Inspector Morse — Killer TV No.32

ITV, 1987-2000

‘Richards didn’t kill her, but I’ll tell you who did. Do you want to know?’ – Detective inspector Morse
‘Are you taking the piss?’ – Detective sergeant Lewis
‘No, no, I’m not. The man who killed Anne Staveley is called Sophocles.’ – Morse
‘Who’s he when he’s at home?’ – Lewis
‘Look, I want you to do a couple of things for me, and then I’ll explain everything.’ – Morse
‘… Do I know this Sophocles? – Lewis
‘Only if you loved your mother, Lewis.’ – Morse
John Thaw, Kevin Whately, James Grout
Identikit: The cases of detective inspector Morse and his sergeant, Lewis, set in the university town of Oxford.


TV schedules, particularly in the UK, are jammed with detective procedurals shot in twee locations, most of which are televisual Horlicks – Midsomer Murders, Rosemary and Thyme, etc etc etc. Inspector Morse, however, got the formula right, and remains an outstanding success that UK television honchos would today still sell their children to replicate – hence the spin-offs Lewis (based on Morse’s successor and former deputy) and Endeavour (1960s-set prequel). The picturesque setting of Oxford was not too gratingly prim, being fairly pertinent to the stories in that Morse was a product of the university (though he didn’t complete his degree). In fact, he is so sharp intellectually that it was inevitable that he should end up a loner in his profession, even baffling his sidekick Lewis most of the time, such as when he alludes to a dead woman’s oedipal predicament in the pilot (quoted above). Based on Colin Dexter’s novels and brought to the screen by Tony Warren, Anthony Minghella and Kenny McBain, the secret to the show’s success was not just the procedural/whodunit mechanics of the mysteries, but the character of Morse and John Thaw’s affecting performance. He was more than the sum of his habits, however – beer, 1960 Mark 2 Jag, crosswords and Wagner. There was always a hint of melancholy about the singleton detective that made viewers root for him. His distinctive character was evident from the very first story, The Dead of Jericho – the real ale, his looking for love (the woman he is wooing in the pilot ends up dead), the mystery of his christian name, the classical music and gruffness. To some extent there was a lack of emotional depth to the drama in that Morse’s character did not develop much beyond these traits during seven series and five specials. But the intricate stories, boldly given two-hour slots in which to unfold by ITV, and the chemistry between John Thaw and Kevin Whately as Morse and Lewis added up to a staggeringly popular formula.
Spin-offs: Lewis, a sequel starring Kevin Whately, ran for several seasons from 2006. Endeavour, the prequel starring Shaun Evans, had its pilot in 2012.
Classic episode: Second Time Around from 1991. Morse believes the murder of a retired detective may be linked to a cold case from 18 years before – an investigation Morse was involved with concerning the murder of an eight-year-old girl, and which still haunted him. 

Watercooler fact: John Thaw, who died at the early age of 60 from cancer of the oesophagus, was a hugely popular TV actor in the UK who won numerous awards for his portrayal of Morse, including two Baftas and three National Television Awards, the latter being voted for by viewers.

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Lewis 8, ITV, with Kevin Whately, Laurence Fox PREVIEW

Lewis series 8 KEVIN WHATELY (DI Robert Lewis) LAURENCE FOX as Di James Hathaway and ANGELA GRIFFIN as SGT Lizzie Maddox
Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately), Lizzie Maddox (Angela Griffin) and James Hathaway. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★ 

ITV: starts Friday, 10 October, 9pm

Story: Hathaway has been fast-tracked to inspector, though his man management skills are lacking, which leads to Lewis being called out of retirement to help with the case of a murdered neurosurgeon…

LEWIS IS STILL venerated and regarded as having a special place in viewers’ hearts. The Mirror today describes it as ‘much-loved’, and Radio Times has given it the double-page spread treatment.

All of which is odd for such an average drama. Even ITV seem a little cooler about it. There’s no hullabaloo, no press pack or special screenings for the media.

The answer is pretty obvious. The spin-off built on affection for Inspector Morse has plodded on well past its best days. Even in Radio Times its lead star Kevin Whately calls it a ‘dinosaur of a show’. Meanwhile, his co-star Laurence Fox says he hasn’t left because ‘I’m not really very… well, what’s the word… driven’.

Wow, let’s cancel that evening out and settle down for two hours with the old dinosaur, shall we?

