Lawrence Fox

Lewis S7 – Down Among the Fearful

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There’s not much to say about the first story in the new series of Lewis – it’s very much the same old fare, with a languid mystery loosely weaving themes of religious faith involving suspects played by famous actors being played out against the beautiful backdrop of Oxford all set to the seductive lush score by composer Barrington Phelong.

Lewis (Kevin Whately) himself appears to have perked up somewhat since last we saw him, but Hathaway (Laurence Fox) is even more sour than usual, mainly because he’s lumbered with a neck brace from a car accident early on – which seems to have been done purely as a visual gag, and for a final scene pay-off where it comes in handy while making an arrest. Sadly there’s little time for the other two regulars, Dr Hobson (Clare Holman) and DCS Innocent (Rebecca Front) in this one.

All should be well in the premier-class of British TV detective mystery then, right? Well unfortunately, no. The programme itself might be business as usual, but someone at ITV central command has decided to shake things up scheduling wise: instead of showing the story in one two-hour block (as Lewis and its predecessor Inspector Morse have always been ever since 1987), with this series the airing is split into two hour-long chunks separate by a week.

Its possible that I’m just getting to be a grumpy old git who doesn’t like change, but for me at least this completely kills the show. The first part was fine and felt relatively normal, but by the time seven days had gone past I’d largely forgotten the events of the first hour and couldn’t remember who was who or what they were supposed to be up to. Within ten minutes I was so alienated from it that I pretty much stopped watching or caring, and just held on for the scenery and for the performances of Whately and Fox. As for the rest if it, it was a write-off.

The problem is that the pacing and writing of the show just isn’t meant to support a two one-hour episode format: the programme has always worked by a gentle build-up of atmosphere, an accretion of facts and information that slowly forms itself into a solution. It’s simply not a high-impact show with action scenes and tense moments of gripping suspense that you’ll remember in detail a week later. Characters that are introduced early in part one are then largely dropped until they’re required to pop up again for the denouement at the end of part two, which is frustrating rather than satisfying.

I tried to give this new two-part formatting a go, honestly I did; and all I can say is that the experiment was an abject failure as far as I was concerned. If I want to continue watching the show, then since the schedulers now seem to be actively working against me and the programme clearly I’ll have to record the two instalments and watch them later, back-to-back, as a two-hour special.

Or you know what, maybe I just won’t bother. If the channel doesn’t think much of its once-flagship show anymore, maybe I’m just better off following suit.

Lewis is on ITV on Mondays at 9pm. In lamentable one-hour instalments, in case I hadn’t made that entirely clear, so maybe you might prefer to wait for the DVD which is out on February 18, 2013.

Lewis – S6

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And so another series of the Inspector Morse spin-off has come to an end, slipping so smoothly down our gullet that we barely even noticed that it was there.

The programme never had much bite, to be honest. That wasn’t the point of it. It’s a feel-good blanket to wrap ourselves in during uncertain times, where even cold-blooded murder is still firmly of the safe, cosy 1930s golden era vintage.

There’s only so far you can stretch these sort of syrupy confection, and I fear that Lewis is fast approaching the end of the road. There’s a lack of conviction or even interest in this series now by those making it, where before everyone was at least trying to do something interesting if and when they could. Now the writers just seem content to mix up the same old ingredients, and the actors just look increasingly tired of it all. “Didn’t we do this one last year, Hathaway?” you can imagine Kevin Whately’s eponymous detective inspector sighing at his sidekick.

Even Lawrence Fox’s impish, shamelessly scene-stealing performance has lost its sparkle this year, with Hathaway looking increasingly narked and sour. Lewis tells him that he needs to find someone to share his life with, which sounds like the promising start of a character arc but one that the writers promptly forget to do anything with other than by making him moon inappropriately over any pretty guest star of the right age that comes along in the course of the four episodes per year.

