Case closed, Inspector Morse

Shaun Evans as the young Morse in prequel Endeavour, alongside Roger Allam as Fred Thursday - ITV/Shutterstock
Shaun Evans as the young Morse in prequel Endeavour, alongside Roger Allam as Fred Thursday - ITV/Shutterstock

It was all Miss Marple’s fault. When in 1984, Ted Childs, head of drama at Central television, heard that the BBC was working on a new Joan Hickson-fronted series based on Agatha Christie’s novels, he determined to find a rival adaptation – “something a bit posh” – to pitch to ITV.

A colleague suggested Inspector Morse, a melancholy Oxford detective who’d already appeared in six novels by Colin Dexter and would go on to feature in a further seven. Childs – who was confident that he could convince John Thaw to play Morse, having produced the actor’s 1970s police show The Sweeney – passed on the idea to Central’s head of programmes, Andy Allan, and slipped a tatty Morse novel into his hand. Allan was not impressed.

“He said, ‘So you’ve got this boring old fart who can’t relate to women and gets p----- all the time. And it’s got to be shot very expensively in Oxford. Have I left anything out?’,” Childs, now 88, tells me. He had. Childs wanted each episode to last a feature-length two hours, unheard of on TV at the time. Despite his reservations, Allan pitched it to ITV and, Childs recalls, “came back from the smoke-filled room and said, ‘I persuaded them to take three episodes. If it’s a total f----up, I’m going to blame you.’”

Allan needn’t have worried. Inspector Morse debuted in 1987 and ran for 33 episodes until 2000. It drew in 18 million viewers at its peak and has been broadcast in 200 countries. A spin-off series, Lewis, centred on Morse’s eponymous long-suffering sidekick, played by Kevin Whately (now with his own sidekick, Laurence Fox’s James Hathaway), also ran for 33 episodes in 2006-15. Meanwhile Endeavour, a prequel series starring Shaun Evans as a young Endeavour Morse and Roger Allam as his boss Fred Thursday, has been pulling in vast audiences since it began in 2012.

That golden run ends this weekend: after more than 100 combined Inspector Morse-Lewis-Endeavour episodes, the dots and the dashes will fall silent tomorrow night. Evans is philosophical about the curtain falling on one of the most successful British TV franchises of all time. “Endings are a part of life,” says the actor, who has also directed four episodes of Endeavour. Asked to pinpoint why Morse’s world has struck such a chord with viewers, Whately says: “I think Oxford has a lot to do with it. Wherever you point a camera looks good.”

Yet, if the series’ backdrop is picture-perfect, the characters are anything but: Morse is perennially unlucky in love, struggles with alcohol and is constantly grouchy (mainly in the direction of poor “Lew-is”). He left the University of Oxford before he completed his degree, making him both an insider and outsider among the city’s Dreaming Spires – “a social failure to some extent”, per Childs. “Morse was a deeply flawed character,” says Whately, “and they gave Lewis a few more flaws when I took over.”

And yet, with his passion for opera and pubs, his dry sense of humour, his quiet intellect and his moral exactitude, Morse is also an attractively complex figure. Academics have compared him to the Greek hero Odysseus, battling against obstacles to return home after a war. John Thaw’s daughter Abigail, who plays the Oxford Mail editor Dorothea Frazil in Endeavour, says Morse is full of “a wistfulness at what could have been”.

Russell Lewis, writer and showrunner of Endeavour, suggests that the character’s downbeat nature “speaks to the melancholy” in all of us. “It’s about love, it seems to me,” he says. “Love unfulfilled and love unrequited. That sadness is what shines out of the character.”

It was John Thaw who set down so much of this blueprint on screen. Abigail explains that initially her father, who died in 2002, “felt very unsure of who Morse was, because on paper there wasn’t much character. He gradually moulded Morse around parts of himself.”

Whately says his abiding memory of his decades on the programmes remains the “baptism of fire” of his first day on set with Thaw, who “could change from one take to the next and go off into a different gear. Exhilarating. You could feel the whole set go ‘Whooosh!’”

It’s easy to forget now that, as Morse – a role for which he would go on to win two Baftas – Thaw had been cast firmly against type: in The Sweeney he’d played Jack Regan, a northern hardman.

Morse is unique because it constantly subverts its surface cosiness. Oxford’s spires and Morse’s beautiful Jaguar Mark 2 lull you in. But, as Whately points out, aca-demics can be a “weird” bunch and the shows are as much about “town” as “gown”. Storylines have included the cover-up of abuse in a boys’ home and crystal meth smuggling. Listen closely and the city’s bells have a decidedly discordant ring.

A personal favourite Morse of mine is 1992’s “Cherubim and Seraphim” – its story centres on the warehouse rave scene and a tragedy-struck Morse. There’s nothing remotely cosy about it.