Lewis series 8 KARA TOINTON as Erica Stoke
What is widow Erica (Kara Tointon) hiding?

Lewis nears the end

The reason ITV still make it is that Lewis is a bit of an open goal for the channel – like England playing San Marino. It’s got its diehard core audience, but there’s little sense of joy and achievement when you stick five past them.

When the last series concluded, Lewis was about to retire. The perfect moment to bring the curtain down? No, best to carry on even though the actors barely seem to have the heart for it any more.

In Radio Times Whately indicates the next, ninth, series should be the last. ‘I would probably do one more. But everything has a life span and I think it’s gone on long enough. There were 33 Inspector Morse stories and we’ve now done 30 Lewis. I wouldn’t want to do more than we did Morse because I do still think of it as an offshoot. There’s the age thing as well – I’m older than John Thaw was when he died.’

So many better crime dramas around

Part of the problem for Lewis – and I suspect the actors and production team probably know it – is that there are so many better crime dramas around now, from homegrown acclaimed hits such as Broadchurch and Happy Valley to the Nordic excellence of The Killing and The Bridge. That’s without mentioning the edgier brilliance of the US subscription channel shows Breaking Bad or True Detective… continued

True, Lewis‘s audience would no doubt hate the violence and darkness of these dramas. But even in its storytelling, Lewis is behind the times.

Modern series have captured the zeitgeist with stories that have a beginning, middle and end. The eight episodes of Broadchurch reached a shattering conclusion, and was built on finely imagined characters. Where the holy grail of TV series used to be characters such as Columbo or Morse or Bodie and Doyle remaining on a loop, facing a similar case or adversary every week, these days audiences want to invest in characters and go on a journey.

Lewis series 8 LEO STARR (Simon Eastwood)
The victim’s rival, Simon Eastwood

Angela Griffin joins the team

Having said that, Lewis and Hathaway have undergone a slight change in this eighth series, before getting down to business as usual, with the murder of a neurosurgeon. Hathaway also has a underling to be difficult with, namely Angela Griffin’s sergeant Maddox.

So, the dynamic has shifted a little after eight years of Lewis. The actors hit their marks, the production values are high and after two hours of ‘where were you on the night of the 14th’, there is resolution.

‘It’s much more plot-heavy than it ever used to be,’ says Fox in another casual swipe to the show. ‘I always try to fight for a bit more character-based drama… But we live in a world of drama by committee.’

Time for Lewis fans and the actors to move on.

Check out these links…
Lewis on ITV Player
Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox in Radio Times

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Lewis – still fit for duty?

Kevin Whately as Lewis in series finale The Indelible Stain. Pics: ITV

Script developer Charlotte Biermann investigates ITV1’s latest series of Lewis…

Last episode of the season, The Indelible Stain, is on ITV1, Wednesday 6 June, 8pm

The sixth series of Lewis returned amid a hiatus; before the first episode had even aired the creator of its forefather, Inspector Morse,  provocatively stated in a Radio Times interview that he did not think Lewis ‘can go on much longer’, which promptly forced ITV’s hand to retort that it remained ‘committed’ to the show. So, of course, the question is being asked: Is Lewis’s time coming to an end?

David Soul guest stars in ‘The Indelible Stain’

The current series has been inconsistent. After Colin Dexter’s heralded doom, the first episode – The Soul of Genius – with its theme based on Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, seemed to strike back. With strong, and at times witty, writing that tightened the almost father/son relationship of Lewis and Hathaway and with a delightfully self-conscious Hathaway being awkwardly seduced, it was a joy to watch.

Third episode of Lewis was disappointing
Then came the second, Generation of Vipers, which continued the literary theme with Troilus and Cressida and the (un)romantic theme of our leading men, albeit in a more subtle manner. However the overall story was not quite as tight and did leave a few ‘hang on a minute…’ questions in its wake.

Sadly, episode three, Fearful Symmetry, while obviously taking its title from Blake’s poem The Tiger, failed to keep ‘the ball up in the air’ so to speak. It was disappointing in that the investigation hinged on a soft toy and failed to fully intertwine all the strands; instead, it lazily gave the perpetrator a mental illness that came out of the blue at last minute.

To use Dexter’s own words it was ‘not up to scratch’.

