30 Not Out.
Inspector Morse aired for the first time on Tuesday 6th January 1987 and, it is fair to say, it did not appear at a time of optimism for the contemporary TV viewer. ITV’s reputation for drama had all but evaporated – the pinnacle, Brideshead Revisited, lay 6 years in the past
Just not on ITV.
Morse would change all that.
Its leisurely pace of two hours an episode was in stark contrast to what the public were used to seeing, and even Colin Dexter, the author of the 13 novels upon which some of the television episodes are based, has acknowledged that the show was an unlikely success. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub in 2007, Dexter told presenter James Naughtie in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, “one of the huge things about Morse was that he came at the right time, when everyone wanted to get away from the American programmes where everybody was shooting and car chasing all over the shop. And somebody said, ‘what we want is something a little bit slower and more tedious. More gentle and – perhaps – more cerebral.’ Somebody wrote, right from the very word go, Dexter’s idea of any sort of thrill in a story was to get two aged classics professors arguing about Aristotle in the Sheldonian.”
This is a little harsh perhaps, (the first episode drew approximately 14 million viewers after all), however, you can see right from the very opening of, ‘The Dead of Jericho’ that this is to be different and that, in lead actor John Thaw, here is a leading man about to put to bed his reputation-defining turn as Jack Regan in The Sweeney.
This blog has looked at this wonderfully dated slice of action thriller elsewhere (Revisiting: The Sweeney) but contrasting the opening of the two shows is instructive. The Sweeney has rushing cars, handheld wobbly camera angles of gritty realism, tyres screaming and that famous title sequence theme tune booming electronica, like sirens through a 70s hangover, frantically edited.
As Morse opens there are quick edits too; a close up of a painting cuts to: some people in a choir, beginning to sing Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis Deo, a stark white on black title card announces:
Cut to: a close up of the moving bonnet of a red classic Jaguar, shiny polished chrome of the big cat gleaming.
We get our first look at Thaw, a serious look on his face.
The music swells, the car sails past like a stately ocean liner. As he passes, a sign on the wall reads:
This is exactly the sort of instruction designed to insight maximum disobedience from Regan, not so for Morse. He pulls up.
After a close up of a woman from the choir, we move again to such exciting action as: some men listening to tuneless electronica on a radio while they respray a car. You can tell they are baddies: they have appallingly out of context cockney accents for Oxford.
However, the class of the production is hinted at in shot of Morse from within the garage through the bolted doors. The intercutting of the classical with the crass modernity as signified by the music choices and locations continues before the impending victory of the law and order side is represented by the drowning out of the modern music and the man from inside realises that it’s a trap (“It’s da law!” he shrieks), men in hard hats sneak up and handcuff him to the door of his car.
In the days of Regan and The Sweeney this would have been the time he would have bounded out and traded blows with the “blaggers”. Here, he sits passively, while he is left trying to block the escape of the criminals.
There is a poignancy and clarity of symbolism in the ownership of this car by Morse. A Mark II Jaguar was so often used as the car of the criminals in the earlier series that later Thaw claimed that he had witnessed it being written off several times in The Sweeney and that allegedly, this was the reason Thaw was frequently seen in close-up driving the vehicle as it was being towed because it had broken down.
Here, the climax of the action is the criminals crashing into Morse’s car while he looks to the heaven’s being serenaded by the choir with an exasperated look on his face, as though the holy spirit of Regan and his physicality is finally being exorcised.
And it is this change, this passive exorcism, which lies at the heart of Thaw’s performance as we see the final move between the 1970s rough and tumble to the leisurely pace and intellect of Morse and the 1980s.
In that same Bookclub interview James Naughtie describes Morse thus; “He’s grumpy, he’s odd, he’s lonely, he’s not always kind to people he loves underneath.” But he then asks, “Why do we warm to him?” Dexter replies, “I think quite a lot of the ladies would like to go to bed with him… but I think people enjoy Morse because he was sensitive and vulnerable to a certain extent. Never quite happy about life, but always wonderfully happy about his love of music and poetry.” Thaw is the constant embodiment of this duality; the soul of an artist, the tortured longing of the unfulfilled.
The programme ran until the year 2000, consistently drawing large audiences and spawned the spin off Lewis as well as the aforementioned Endeavour. Success does not always breed total fondness and even the British Film Institute’s (BFI) entry for the series on its Screenonline section has the slightly less than effusive Philip Wickham couching his praise in backhanded terms: “’Middlebrow’ is often used as a derogatory term in British culture… the series offers little that is new or challenging; it adopts the familiar patterns of the English ‘whodunnit’…No one could accuse the programme of being grittily realistic – Oxford’s murder rate rivalled the Bronx…There is a formulaic edge to the series that veers occasionally to parody.”
Not all of 1987 has aged as well as Inspector Morse. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Chevy Chase’s Three Amigos! (and his post-Community career), A-ha’s Cry Wolf, The Housemartins’ Caravan of Love and Alison Moyet’s Is This Love were all near the top of the charts in their respective mediums and are all wearing the years more heavily than Morse. But, with his classic cars, his classical music and his preserved architecture, he was never of the time anyway, so he could scarcely be out it now.
Inspector Morse is well worth #revisiting and will surely reign supreme over domestic television crime fiction for at least 30 years more.