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Arts The real trick of this magical mystery: the writing

Magic and mystery are happy bedfellows. Magicians hope to leave their audiences with the ultimate how-dunit, which under the rules of their trade most of them would rather die than explain. But it's double the fun when the audience spends 40 minutes with the mystery and 20 minutes with the revelation. Welcome to the British mystery-comedy show Jonathan Creek , the fourth season of which (2003-04) will be released on DVD next Tuesday.

As with many such mysteries, Bones being the best current example, the series plays off two streams of tension between the male and female leads.

The first is that their personalities differ greatly, which produces clashes; they bicker, they stomp off in separate directions, they grudgingly reunite. The second is that opposites may attract romantically.

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Jonathan Creek (standup comic Alan Davies) is the assistant to egotistical stage magician Adam Klaus (Stuart Milligan), though the woolly-haired, baby-faced, self-effacing Creek is the one who dreams up the magic tricks. In the first three seasons, Creek's foil and potential romantic interest was journalist Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin), whose investigations turned up impenetrable mysteries that Creek was nonetheless able to penetrate. In the fourth season, the foil is Carla Borrego, played by Julia Sawalha, fondly remembered as the perpetually embarrassed daughter on Absolutely Fabulous . Borrego, who first surfaced as a theatrical agent in a two-hour Jonathan Creek TV movie, is now the host of a real-crime show called Eyes and Ears. She needs Creek's expertise; he reluctantly supplies it, though she chafes at being the Watson to his Holmes. "This glee you derive from treating me like a five-year-old really does begin to pall after a while," she grumbles.

The actors are in good form, including Adrian Edmondson (Vyvyan the punk in the anarchic mid-1980s British comedy series The Young Ones ) as Carla's partner and the producer of her show. But the key is in the writing, and it becomes clear from the Season 4 bonus features that writer-creator David Renwick leaves nothing to chance. He is constantly on-set. He watches like a hawk. Sawalha recalls him telling her she had just played a scene all wrong. "He has this look on his face, if something's done okay, of absolute amazement that the people that have been hired to bring his ideas to life haven't cocked it up completely."

"Well," Renwick says, "filming is essentially a nightmare, really. I mean, it's all about compromises and just a huge struggle to achieve what I have written, or any writer has written, in a space of time that is always too short and with resources that are never sufficient." Producer Verity Lambert once told Renwick his trouble lay in always seeing the glass as half empty rather than half full. No, said Renwick, my glass is empty.

The mysteries are baffling and the solutions ingenious. There's the locked-room mystery in which the victim is killed in a gymnasium with only one exit that was watched at the time by several officers. In the third season, a man who believed he had sold his soul to the devil was apparently able to kill a man who was about to shoot him from several metres away, the only clue being a disappearing red mark on the shooter's body. "I start always with the trick," says Renwick, "and how the trick could be achieved, but sometimes I've begun with the effect and then worked out how that's been arrived at." And the name Jonathan Creek? He plucked it from a place he visited in Kentucky. Another mystery exploded.

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