A long, long time ago I wrote what turned out to be a middling book on British comics. If that endorsement of my own work has excited you, you can purchase it here. Comics are something I’m interested in (that, and I do this TV blog, plus also write about Doctor Who – my wife’s one lucky woman) so my spider sense tingled when I caught sight of this instalment of What Do Artists Do All Day? (BBC2 Scotland Tuesday, 10pm) which will be screening on BBC4 – assuming it’s still around 1 – in a couple of weeks. It spent a day with Vincent Deighan, a highly-gifted comics illustrator who works under the name of Frank Quitely. An intimate, nighttimey kind of programme, we saw him drawing page 13 of issue four of Jupiter’s Legacy. Quitely (we’ll call him that), as his fans will know, is in the premier league of his industry, so it was instructive to see him working out of an almost hovel like studio on Glasgow’s Hope Street. “No puke today,” he observed as he stepped through the door. The place is situated opposite the city’s profoundly depressing Central Station, wherein the artist sometimes showers after pulling an all-nighter.
He made for a terrific companion, happily absorbed in what he does. He talked of the various characters he’s drawn – all your DC Comics big-hitters for one – as sharing an inevitable likeness, like a group shot at a family wedding. His Superman, he says, “has a hint of Desperate Dan to him”. Seeing Quitely toiling nocturnally over a detailed cityscape, well, it was satisfying. The sheer work that goes into that. “You do a lot of thinking in order for the reader not to,” he explained. And then later, he cleared some space on the studio floor and stretched out for a nap with three volumes of Akira under his head.
There’s been a lot of internet hate for Jonathan Creek (BBC1 Friday, 9pm). Which surprised me. I didn’t realise the series was genre, fit for ‘non-spoiler’ (p)reviews and then the one-minute-past-end-credits ‘spoilery’ review. But in these relatively quiet TV times – because The Musketeers isn’t quite there – it’s hauled in and roughly interrogated, addressed as if it considers itself the be-all, rather than the quirky, ramshackle, unassuming TV survivor it actually is.
That it’s now perpetually also under an ‘it’s back!’ cloud doesn’t help. Jonathan Creek is a lot of things – funny and clever and diverting – but it’s not event TV. Which is all the more reason to cherish it. It’s also obstinate and counter-intuitive, David Renwick dismantling all that once made it feel heightened. Thus as this three-part series begins, Jonathan is married, doesn’t live in a Windmill, doesn’t wear the coat and there’s no nefarious murder plot to be unpicked, instead it’s just a confluence of circumstances. The character of Creek, as he ages, is being normalised. When we last saw him, he was besuited and working in marketing. It felt like a tease, as if this was going to be exposed as some kind of ploy. But, that reveal never came. In this story – ‘The Letters of Septimus Noone’ – Jonathan’s wife, Polly, talks about “creative input for the rebranding exercise”. And it’s not the set-up for an under-cutting punchline. This is the new world of the show.
Perhaps Renwick himself is performing an impossible crime, continuing this still successful series while also vanishing it. Creek, himself, is a background character for most of the story, pointedly remarking, “What’s that about the torch being passed to the new generation? I think I may be getting very old.” We’re privy to what could have been the central mystery, the ‘delayed’ stabbing of a musical star, from the moment its perpetrated, and another – Hazel’s mum’s disappearing ashes – is thrown away in the most disdainful but brilliantly funny fashion. Even the much remarked upon jibes at Sherlock feel part of the plan; Renwick grumpily acknowledging you can get these kicks elsewhere. So what is the business of Jonathan Creek now? I think, at its core, the writer is still whittling out a wonderfully crafted creation. It’s all in the small strokes, the different ways the phrase “under the third bedroom floorboard” can be interpreted, the fantastic sight gag of Jonathan in a massively oversized riding helmet, the foreshadowing of ‘RIP’ Ripley’s penchant for carving phrases in wood. For me, it remains a puzzle box of a show. It’s just that there’s something different inside now.
The following evening brought us another ‘it’s back’ programme: Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (BBC2 Saturday, 10pm). It’s beholden upon me to draw some link between this and Jonathan Creek. If I can do it, it’ll make my thoughts look connected, as though we’re heading purposefully towards the formation of some kind of impressive theorem. And I can. Because both programmes, in addition to featuring a greying and now more soberly dressed protagonist, hang heavily upon structure.
I’ve talked a bit about how Renwick has rejigged the one underpinning his series. I don’t need to talk at all about what Stewart Lee is doing – he does entirely that in this opening episode. But he does it really well, stepping outside his stand-up to provide study notes. Lee has a genuinely good gag that ends “…try explaining that to the your mother-in-law on Christmas Day,” to which he then appends: “It’s like a Lee Mack joke.” Later, he keeps flitting between an old-school socialist dogma (“How are my kids supposed to grow up to be campaigners for social justice…”) and the reality of his, and his audience’s, current-day comfy middle-class obsessions (“…without the benefit of educational privilege?”). He even has the audacity to labour on a deconstruction of his own already laboured delivery style (“By the seventh ‘Shitbottle’ sign I started to find it funny again”) and gets away with that too. It’s only while taking an imaginary phone call in the final section he becomes a little too self-serving, telling his fictional caller he hasn’t really worked out an ending. As a faux shambles, it just feels too crafted. Much like the bits in between, Lee in a mist talking to Chris Morris while the camera roves and cross-pans reverentially.
There’s nothing wrong with Brian Conley’s new game show Timeline (Challenge Thursday, 9pm), other than early rounds infuriate me in their wilful ignorance of maths. The premise is to put items in chronological order using draggable tiles on a screen. In the first scenario, you have five variables (such as ordering the release date of Mr Kipling’s Cakes, Birdseye Arctic Roll, Sara Lee’s Cheesecake, Ambrosia Rice Pudding and Wall’s Viennetta), which means you can only ever score zero, one, three or five 2. If a tile is in the wrong place, then so is another. QED. So, please, Brian, stop trying to tease out the possibility of a further right answer when someone has scored just one and there’s a final tile to reveal.
That’s a tiny criticism, right? A really banal, nerdy one too. But I had to say it. Otherwise, the show works. Conley chats gamely with the contestants, it’s a shout-alongable format, and the Pointless-like banality of some of the questions (ordering desserts, I ask you) appeals. It nearly didn’t happen, though. Conley initially trialled something else for the channel called Brian’s Big Van, set in a shopping centre. From the name alone, I wish that had gone to series too.