‘I put them in bed together just to get it over with’ – how we made Jonathan Creek

<span>Photograph: Larry Ellis Collection/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Larry Ellis Collection/Getty Images

David Renwick, creator and writer

To begin with, all I had was the main character’s name. My wife and I had driven around America’s deep south a few years earlier and stayed at a place on Kentucky Lake called Jonathan Creek. I’d filed it away as a good title for something further down the line.

Then this idea arose when I was still writing One Foot in the Grave. The producer, Susie Belbin, and I discussed doing a sort of British Columbo – a cop show about character and ingenious puzzles, with plenty of humour. After reading the works of John Dickson Carr, foremost exponent of the “impossible crime” genre, it occurred to me that this was a far more interesting way to go than the traditional gritty police procedural. Here was an opportunity to be more escapist, with stories that were dark and comic.

On my first day, the gaffer mistook me for a crew member. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I thought you were a lazy prop boy’

I had worked with real-life magician and consultant Ali Bongo on other projects. He had been a driving creative force behind every major British illusionist from David Nixon to Paul Daniels. It seemed perfect for my character to have that same function: someone who devised tricks would be ideally placed to unravel crimes that had seemingly no explanation.

It felt a strong premise. If we could hook the audience so they were wondering how someone was shot through the head in a sealed room, they would have to keep watching to find out how it was done. But I’d made a rod for my own back. It was hard enough to come up with standard detective plots, let alone ones where the crime was physically impossible.

A lot of the funding was supplied by the BBC’s drama department, while remaining very much on the comedy department’s books. We weren’t interested in a show that was just a bit tongue-in-cheek or peppered with lightly amusing lines. We were looking for proper laugh-out-loud funny. Casting was crucial.

I had earmarked Nicholas Lyndhurst and Caroline Quentin as the leads. Caroline had made a big impression in Men Behaving Badly and was born to play the strong but flawed Maddy Magellan. She jumped at it, but Nick was busy with Goodnight Sweetheart and so sadly passed. Rik Mayall and Hugh Laurie were interested for a while. We shot screen tests with Hugh Bonneville, Angus Deayton, Nigel Planer and Alex Jennings too – all great actors but not quite right. Then one day Susie saw Alan Davies rehearsing a sitcom in a church hall. He read with Caroline and it suddenly clicked. Alan Yentob, the then controller of BBC1, needed some persuading, asking “What are we going to do about his hair?” Jonathan’s duffel coat was Alan’s own – echoes again of Peter Falk’s own shabby raincoat.

The first episode went out on a Saturday night in 1997 and hit the ground running with ratings of 9 million. Our stories were intriguing but not intimidating. Jonathan and Maddy had this abrasive, flirtatious chemistry. After a while, I lost interest in all that “will they or won’t they?” tension, so just put them in bed together to get it over with. I personally loved that moment when they say: “Well, we finally did it.” “Yep.” “We won’t be doing it again.” Which wasn’t what the audience expected, or probably wanted.

Alan Davies, played Jonathan Creek

Susie Belbin invited me to the BBC Christmas party. It was a cold evening, so I had my duffel coat on among all these glamorous people in black tie and party frocks. David later said that seeing me as a fish out of water gave him a nudge towards thinking I’d be good for Creek.

I was the 38th person to audition. Caroline and I shot two scenes in Susie’s BBC office, then one downstairs in the Blue Peter garden. I struggled to concentrate because I could see the statue of Petra the dog over Caroline’s shoulder. I felt for her, acting opposite a novice. She already had quite a CV and was saddled with this stand-up comic with a lisp. But we hit it off and the scripts were so good the chemistry soon came.

On my first day, the gaffer mistook me for a crew member. He said: “Sorry, I thought you were a lazy prop boy.” I looked around and the props team were all dressed like me, in plaid shirts, jeans and trainers.

David said it was a howdunnit, rather than a whodunnit. Like Columbo, Creek saw things no one else could. Susie always told me, “We need to see the wheels turning,” meaning that in close-up it had to look like I was thinking of something, not just what time was lunch. What they wanted was for me not to try being funny. Jonathan wasn’t clownish, he was cerebral and self-contained. My motto was: “If in doubt, do nothing.”

I made a rule never to touch my face when I was thinking. Stroking my chin or doing thoughtful poses was cliched. One trick I did learn is that if you’re doing something – fiddling with a paperclip or whatever – and suddenly stop, it looks like you’ve had a brainwave. Jonathan was a magic nerd and it was infectious. I got quite into Houdini for a while. People often assumed I could do magic and asked me to show them tricks.

The first series won a Bafta for best TV drama. I didn’t know how awards shows worked, so I went back to my seat while everyone else was swept off backstage for a photocall. People still ask if we’re going to make more. If David wrote another script, I’d do it like a shot. The show changed my life. And it’s the only Bafta I’ve ever won.

One Foot in the Grave and Counting by David Renwick is out now (£19.99, Fantom Publishing)