Morse’s cultural tropes – his love of Wagner, the Methodist Hymnal, classic cars and poetry – are always a salve to a gritty narrative rather than the driving force behind it. They’re our relief as well as his. It’s why we love him. Over in the US, Crockett and Tubbs were high-fiving each other on Miami Vice. Morse, meanwhile, was staring at a pint of real ale and telling Lewis that he had some “serious thinking to do”. I know which one I prefer.

For Endeavour, Evans had to create a younger version of the character with the gravitas to carry a primetime show. His Morse is idealistic, questing and fragile. But despite playing the character for 11 years, Evans still hasn’t watched a single episode of the original Morse series, in case he found himself inadvertently “doing an impression” of Thaw. Instead, he relied on Dexter’s books for inspiration.

Russell Lewis took care to forge explicit links between the worlds of Endeavour (1965-72) and Inspector Morse (the 1980s-90s). For example, Thaw would walk with a slight limp when he was tired. So in the first series of Endeavour, the script has  young Morse shot in the leg, giving the limp its own origin story.

Likewise, when Evans’s Morse first visits the Oxford Mail offices, Frazil asks if they have met before. He demurs. “Another life, then,” she replies – a touching meta-reference to the fact she is acting opposite a character immortalised by her father. Then things get decidedly mind-bending in a later episode of Endeavour when – brace yourself – Abigail’s real-life daughter Molly plays a young version of her own grandmother, early feminist campaigner Sally Alexander, who was Thaw’s first wife. Endeavour is packed with such “Easter eggs”.

For Roger Allam, the richness of the characters is the key to Morse’s enduring appeal: his DI Thursday goes through family upheavals, has brushes with the underworld and at one point even coughs up a bullet. “Russell and I love Westerns. As an English actor of my age who can’t ride a horse, it’s very unlikely I’ll ever be in an actual Western,” he says, grinning broadly. “So, what can I say? Coughing up the bullet was my Clint Eastwood moment.”

For Anton Lesser, who plays the exacting Chief Superintendent Bright in Endeavour, the historical accuracy is paramount – from on-the-money pop cultural references to a faithful depiction of how the police force was structured in the 1960s. “It’s lovely because you feel safe that the writer knows what he’s talking about,” he says.

Despite their shared DNA, there are nevertheless fundamental differences between Inspector Morse and Endeavour. Each episode of Morse is a self-contained story, so they can be watched in any order. Endeavour, meanwhile, has narrative threads that run throughout each season. It also has more ad breaks: each 120-minute instalment of Inspector Morse contained 102 minutes of drama; each episode of Endeavour, taking up an identical two hours of air time, contains just 89 minutes of drama.

“I look back a lot at the original series, and in some of my favourite episodes the pacing is kind of glacial,” says Russell Lewis. “You’ll spend the best part of a minute watching a car come up a drive. A lot of Morse’s charm was in the pace; it had to be slow.” Progress eh, Lewis?

Three and a half decades after Inspector Morse first appeared on our screens, it is curious to note how few predicted that the character would endure. Whately only signed up for one series of Lewis initially, while even Endeavour was intended as a one-off special to mark the 25th anniversary of Inspector Morse. Allam admits that, when Endeavour did get commissioned as a series, he was “very resistant” to signing up for three years. But the public lapped it up – and Morse’s place in history, as a somewhat accidental TV franchise hero, is secure.

Throughout the years, an astonishing list of cast and crew have passed through Morse’s universe on their way to greater fame: Danny Boyle, John Madden and Anthony Minghella – the trio of Oscar-winning directors behind Slumdog Millionaire, Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient respectively – all cut their teeth on Morse. Madden directed four episodes and Boyle two – his fantastic 1992 rave-featuring instalment “Cherubim and Seraphim” preceded Trainspotting by four years.

Madden was behind “Dead on Time”, a memorable episode in which Morse discovers that a dead man’s widow is his former fiancée. Thaw’s face, captured in close-up, when his ex-lover says that dumping him wasn’t an easy decision is a masterclass in suppressed emotion. His two words ­– “Thank you” – contain the world. Minghella, meanwhile, wrote the first ever episode, “The Dead of Jericho”. Then there are the actors: John Gielgud, Rachel Weisz, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jessie Buckley and Jim Broadbent have all appeared.

Evans himself looks set for greater things: he has even been linked to the vacant big-screen role of a certain agent 007, although – having experienced directing on Endeavour – he tells me he “might be a bit more interested” in sitting behind the camera on a Bond film.

So is this really the end for Endeavour Morse? Everyone involved confirms it is, although that doesn’t stop them joking about potential further spin-offs. “Morse on Ice?” suggests Lesser. “Hathaway: the Musical?” says Whately.

Endeavour concludes tomorrow night on ITV1 at 8pm