CRYP­TIC CLUES

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...

Crime Scene - - SPOTLIGHT -

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).

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