British audiences these days are too sophisticated to be fully satisfied by such one dimensional and frankly, flat writing. Not when recent dramas, the Scandinavian series in particular, are offering such complex and detailed storylines.

Jason Durr as DI Peterson, Kevin Whately as DI Lewis and Laurence Fox as DS  Hathaway

So when episodes such as last Wednesday’s Fearful Symmetry are aired, then it is hard to convince those critical of Lewis that he is worth holding on to. Perhaps he should happily retire and make way for new blood. However, clinging to the hope that the next and last episode – The Indelible Stain, starring David Soul – will return the richness of the series’ earlier offerings, I do think there is still a place for these more gentle and comfy police procedurals.

Diverse TV audience
TV schedules should be diverse. We don’t always need to see bloody and mutilated cadavers and follow overtly gruesome plots of a human being’s twisted behavior.

Some audiences want to be able to sit back and feel the poignancy of death rather be horrified by human cruelty. Not everything has to challenge or have the zeitgeist, providing there are other such shows around.

Lewis needs strong writing
Ultimately, TV audiences tend to be loyal; look at when Silent Witness tried to kill of one of its leading characters, Harry. Outrage abounded. And remember, Lewis has been threatened before. In 2009 ITV was all set to cancel it but audience demand saw it return.

If Lewis is soon retired it will be because the plots have failed to intrigue and thrill, so strong writing is a must, but for now it would seem the everyman detective is still too fondly appreciated to be relinquished just yet.

• Charlotte Biermann studied acting at drama school, before going behind the scenes to work at the BBC on shows from Crime Watch to the One Show and with Stephen Poliakoff. She subsequently worked at two talent agencies and is now a Film & TV Script Developer

Lewis series 6 with Kevin Whately PREVIEW

Back on the case – Kevin Whately as Lewis. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★½

ITV1: starts Wednesday, 16 May, 8pm

Story: Botanist Liv Nash accidentally digs up the body of recently buried English Professor Murray Hawes. Lewis and Hathaway have to discover how a man fixated upon ‘solving’ the riddle of Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ ended up in a shallow grave.  Was his obsession dangerous enough to get him killed?

Can anyone get hugely excited about the sixth series of Lewis?

It might seem ill-mannered to be rude about a venerable TV institution, but – let’s face it – we all know how it’s going to go.

It will start with dreaming spires and lush music. There’ll be a corpse, and Lewis and Hathaway will appear at the crime scene. Lewis will dance round that blonde pathologist, but nothing will happen romantically, while Hathaway will show off his Latin and at some point the two lonely detectives will have a pint at a nice pub. The murderer will be apprehended from a line-up of snooty cleverdicks and local oddballs at the end of two hours.

Having a laugh down the pub – Hathaway and Lewis

Would-be Miss Marple
And that’s exactly what happens in the first of the four latest mysteries – ‘The Soul of Genius’. Lush music over and we’re at the crime scene, a botanist having found a body buried in the woods. ‘Male adult, must have been in there a couple of weeks,’ Dr Laura Hobson says.

The suspects include the dead man’s intellectual snob of a brother, the Reverend Dr Conor Hawes (a dead ringer for The Bride of Frankenstein‘s Dr Pretorius), played by Alex Jennings, and local ‘gentleman scientist’ Dr Alex Falconer, aka James Fleet.

Then there’s unstable Professor Wright – actress Matilda Ziegler – and interfering would-be Miss Marple, Michelle Marber, played by Celia Imrie, who switches from eccentric to tragic beautifully.

Kevin Whately’s 26th year as Lewis
It’s all very polished and as comfy as an old cardigan. Lewis looks great and there are good performances, intriguing twists of character and tender scenes – particularly when Lewis bonds with Mrs Marber over their mutual grief (his departed wife and her son).

Kevin Whately and Celia Imrie

So, why am I not aquiver with anticipation for the new series?

When Showtime (Homeland), AMC (Breaking Bad) and HBO (Boardwalk Empire) in the States, along with the Danish and Swedish networks (The Killing, The Bridge) – damnit, even Israeli TV looks worth a peek at the moment (Prisoners of War) – when all these are all producing such riveting and original series, it’s hard to get worked up about Kevin Whately’s 26th year playing Lewis (if you include the Morse years).

