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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Shetland, BBC1, starring Douglas Henshall PREVIEW

Shetland, BBC1, Douglas Henshall as Jimmy Perez
Douglas Henshall as Detective Perez. Pic: BBC

Rating: ★★★½

BBC1: starts Sunday, 10 March, 9pm

Story: Detective Jimmy Perez has returned to his native Shetland and is confronted by the shooting of an old lady and the discovery of human remains at an archaeological dig. 

The Shetland Islands are not quite far enough north to classify this new crime procedural as Scandi-noir, but they’re not far off. Gloomy and wind-blasted, they even have a Viking-themed fire festival and the locals have the same un-sunny complexion as the characters in The Killing or The Bridge.

Still, this remote outpost of the UK is an intriguing and magnificent setting – when there’s some daylight. It also has its challenges for our hero, Jimmy Perez, such as often having no phone signal or having to jump on a ferry to visit a murder scene.

Sandy, Jimmy and Tosh

Jimmy Perez investigates a granny’s murder
The detective is a native Shetlander who has returned home to bring up his stepdaughter, Cassie, following the death of his other half. The first killing he has to investigate is that of a grandmother, Mima, blasted with a shotgun at her isolated croft.

This two-part mystery is based on Ann Cleeves’ elegantly written novel, Red Bones (Ann is also the author of the Vera novels, soon to return to ITV). Sadly, this production falls into the trap of thrusting us straight in the police procedural element of the story without giving us much chance to learn about Jimmy, his return to the island with teenager Cassie, or his new colleagues – Sgt Billy McCabe, DC Alison ‘Tosh’ MacIntosh and PC Sandy Wilson.

Doulas Henshall heads a good cast in Shetland
So many British crime dramas are about detectives in a pretty setting asking people where they were on the night of the 15th. Sadly, Shetland slavishly follows the formula, leaving Jimmy and the other main characters flat.

Which is a shame, because the cast is good, the novel full of atmosphere and the islands are fascinating. But all we get here is the whodunit with tourist trappings – ceilidhs, seascapes and the rest, with little character interest.

Murdered for her land?
Anyway, back to the plot. Mima has been killed by the site of a dig where a human skull has just been found by Hattie, a young archaeologist. Perez realises that Mima may have been caught between the long-held animosities of two local families – the rich Haldanes and the struggling Wilsons.

Mima had been offered money for her land, which was targeted for holiday homes. Was she killed for her land? Or was it because she might close down the dig after the human remains were found, which for some reason upset her? Are the bones ancient or contemporary?

Up Helly Aa – the fire festival
The drama is ratcheted up nicely in part two as the annual fire festival, Up Helly Aa, is spectacularly recreated and Perez closes on the grievances that led to murder.

It’s a decent enough mystery, but a shame that Jimmy and co never burn as brightly as the festival.

Cast: Douglas Henshall Detective Jimmy Perez, Erin Armstrong Cassie, Gemma Chan Hattie James, Sandra Voe Mima Wilson, Alison O’Donnell Alison ‘Tosh’ MacIntosh, Lewis Howden Sgt Billy McCabe, Steven Robertson PC Sandy Wilson, Jim Sturgeon Ronald, Alexander Morton Joseph

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DCI Banks: Playing with Fire starring Stephen Tompkinson PREVIEW

Stephen Tompkinson is back on the case as DCI Banks. Pics: (C) Left Bank/ITV

Rating: ★★★

ITV1: Part 1 Friday, 16 September, 9pm

Story: Two bodies are found on separate canal narrowboats after a fire. Banks and Cabbot learn it was arson, but the discovery of a stash of money and a very valuable Turner painting make it hard for the detectives to work out a motive for the crime.

Do we really need another police procedural?

You know the format – Murder scene. Forensics. Where were you on the night of…? Det Insp Gruff and Det Sgt Sidekick at loggerheads. Breakthrough. Case solved.

We’ve already got Inspector George Gently, New Tricks, Scott & Bailey, Vera, Case Sensitive, Lewis and Midsomer Murders bumping into each other in the schedules. That’s without the US tsunami of CSIs, NCIS, Rizzoli & Isles, Body of Proof etc. Or Wallander (British and Swedish), or… well, you could go on. 

Stephen Tompkinson and Andrea Lowe
You’d think if a channel was going to elbow its way into this crowded crime scene with another procedural, it would come up with something breathtakingly fresh. Instead, we have DCI Banks.

Which is not bad, but it’s not dazzling either. Just more of the same.

Here it’s Stephen Tompkinson as Alan Banks, the actor seemingly cast on the basis that he is well known after the vet drama Wild at Heart, rather than for anything he brings to award-winning crime author Peter Robinson‘s often charming hero. No light and shade in Tomkinson’s Banks, however, just a lot of scowling and staring (see pics).

Love-hate – Cabbot and Banks

The chalk to his cheese – because detective and sidekick must always be ill-matched – is Andrea Lowe as DS Annie Cabbot. It is meant to be something of a love-hate relationship, but you’d need to be a top forensic specialist to detect any trace of chemistry between them for the love side of things.

