This belated ‘prequel’ to one of ITV’s most beloved and successful drama franchises of all time was certainly at the most classy end of the channel’s Christmas holiday output. And it certainly oozed top production values in its incredibly faithful and authentic 1960s period setting, as well as in the quality writing and the careful deference it paid to the memory of the original Inspector Morse series and its unforgettable star, the late John Thaw (even to the point of getting the Thaw estate’s blessing on the production by casting a small role of a newspaper editor to John’s daughter, Abigail.)
What followed was an exercise in sustained nostalgia on multiple levels: the screen was crowded with all sorts of nods and references back to the original series, from a glimpse of the red Jag that would become Morse’s trademark (here far out of his reach cost-wise of course) and his first mature love, to the inevitable fainting in the mortuary and the sight of the detective drinking his first-ever pint of bitter. The period is similarly dripping in familiar touches, from corrupt coppers still superficially civil (a decade before Thaw’s own ground-breaking The Sweeney turned that on its head) to sex parties threatening political scandals (it’s set just two years after the real-life Profumo Affair) and obstructive bespectacled secret intelligence agents looking rather like Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer. In other words: it used every weapon in its arsenal to establish itself, and while it overall worked for this one two-hour outing it’s hard to see what it’s left in the cupboard in the event that the channel commissions a full series. It’s all used up!
For all the care taken to buttress the central role with all the props of Morse-dom, I have to say that I never once considered the character played by Shaun Evans to be a ‘young Morse’ – not even when the production staged a stunning grab for the heart strings and tear ducts with a late ‘cameo’ by Thaw himself via some digital FX work. I never got the feeling that there was any real connection between the role he was playing and the Morse of the original series. By contrast, James Bradshaw’s turn as a young Dr Max Drebyn – not a character I paid that much attention to at the time, if I’m honest – was shockingly evocative of the performance of Peter Woodthorpe in seven early episodes of Inspector Morse to the point where even a casual viewer such as myself was in no doubt at all of the continuity of character in exactly the way that was absent with Morse.
This sounds like a criticism of Shaun Evans’ work, but in fact he gave an extraordinarily deep, intelligent and compelling performance – just not of a character who felt like the original Morse. To be sure, we wouldn’t want to see Evans try a slavish imitation and impersonation of Thaw’s character; but I felt that in this case Evans was producing something so excitingly new and original that it was a positive drawback and constraint to be trying to squeeze it back into the old Morse packaging. The same could be said, too, for the story: it was so busy with all the Morse and period callbacks that the central mystery itself was rather irrelevant and could only be going in one direction with regards to the guilty party if the murder investigation were to make the requisite “the case that made Inspector Morse” impact on the character.
There was good work too from Roger Allam, here playing a more low-key, insightful and intelligent character than he’s usually been given to work with of late, and showing how good he can be given the chance. It’s unusual that he immediately liked the young Endeavour and the two worked together so well from the get-go rather than having the predictable friction to overcome. Danny Webb on the other hand had the sort of ‘snarling second-rank copper’ role that he surely has a patent on; which is not to say that he isn’t very good at it, of course.
Overall it was a very well done, impressive and respectful of its heritage. It’s well worth a watch (it’s on ITV Player this week, and on DVD from next week) and makes a nice full stop on the Morse story; but then again, so did “The Last Day”, the final story John Thaw filmed, so whether this was ever really necessary is another matter altogether.
As for a full series commission – I really don’t see what they would do with it. It would be very costly (period productions always are) and there seems little that the series could add that it hasn’t already sketched in during these two hours. Even the idea of seeing a fish-out-of-water academic Morse working as a junior officer has limited appeal, since Morse’s existing spin-off Lewis has essentially already played this card – extremely well – with the creation of the very Morse-like character of James Hathaway played by Laurence Fox. Lewis as a whole is a more fitting standard-bearer for Morse and for the legacy of John Thaw, and so as classy as this one-off production was I’d be very happy if it remained just that: a one-off.