of Gaston Leroux’s classic detective thriller The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Creek, watching with his wife Polly (Sarah Alexander) was taking it upon himself to chastise people using their phones to film the performance. Not something I’ve ever witnessed in the West End recently, but something that did remind me of a friend of mine who insists on chastising people taking pictures at football games. Something he got away with until a bloke on the front row at Craven Cottage politely pointed out that he was filming the players coming out of the tunnel on his iPad because his son was the mascot. That shut him up.

Anyway, anyone with a bit of knowledge of how Jonathan Creek – a show in thrall to classic detective writing – and Leroux’s book (or you know Google) will probably have worked out that the main mystery plot would involve someone escaping a locked room.

Cleverly, Renwick got around this by making the viewer party to the mystery (the stabbing of the actress happened outside the room, was covered by prosthetics which reopened the wound when taken off).

(Interestingly, no-one seemed to suspect, or even question Zelda Niedlespascher (Marianne Borgo) the French theatre director who was the last person in the room before Juno (Ali Bastian) was “stabbed in a locked room”. But, as with any detective yarn, it’s best not to pull at too many threads). The clever Creek-y bit was Jonathan working out that the painting by one “Sawjoy” in the actress’s dressing room was actually upside down. The artist’s name was actually “Holmes”.

Ah, the Cumberbatch in the room.

Having had his spotlight slightly yoinked by the men from 221b Baker Street, this episode, “The Letters of Septimus Noone”, contained numerous unsubtle allusions to Sherlock. The best being Ridley (Kieran Hodgson), the criminologist student whose over-inflated opinions of his own crime-solving skills contained more than a few hints of Sherlockian-ism. Not least his first scene where he incorrectly deduced – in Sherlock-ese – that Jonathan and Polly had been to Iceland. To make it clear what they’re getting at, the Creek team even dressed Hodgson as a scarf-wearing hybrid of Sherlock and Dr Who. In your face, Moffat. In your all-conquering face.

The other thing I like about Creek is its insistence that eight or nine mysteries are better than, say, one. I almost lost count last night. There was something about a desk being turned around; something about Polly’s mum having an affair with the imaginary Septimus Noone (no one) and best of all the wonderful Paula Wilcox and the case of her dead mum’s missing ashes (eaten by a robo-vac).

All right, you’re unlikely to get a key player vomiting into a tube in the realist crime noir of True Detective (which continues tonight; is excellent), but having Creek back for three episodes is treat enough to eschew my usual Friday evening drinking Blobs down Yates’s Wine Lodge. For a few weeks, at least.

Grace Dent is away

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