Let’s have a crime series that’s daring
OK, a lot of people love Lewis (a hefty 6.3 million watched series 5), and it sells everywhere from Russia to the Middle East. Despite this, Colin Dexter, the creator of Lewis‘s guvnor Inspector Morse who still has input with the spin-off, caused a rumpus in this week’s Radio Times by saying, ‘They’ll probably do one more series.’

This prompted ITV to say it is ‘committed to Lewis‘ and series 7 goes into production next month. But even if Lewis did retire, there is a new series of Endeavour for fans to look forward to, but good luck to these staples, so long as there is an audience for them.

But against what to me is the homegrown Mogadon of same old, same old – Midsomer Murders, Silent Witness, Lewis, New Tricks – it would be deliriously intoxicating to see ITV and the Beeb sometime soon stepping out of the comfort zone of the past hits and formats to produce a crime drama that is an intelligent, ballsy, 10- or 20-part epic.

Cast: Kevin Whately DI Robert Lewis, Laurence Fox DS James Hathaway, Clare Holman Dr Laura Hobson, Rebecca Front Ch Supt Innocent, Oliver Johnstone Vincent Vega/Simon Dawkins, Daisy May Mia Wallace/Isobel Strong, Nadine Lewington Liv Nash, Paul Jerricho Mr Atkins, Alex Jennings Rev Conor Hawes, Celia Imrie Michelle Marber, Matilda Ziegler Helena Wright, Richard Durden John Gracey, James Fleet Dr Alex Falconer, Lotte Rice Kirsty, Annabel Mullion Verity Falconer 

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Endeavour with Shaun Evans PREVIEW

Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse. Pics: ITV

Rating ★★★★½

ITV1, Monday, 2 January, 9pm

Story: 1965. A schoolgirl is missing in Oxford. A young detective constable is drafted in from the anonymous Midlands new town where he is stationed to help with the investigation because he knows the Oxford area. It is a case that will shape Endeavour Morse’s life and career.

He only ever used to be known as Morse, the detective finally revealing his christian name after Inspector Morse had been on air for 10 years in 1997. Now as everyone knows, Morse was named after Captain Cook’s ship HMS Endeavour and the moniker can be plastered all over this impressive two-hour prequel.

John Thaw

The much-loved original, which ran for 33 episodes from 1987-2000, starred John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as his sidekick, Lewis, setting the standard for UK police procedurals. Thaw died relatively young at 60 in 2002, and while Lewis, of course, is still with us, the temptation to resurrect Morse somehow was too good to let slip away.

Shaun Evans and Roger Allam
This much anticipated new mystery is a scandal on a suitably large scale, involving bent cops, murder and a corrupt government minister. The cast – including Shaun Evans as Morse and Roger Allam as his boss/mentor DI Fred Thursday – are actors who bring depth to the lead roles, and the period setting is understated. And for Morse fans, the hero’s background is fleshed out well.

The young Endeavour is called on to assist in an investigation into the disappearance of 15-year-old schoolgirl because he is familiar with Oxford, where he did Greats but didn’t finish his degree. DS Arthur Lott makes it clear to Morse and his fellow draftees that they are there to ‘take up the slack’, do the grunt work, and leave the detecting to him and Thursday.

Morse and Thursday

But Morse immediately stands out as a serious-minded detective with a questioning nature – which sets him at odds with Lott. It is Morse who works out that the missing teenager had a lover who was communicating with her through crosswords in the local paper. ‘Codswallop,’ says Lott, but Morse is proved right.

Colin Dexter

Abigail Thaw

Fans will appreciated the crossword touch, which would also appeal to the creator of Morse and crossword lover Colin Dexter, now 81, who makes a Hitchcockian cameo in a pub garden. The drama is actually written by Russell Lewis, who has done a good job of embellishing the Morse story.

We learn how Morse got his taste for beer, classical music and the famous maroon Jag. Shaun Evans captures much of the character’s melancholia, particularly when the case blows up in his face and he develops an infatuation for the opera singer wife of a suspect.

John Thaw’s daughter Abigail
The production has so much of the original’s DNA in its make-up that several of the behind-camera crew had also worked on Inspector Morse, and there is even a role for John Thaw’s daughter, Abigail, who plays an employee of the local paper.

Scandalous parties and cover-ups

What begins as a missing person inquiry snowballs into a murder, a suicide and a scandal in which high-level politicians and policemen are attending sex parties with under-age girls. The story has a lot more grit to it than many of the originals or Lewis, and less of the chocolate-box obsession with Oxford spires and quadrangles.