Peter Robinson’s excellent novel
Watching them is quite a turn-off. She goes behind his back, he snarls at her for trying to show him up in front of colleagues. How their on-off ‘relationship’ is supposed to work is unfathomable.

But does this matter? The police procedural is now such an established template that they can be assembled with ill-fitting characters in lifeless stories and still clock up enough of an audience to be recommissioned. The first Banks series hit 6.7 million viewers, enough to bring us this new series of three two-part mysteries.

Who stares wins – Banks and Dr Aspern

The opener is called ‘Playing with Fire’, which was one of Peter Robinson’s stand-out stories. The episode opens with a man waking to find himself on fire. The blaze on a canal boat eventually leads to the discovery of two corpses.

Murder and the long-lost Turner
When a long-lost painting by Turner is uncovered, the motive for the crime becomes hard for Banks to discern. He begins to suspect the estranged family of one of the victims, Christina Aspern – particularly her father, Dr Patrick Aspern, and his weird young wife, Miranda. And this inevitably leads to conflict with Cabbot, who thinks Banks has it in for the doctor’s family.

It’s a strong story to start the series, but as usual in this format, the mechanics of whodunit override the characters. These are captivating and appealing in the novels, but flat and unbelievable on TV.

Suspicious – Miranda

It was the same with Ian Rankin’s creation John Rebus, a completely compelling maverick in the novels, who never came across in small-screen adaptations that were only really concerned with solving the crime – often the least memorable part of the books.

Detectives and sidekicks – time for a rest
This year has seen some tremendous crime dramas and thrillers, including The Shadow Line, Mad Dogs, The Field of Blood, Appropriate Adult and Page Eight, plus American shows such as Dexter, Justified and Boardwalk Empire – none of them plodding procedurals.

When the murder investigation show works, as in Prime Suspect or The Killing, it is unforgettable. But DCI Banks is a routine crime-show-by-numbers. Time for the genre to spend some time in solitary confinement.

Cast: Stephen Tompkinson DCI Alan Banks, Andrea Lowe DS Annie Cabbot, Lorraine Burroughs DS Winsome Jackman, Jack Deam DC Ken Blackstone, Colin Tierney CS Rydell, Tom Shaw DC Kevin Templeton, John Bowe Dr Patrick Aspern, Gary Cargill Jake McMahon, Marc Finn Geoff Hamilton, John Light Mark Keane, Tamzin Merchant Miranda, Jade Williams Gerry Siddons

Inspector George Gently – Gently Upside Down PREVIEW

Rating ★★★

BBC1, starts Sunday, 4 September, 8.30pm

Story: The body of a missing schoolgirl is found in woods. As Gently and Bacchus investigate, they are drawn into the burgeoning world of pop and media celebrity

Crime fans on Twitter and elsewhere have still got ruffled feathers over the Beeb’s decision to axe the stylish drama Zen after just one series. Why chop that and not Inspector George Gently, has been a recurring complaint.

The reasoning of BBC1 controller Danny Cohen that there were too many male-dominated cop shows is pretty daft. If anything, Gently‘s leads of Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby are more hairy than Zen‘s (Rufus Sewell and Caterina Murino).

What’s more likely is that Gently is a settled brand, now in its fourth series, that’s ticking over nicely with overseas sales and an audience of around 5.5 million, it ticks the nostalgia box and presumably it has been cheaper to film in the UK/Ireland than Italy.

Bacchus ‘on a promise’
But while Gently is not bad, it’s not that special either. It is one of many by-the-numbers procedurals that fill the schedules, right down to the gruff detective and his regulation sidekick saying lines such as, ‘Where were you on the night of Friday the 29th?’

Pitch this well-worn template to any channel boss, throw in a nice regional setting (in this case, the North East) and a bit of nostalgia (Swinging Sixties), and it seems you can’t fail to get your cop show commissioned.

The shame is that this plodding formula never allows the plods we see every week to come to life. Apart some a couple of throwaway exchanges at the beginning and end of Gently Upside Down about Bacchus being ‘on a promise’ after work, the detective and sidekick remain crime-solving automatons.

Schoolgirl victim’s affair
At least the 2007 pilot gave Gently some human interest, when he postponed his retirement to track down his wife’s murderer in Northumberland (based on Alan Hunter‘s Inspector Gently novels).

Anyway, this first of two 90-minute films (the second is Goodbye China), sees Gently and his mop-top sidekick investigating the murder of a schoolgirl, Mary. It cleverly uses the explosion in youth and celebrity culture by having a couple of the victim’s friends getting mixed up with the makers of a hit regional pop show. 

Newcomer Kate Bracken – a very good ‘It Girl’
Detective and sidekick think Mary was having an affair with an older man, and proceed to suspect every older man who crosses their path – Mary’s father, the music teacher, the deputy head, the fading, ageing TV presenter. The latter is played by Neil Morrissey, who does a nice turn as a dissolute, lecherous has-been.

The mystery’s resolution is tinged with sadness, and the guest performances are good, particularly Sean Gilder as Mary’s father, and newcomer Kate Bracken as her friend and potential Sixties It Girl, Hazel.

So, a decent episode. But it’s still hard not to miss Zen.

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