Lockdown, Lowdown… Ringside Report Looks Back at the TV Show The Morse Universe
By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart
This is not an explanation nor a list of actors within the realms of a television series, but a homage. Oh, actors shall be named but before we get there, the advert…
Morse. Originally played by John Thaw, has been a part of our television screens for four decades. Running for 35 years, it has finally come to an end. That end was the final program in a prequel series, because Morse started at the middle, continued to the end and then went back to the beginning.
Confused? Nobody was.
It begins with Colin Dexter. Dexter was the originator, the author, the creator of a man who shared an intellectual approach to puzzles like many detectives before him. His sharp intellect was brought to the attention of murders in the academic atmosphere of Oxford. His prowess intellectually had never quite managed a degree but it had brought a man who appreciated the literature and the music of an era long gone. Detective Chief Inspector Morse.
Opera, poetry and literature were part of his weaponry. For 33 tales he graced our screens in an iconic portrayal that captivated and captured us. He may have drunk a little too much, have struggled with relationships and had some form of hidden past, but this was a man of crossword puzzles more than dodgy dealings. His disastrous relationships with women were heartfelt and we always hoped he would get the one; little did we know how close he came in his early life.
But in that original series, we did not know where that melancholy originated. In fact, we did not know his first name! He always only called himself Morse, until in one episode, close to his end, he revealed he was called, Endeavour. Ably assisted by his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis, played by Kevin Whately, after 33 episodes, Thaw called it a day. Morse had a heart attack in the quadrangle of an Oxford University. He expired telling his superior Chief Superintendent Strange to thank Lewis. We were in shock, after all this was a series winner and we all loved him dearly.
With Morse gone the British public retained their appetite for his world and Whately found himself taking the reins for what came after Morse – 33 storylines involving Lewis. Unlike other series, where the main character dies – either onscreen or in real life, it was clear that here it needed a rebrand. There could be no series called Morse without him. So, the sequel became, Lewis. As a counter point to the culture of Morse, Lewis had been working class, more soccer than croquet so the series producers gave him an aristocratic sidekick in Hathaway, played by British aristocratic acting family, Laurence Fox. As part of the celebrations of the end of the Morse series, Fox was notably absent as he has become a cult right wing figure, taking the aristocratic tones, and turning them into political nonsense. In this, however he acted the part very well indeed. This was a culture clash which drove the narrative arc in both series, though in reverse for each.
By the end of the 33 episodes of Lewis, we were not sated. Our appetite for this universe remained very strong and when it was announced that we would be going back in time to where it all began, we hankered after what became Endeavour. Once again, a title that had the eponymous character, by a single name in its title. We were about to discover this was going to be an equal treat – how did I know? Roger Allam, Anton Lesser, even the daughter of John Thaw, Abigail Thaw, and in the title role, Sean Evans were assembled as the cast. If there were some exceptional performances in the first two series, then here it was about to go stratospheric.
The pilot was commissioned and shot and then broadcast. It proved that if television was not finished with this universe, neither were we. It was much more than a nostalgic hit and far more than the squaring of any circle. Standing alone this was looking like it may be the best of the trilogy.
But it had a problem.
To fit, it needed to have some regard to Morse as a series too. The new series needed to fit within a preexisting world, especially why some of the characters in this new series were never mentioned in future iterations. The solution was one of the most inspiring elements of this long running universe. I won’t spoil it, but I will come back to the three series at some point – they each deserve it.
Endeavour broke the mold in two other ways. It was the first of the three to go over 33 storylines and it was written exclusively by one writer – Russell Lewis.
The final scene, as Endeavour hands a vocal score over to a formally dressed man in the beautiful setting of Oxford and asks, “is that it?” sees him then, drive away in his blue Jaguar, passing a red one which was to be Morse’s in the original series: the baton was visually handed and trilogy complete. I may be sad that this has come to an end, but I would not wish any of these to be resurrected. It finished as it ought to and my memories of it are secure and filled with contentment.
From Thaw to Whately and then backwards to Evans, there is little left in perfection to muster and so it should be left unspoilt.
British television is a curious affair. Begun through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) it is funded through the universal license fee. In essence, if you wanted to watch the television, you had to pay the license fee. The BBC got it all and is state run, albeit at arms-length. Then came along commercial television in the form of Independent Television (ITV) in 1955. Designed to bring a bit of competition to the BBC, it was paid for through advertising but still free to air… well they didn’t add another license fee to it. By the time that I was born, 1965, there was BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. And that was it. It was still years before Bruce Springsteen would moan that there were 55 channels and nothing on but here in the UK, we kept this going until, in 1982, we added a fourth channel and in 1997, a fifth. With sparkling imagination, they were called Channel Four and ehm Channel Five… In between came Sky and we understood what Springsteen meant. And so, my childhood and leading up to early adulthood we had three options… But the programs made were exceptionally good. And so, here is some critical nostalgia as the lockdown has brought a plethora of reruns, new formats and platforms and old classics trying to make their way back into our consciousness as broadcasters flood their schedules with classics… or are they classics at all? Let me take you through an armchair critics’ view of what we have to see, to find out… Welcome to the Lockdown Lowdown…
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