An obsession with crosswords and an education in Classics inspired one of the smartest fictional detectives. Crime Scene looks back three decades to the arrival of Inspector Morse on screen...
Coppers who rely on brains not brawn,” announced the TV Times when Inspector Morse arrived on a Tuesday night in January 1987. The three feature-length episodes in the first series quickly established the show – based on Colin Dexter’s novels – as a superior whodunit. Yet the casting of John Thaw as the cerebral detective was a surprise move at the time. The actor was best known for playing Jack Regan, the macho Flying Squad officer in The Sweeney. Morse was a more sensitive soul: a lover of poetry, a romantic and a loner. Opening episode “The Dead Of Jericho” is almost a deliberate rebuke to TV’S cursing coppers who administered slaps to villains. Anthony Minghella’s adaptation, directed by Alastair Reid, begins with a choral recital intercut with a scene in which Morse has a minor prang in his Mark 2 Jaguar. Compared to The Sweeney’s car chases, shoot-outs and punch-ups, it set a slower pace as well as introducing a simmering mystery from the start: “I don’t know your first name,” says the piano teacher Morse is walking home past the college spires on the way to the Oxford district of Jericho. “That’s right, I don’t use it,” he tells her. Before long, the woman is dead – the first of many unfortunate romantic entanglements for Morse.
His sidekick is the more plodding DS Lewis, a supporting role in which Kevin Whately distinguished himself. Dexter’s Lewis was originally an older man – a Welsh grandfather – so it was the ultimate compliment when the author made him younger for later books in line with the Geordie actor.
But then Dexter always had Morse, who shares many of his creator’s interests, including Latin, Greek, the music of Wagner, beer and crosswords. The 13 books, published between 1975 and 1999, abound with clues, puzzles and clever plotting.
“I’m interested in the technical puzzle of a series of clues,” said Dexter in 1987. “I would call myself a whodunit rather than a whydunit or howdunit writer. I’m a little short on the psychological side and I don’t know anything about police work.”
Dexter’s modesty might have created the false impression that the show improved on the source material. In fact, the books won several Dagger awards and Dexter is regarded as one of the major British post-war crime writers. It’s also no coincidence that some of the best TV episodes were based on his stories.
Famously, the impetus for writing the first book was a wet summer holiday in Wales in 1972. Dexter decided that the crime novel he had picked up was boring and he might do better. Starting with Last Bus To Woodstock, he wrote them alongside his day job at an Oxford exam board.
Morse, who studied at Oxford, certainly wasn’t the first intellectual policeman to appear in a crime novel. There was a tradition of donnish, gentleman detectives in the Golden Age of crime between the wars, while P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh was a policeman and a published poet.
In 1987, however, it was a bold move for prime-time ITV to feature an opera-loving, brainy policeman. The two-hour format – now standard for shows such as Midsomer Murders and Endeavour – was resisted by some TV executives as too much to ask of viewers. Even Dexter was unsure. “I thought it might well turn out to be tragic misjudgement,” he once said, adding: “I am wrong even more times than Morse.”
The feature-length concept had been championed by producer Kenny Mcbain. He bought the rights and sold the show to Central Television’s Ted Childs, who became executive producer. Mcbain was also responsible for signing up Whately as Lewis, a deliberate change from the books, as well as bringing in composer Barrington Pheloung for the memorable theme tune. The Jag was also Mcbain’s choice – in the books it was a Lancia.
Thaw’s classy performance as the grumpy loner was an immediate success. The Oxford backdrop helped Inspector Morse peak at 18 million UK viewers, and it sold to more than 200 countries. Central Television won the Queen’s Award for Export in 1989, just days after Mcbain died, aged 42, of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His legacy is a TV phenomenon that ran for 33 episodes from 1987 to 2000. Guest stars included John Gielgud, Richard Briers, Jim Broadbent, Amanda Burton and a young Elizabeth Hurley. One of the show’s regulars was Dexter himself, who made a cameo appearance in almost every episode.
While Morse is a slightly less refined character in the books, Dexter’s plots were a perfect match for the feature-length episodes. The Silent World Of Nicholas Quinn (1977) features an ingenious idea involving a deaf man who lip-reads (Dexter’s own deafness had forced him to retire from teaching in the ’60s).
When production slowed to a film a year after the seventh complete series in 1993, it allowed the filmmakers to focus on Dexter’s new books in the ’90s. For fans it was a welcome development, following less successful episodes based on original scripts. “Cherubim And Seraphim”, directed by Danny Boyle, featured Morse investigating rave culture. “Promised Land” (1991), meanwhile, saw the duo travel to Australia on an investigation and felt like an entirely different show.
Morse was better on home turf; “The Wench Is Dead” even confined him to an Oxford hospital bed and still produced a gripping story. A clever idea with shades of Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter Of Time, the adaptation had Morse laid up with an ulcer investigating a historical case from 1859 in which a young woman’s body was found in the Oxford Canal.
Morse’s screen death in “The Remorseful Day” (2000) was prompted by Dexter’s novel published a year earlier. The author, admitting he was running out of ideas — and having clocked up around 80 dead bodies in the TV series — killed off Morse (of a heart attack) and wrote no further books. “I’m naturally saddened to take leave of the melancholy, sensitive, vulnerable, independent, ungracious, mean-pocketed Morse,” he said. The death of the character hit the headlines, as did the revelation in the previous book of Morse’s first name.
As readers finally discovered in Death Is Now My Neighbour (1996), “Endeavour” was inspired by Morse’s parents’ Quaker faith and the name of Captain Cook’s ship. In typically cryptic fashion, Morse offers a clue: “My whole life’s effort has revolved around Eve.” Once the anagram of “around Eve” is cracked in the screen version, Whately’s Lewis commiserates with his boss: “You poor sod.”
Barely a year after the final episode aired, Thaw died, aged just 60. In 2006, Whately returned to his role in Lewis, which also ran for 33 episodes. When the spin-off finished in November 2015, the Morse prequel Endeavour was already a fixture. Including those 32 episodes in which Morse and Lewis solved cases together (Whately missed a single instalment), at least one of the detectives has appeared on ITV in one of the three shows for 25 years since 1987.
But no other actor will ever be able to match Thaw in the role of the middle-aged Chief Inspector, not least because of a strict clause in Dexter’s will that forbids any remakes. “A lot of people connected with Morse didn’t want anyone coming along to say we will try and outdo dear old John,” the author commented in 2014. “I said I’m not ever going to allow that, full stop… We never want to repeat what John has done.” Once Endeavour comes to an end, Morse will finally be laid to rest. Inspector Morse is on DVD and on ITV3.
The final episode was a television landmark. The Morse stars with author Colin Dexter.
Dsrobbie Lewis (Kevin Whately) was a constant support and frequent foil tomorse (John Thaw).