Charlie Creed-Miles is the nasty spiv
Roger Allam is warmly authoritative as Thursday, the ex-soldier and solid copper who is willing to bend the rules to slap down spivs such as Teddy Samuels (Charlie Creed-Miles) and dodgy cops such as Arthur Lott.

It’s a sharp and inspiring tribute to Morse on the 25th anniversary of its very first episode. Surely, a series will follow.

Cast: Shaun Evans Endeavour, Roger Allam DI Fred Thursday, Flora Montgomery Rosalind Stromming, Harry Kershaw Miles Percival, Charlie Creed-Miles Teddy Samuels, Danny Webb DS Arthur Lott, Jack Ashton DC Ian McLeash, Richard Lintern Dr Rowan Stromming, Patrick Malahide Richard Lovell, John Light Dempsey, Abigail Thaw Dorothea Frazil, Michael Matus Brian St Clair, Emma Stansfield Sharon Vellie, James Bradshaw Dr Max De Bryn, Terence Harvey DCS Crisp

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Lewis – series 5 PREVIEW

Hathaway (Laurence Fox) and Lewis (Kevin Whately). Pics: (C) ITV Plc

Rating ★★★

ITV1, from Sunday, 3 April, 8pm

Lewis series five will be getting some viewers very excited. This spin-off from the fondly remembered Inspector Morse is as comfy as an old glove, and the Oxford setting as distantly aspirational as an idealised university town can be.

And it’s still lush (as they say in Wales). Lush string music (by Barrington Pheloung), lush photography, lush guest stars. It’s a well-mounted and familiar procedural that springs few surprises but should still delight its fans in an amazing 120 countries.

Juliet Stevenson plays a haughty, ‘famously celebate’ Professor Diana Ellerby in the opener, Old, Unhappy, Far Off Things. A leading light in the feminist movement, she’s leaving Oxford’s last all-female college and heading to Princeton. At her leaving do, however, one of her former students, Poppy, is found murdered at the foot of some stairs.

Juliet Stevenson, Zoë Telford and Stephanie Street

Juliet Stevenson and Zoë Telford

Kevin Whately’s Lewis furrows his brow at the whole business, convinced it is somehow linked to an attack from 10 years previously, which involved another of the prof’s golden set. This was Ruth Brook (Hattie Morahan), whose 15-year-old sister, Chloe (Antonia Campbell Hughes), has been in a coma ever since.

Actresses Zoë Telford and Stephanie Street enliven the plot as other snooty members of Diana’s circle, who it seems have had their lives blighted by a secret hate campaign waged against them.
Of course, the college is riven with old secrets and further deaths must follow before all is revealed.

The episode briefly develops a heartbeat when Saskia Reeves appears as Ali McLennan, a former colleague of Lewis’s. She has a twinkle in her eye for her old boss and provides a few smiles amid all the grumpy faces talking of blunt instruments and time of death.

A lot of dead women in this new series

Zoë Telford, Stephanie Street and Hattie Morahan

One trademark weakness of long-running series like this is that the principals, such as Lewis and Hathaway (Laurence Fox) here, barely ever come alive. They drink in the pub, Hathaway listens to Mozart on his iPod, and Lewis thinks his sergeant is all right. And that’s just about it. So when Ali threatens to set Lewis’s pulse stirring, this storyline is quickly terminated.

There is also a quite outrageous coincidence in this episode involving Chloe, which makes your jaw drop for the wrong reasons. The series always requires a huge suspension of disbelief, but this ‘twist’ was a bit cheeky.

There are four two-hour stories in this new series, all involving a lot of dead females: Wild Justice, which kicks off with a poisoned female bishop, and stars Ronald Pickup; The Mind Has Mountains, in which a young female student taking part in a drugs trial is found dead, with Douglas Henshall; and the The Gift of Promise, which sees a businesswoman brutally bludgeoned to death, and starring Cherie Lunghi, Lorcan Cranitch and Anna Chancellor.

Lewis is a money-spinner for ITV and will no doubt continue for as long as viewers in Britain and around the world want to ogle the picturesque quads and sinister professors, which bear as much likeness to the education most of us receive as a term at Hogwarts.

But it would be nice if Lewis and Hathaway could one day get a life to go with the corpses.

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