Inspector Morse

published: Thu, 3-Jan-2008   |   updated: Thu, 3-Jan-2008
Morse and Lewis and the Jag

Over the past three months or so I've been working my way through all 33 episodes of Inspector Morse, a series of "police procedurals" or "murder mysteries" from the late 80s and early 90s, with some one-off specials all the way up to 2000. The interesting thing about Morse was that each episode was two hours long (including commercial breaks), when the standard for the time was one hour episodes.

The first episode, The Dead of Jericho, was aired on 6 January 1987, as near as dammit 21 years ago. The last one, The Remorseful Day (from a poem by AE Houseman), was on 15 November 2000. I remember watching them on and off before I came out to the States, and in fact I moved here just after the seventh (and last) series had completed, but before the various one-off specials were made.

For those people who've seen these or have read the books by Colin Dexter on which they're based will know that they're about Chief Inspector Morse (played by the late John Thaw) and his sidekick Detective Sergeant Lewis (played by Kevin Whately). Morse is brilliant, curmedgeonly, irascible, prone to flights of fancy, a lover of classical music (especially Wagner) and literature, and lives on his own, whereas Lewis is more down-to-earth, methodical, a family man, and more "in tune" with modern life and reality. Not counting Chief Superintendent Strange (James Grout), Morse's boss, the third mainstay of the series is Oxford and the Oxfordshire countryside; never, it seems, have they been more lovingly filmed.

The stories themselves are not only about the grisly murders they have to solve, but also about the relationship between Morse and Lewis (a kind of father-son relationship I suppose it can be called), and most especially about Morse.

Watching the complete set of episodes in the order of transmission, especially after such a remove (the last time I watched an episode of Morse was early in 1993, 15 years ago), was a revelation. The episodes in the first couple of series lay down Morse's character in fairly broad brushstrokes (he likes classical music, he likes real ale, he drives around in a red/maroon Jag (a really beautiful 2.4L MkII), he's single but likes the ladies, and so on), but in later episodes, we get to see more and more of his character and who he really is and what makes him tick. The same goes for Morse's relationship with Lewis (a source of much of the drollness in the series) and with Strange: they grow deeper and you can believe that these people work with each other and gain the familiarity that you'd get in that situation.

This progression of delving into Morse's character also has another benefit to the serial viewer like me: the episodes don't have to lay the scene about who this man is and his modus operandi, you just get tossed into the deep end. You really feel that things are happening in real-time. It also has the benefit that the various writers and directors can throw in visual in-jokes every now and then (think Lewis with a boot-lace tie with the word Sheriff on the toggle in Happy Families, or think of Morse and Lewis reversing their normal drinks (Morse with a orange juice, Lewis with a pint) in Australia in Promised Land).

But the one thing about watching the whole set in "one" go like this is that you are completely immersed. By the time you get to The Remorseful Day, you feel Morse's literal pain as the heart attack strikes. You feel Lewis' exasperation with Morse as the latter tries to take over the investigation again. You believe Morse when he looks at Jason Durr in disgust and contempt and tells him that his family is far more evil than Michael Steppings, the first (or should that be, the second?) killer in Deadly Slumber. It tears through you when Morse meets up with his ex-fiancee again in Dead on Time, and it's like a bolt from the blue when Lewis destroys some evidence to protect Morse from knowing the truth. And the sight of the Jag driving down the main drive at Blenheim Palace brought a lump to my throat in The Way Through the Woods.

Favorite episodes? Difficult one this, but I've been making notes. Deceived by Flight from the third series, The Infernal Serpent from the fourth, Second Time Around and Promised Land from the fifth, Dead on Time, Happy Families, The Death of the Self from the sixth, Deadly Slumber from the seventh, and then most of the specials (The Way Through the Woods, The Daughters of Cain, Death is Now Thy Neighbour, The Remorseful Day). Notice that my faves are from the later episodes, those where it's possibly more about Morse than solving the crime.

Quite possibly the most emotionally satisfying episode of all for me was Promised Land though: transplanting Morse and Lewis to Australia gives you another angle through which to view their relationship. Morse is a stranger in a strange land, whereas Lewis fits right in. Morse also has to make amends for a bad mistake, but everything he does just makes things worse and worse. The final denouement at the railway station evoked a Western in its outlook, solidifying the moody tone from throughout the episode.

Now it's over and I feel as if I've lost a couple of good friends. But all is not lost: it seems that there is a new series with Lewis, newly minted as Inspector, which has been aired in the UK. Indeed Amazon.co.uk has the series as a set of region 2 DVDs. I've just ordered a cheapo external DVD player that I can permanently set to region 2 and the DVDs are also on their way.

Meanwhile, next up for my adventures in watching a complete TV series is Twin Peaks. Finally, FINALLY, the initial pilot episode has been released in a set along with all the episodes. Should be fun.