When ITV aired its pilot for this prequel series to Inspector Morse, I commented that it was a classy product but one that having been done – and all the roots of the character laid out in one two-hour story – there really didn’t need to be any more in the same vein and that the character should just be allowed to rest. Naturally ITV didn’t listen to such sentiments and last week we saw the first of a short four-part series.
Without a doubt it’s still very classy, with the period detail lovingly recreated. And it’s got some good cast in it, with top acting stalwarts Roger Allam and Anton Lesser high among them and James Bradshaw returning as a younger Dr Max Drebyn. But it’s Shaun Evans’ show and he gives a truly extraordinary performance as a compellingly different type of detective. (When someone quips that one of his deductions has been “Elementary,” it only confirms who everyone has in mind.)
I’m still not a fan of the whole prequel idea, however. For one thing, Evans’ quite brilliant performance is nonetheless overshadowed by playing a part originally made legend by another acting great. Having to balance the needs of making this the same character who grows into the older one we knew and loved is just an imposition on both Evans and on John Thaw. Traits are crowbarred onto him to try and make it clear that Evans is playing the same character, but such nods feel obvious and forced and just detract away from the new portrayal’s merits in its own rights.
Moreover, I found all the lovingly recreated period detail of 1960s Oxford to be even more of a distraction from the story. The period aspects of the script also meant that it rather struggled as a straightforward detective show because we no longer have access to the prevailing social norms of the day to allow us to pick up on things that are out of place by comparison. The past is a foreign land, and everything in it is strange at this remove.
In outline, the plot involved an investigation into the death of a local GP which proves to have links to the prior suspicious death of a young secretary and the subsequent murder of a church vicar. Drug running, marital affairs and gay sex come into it, and also in the mix is the case of a young woman who faces losing custody of her young child to her sister and their father (Jonathan Hyde), a nuclear scientist who is soon to leave for Stanford. A father/son team at the local Post Office is held up as part of a spate of such robberies in the area, and Morse is also tracking down a thief impersonating a Gas Board official in order to rob from household meters while at the same time Morse himself is earning the intense loathing of the uptight new Chief Superintendent Bright (Lesser), who doesn’t like him one little bit. A lot to pack in then; strange that the episode still as a whole feels so slow and languid even by comparison with the never knowingly rushed Morse/Lewis norms, right from the early scenes with industrial levels of opera and choral work on the soundtrack to establish its high brow credentials to the likely middle brow audience.
All in all I can’t say it really worked for me as a detective show, and it irked me as a prequel to the Morse I knew and loved. But even so it will have its supporters and will fit right in on Sunday evenings, and doubtless be a big success in that Downton-sized hole in the weekend schedules. It’s just that speaking for myself, the Morse DNA has been overstretched and needs a nice long rest.
Endeavour continues on Sunday evenings at 8pm on ITV and on ITV Player for a week afterwards. The series is available on DVD from May 6, 2013. The prequel is already released on DVD.