Revisiting… Inspector Morse

30 Not Out.

Sunday night, 8th January 2017, the fourth series of ITV’s Endeavour begins. With a pleasingly orchestrated symmetry, this also marks the 30th Anniversary of its beloved origin show, Inspector Morse.

Morse on DVD

The DVDs of the Complete Inspector Morse episodes are available for purchase from Amazon

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

The previous year, 1986, had included  modern classics like The Singing Detective  and The Monocled Mutineer so, there were things of note happening on television.

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:

title-card

Cut to: a close up of the moving bonnet of a red classic Jaguar, shiny polished chrome of the big cat gleaming.

morses-bonnet

We get our first look at Thaw, a serious look on his face.

serious-morse

The music swells, the car sails past like a stately ocean liner. As he passes, a sign on the wall reads: beware-morse

This is exactly the sort of instruction designed to insight maximum disobedience from Regan, not so for Morse. He pulls up.

Another cut:

dead-of-jericho

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.

exasperated-thaw

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.

Train Ride

The 17:15 had one seat left. Tattered, and coloured in the paint factory explosion beloved of rail company liveries, it was tucked against the wall with an embarrassed air.

Tinny music leaked from cheap headphones seeping from behind her; an old woman tutted. A mother could be heard explaining why the train hadn’t moved. Two men in expensive suits spoke in incongruous accents about West Ham’s defeat.

Her shoes were off, balancing on the hardened edge of the seat. The must rose through her tights and she took off her glasses and massaged her temples in a clichéd pose.

She looked at the window. The smear of forehead grease, the nicks and scratches of countless tree branch scrapes and dashes. There was mould around the loosening putty of the frame and a creeping fog of condensation between the two glass sheets in need of replacement.

She scrabbled through the detritus of her bag for a book and she clutched at the bag as it nearly slipped, threatening to scatter tampons, lipstick, pocket book and purse onto the floor.

She heard the automatic door and began shuffling her feel, trying to tuck them back into her slip-ons.

He was tall. Tall, like he had to duck to move through the door, tall.

He raised an eyebrow of permission.

She opened her book at the same moment as the bells pinged. There was the three ring blast of closing doors and the train began to chug out of the station. She was self conscious now. He had wonderful eyes. She opened the chubby novel and shifted in her seat. She chanced a glance up from her page and saw this he was reading his newspaper, casually folded in on itself.

‘If it’s the Daily Mail, I’m giving up on men once and for all and visiting Sapphic island, that’s all there is to it’ she thought.

The newspaper was a curve ball. She had hoped for The Guardian – at best – at worst The Independent, if one really must take a newspaper fashioned in a dolls house. Obviously no one took The Times now it only came in comic size. But the International Herald Tribune was a surprising selection. American? Possibly.

The train ambled on. The motion not soothing enough for sleep, nor uncomfortable enough for complaint. She looked out the window. Darkness had drawn in whilst she’d been indulging her taste for amateur media analysis and now she was back to the harshness of her reflection, backlit by the firefly strength bulbs of the carriage.

She knew that he was watching her. Is it an animalistic, danger signal left over from prehistory that makes us sense being watched? Whatever, he was watching her so it would pay to check that her nose was clean and that her blouse hadn’t unwittingly fallen open.

She shuffled her eyes to the left and met his eyes in the reflection. They glistened even in the smudged reflection of the South Central service window.  She risked a look directly across at him. He still held her gaze. Smiled.

It was a good smile. Well judged. Not sleazy or louche nor honed and practiced to the point of confidence. His teeth were white enough to be attractive without speaking of masses of expensive cosmetic dental treatments and evenly spaced enough to be right, but not so regulation as to speak of teenage anguish and slurred sibilance.

She held his eye for a flirtatious fraction too long and went back to her book. When next she peeked up, he was sunk in his crossword. Yet she knew he was looking up too. A mating dance of apprentice peacocks. She wanted to fan herself like Elizabeth Bennett and be witty and coy, yet seductive at the same time. But wit, coyness and Jane Austen never feature highly on public transport so she, once again, returned to the novel.

As the adenoidal voice of the announcer gibbered the imminent arrival of the train into South Ruislip, she realized with horror that he was preparing to get up. He was fishing for his battered briefcase and pedantically clipped the lid back onto his fountain pen.

He caught her eye, stood and ducked as he moved through the panting of the automated door to wait for egress. Continuing on to West Ruislip, and the end of the line, she went back to her novel. From across the carriage, she watched the tall man bob his head as he walked briskly along the platform.

Idly, she reached across for the orphaned Herald Tribune which lay lazily folded on his still warm seat. She wondered how well he’d got on with the crossword. She frowned. He wasn’t as methodical as she’d have liked. Words were in the boxes but no clues had been scored through to denote completion. Very ill disciplined.

In the boxes, block capitals spaced evenly between horizontal and vertical, were the words:

“YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL. I SHALL NEVER FORGET YOU”