Lewis is meant to be the melancholic one, and it doesn’t work when both men look dejected and world-weary. Lewis’ touches of undeveloped romance with the pathologist (Clare Holman’s Dr Laura Hobson) are very sweet and brighten the screen, but all together they constitute little more than a couple of minutes of running time a year. Even Rebecca Front’s Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent has lost her sparkle and just looks fed up this year, although she did get the line of the final show when she snapped at her detectives, “Why are you all sitting there like dogs waiting for me to do a card trick?”

As for a quick potted review of the four stories of the 2012 season: “The Soul of Genius” was a bit of a pretentious study on Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” (the pursuit of the undiscoverable) and went out of its way to do the tourism promo for Oxford (with its botanical gardens, punts and open days at local country estates) and then grafted on a modern gothic ending that felt peculiarly disjointed from that which had gone before.

“Generation of Vipers” was Lewis’s attempt to go all modern by having online dating sites, internet entrepreneurs and cyberbullying behind it all. Obviously all the new-fangled stuff was bad, and done by bad people. On the plus side there was an interesting B-plot structure to the story in which Lewis and Hathaway experience both the highs and lows of media stardom along the way.

“Fearful Symmetry” was bizarrely laughable, a hodgepodge of Daily Mail hot topics and hoary series clichés which felt like a lazy self-parody, with swinger parties, kinky ‘artistic’ photo portraits and hints of bondage as red herrings proving to have nothing to do with the slender story at the heart of it. The sense of déjà vu was intensified by the actor playing the murderer having previously been arrested in a far superior episode of Morse 20 years ago.

And “The Indelible Stain” was also rather thin and familiar, with almost everyone acting out rather clichéd roles from lecherous lecturer to hard-nosed careerist wife. The person giving the most natural, convincing and warm performance therefore had to be the murderer. And Lewis found a reason to be even more anti-intellectual than ever, ending the series by concluding that having books around is unequivocally bad for you.

At least Lewis has managed to keep the formula reasonably intact, unlike its close relation Midsommer Murders which seems to have had a self-destructive spasm after losing its original series star (John Nettles); and then its creator-producer Brian True-May in a row over alleged racism in the show. It’s an unwatchable show now, sadly; whereas Lewis might have its faults but it’s still as easy to imbibe and promptly forget as it ever was, for better or for worse.

“Lewis” season 6 is out on DVD on June 11, and in a boxset with previous seasons.

Lewis – S5

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Lewis has become the posh, up-market brother to the solidly middle-class Midsommer Murders on the ITV network. They each have trademark plots and methods of murder – on Lewis you’ll get hit over the head by a bust of Einstein, whereas on Midsommer it’ll be something outrageously silly like having bottles of claret catapulted at you, or impaled on the starting winch of an antique motor car. You couldn’t mistake the scripts from one with those of the other, but both have long since left any pretence of real life and reality far behind.

Lewis’ parent series Inspector Morse might have been set in the same Oxford elite environs, but it always felt “real”: partly because it was shot on real, grainy film stock and not super-smooth, burnished golden-glow video like Lewis; and also because the show loved to take the smug, snobbish Morse and land him in situations where he had to rub his nose up against the real world, with murders involving real people or on the local council estate in order to provide contrast to the more fanciful tales of murder on campus involving millionaires, artists or opera stars. But Lewis no longer feels the need to do this, partly because the title character himself is a working class copper and so every case in an elite college is already deemed to have that “oil and water” friction. Further brushes with reality can be dispensed with, the makers seem to think.

Hence each of this series’ four stories are set within closed-off, unreal groups: there’s a murder in a religious college staffed by friars; another set in a college hosting a drugs trial; another set in the last all-female college, and within that in a particular elite group of star graduates; and then another preoccupied with gifted children. Where real people do wander into the tales (there are a couple of them in the drug trial) they’re quickly ushered out of the plot with all due haste lest they spoil the chocolate box view of England that the show’s makers are conjuring up for overseas sales. At the end of one episode there is a staggeringly fake CGI sunset used, just to ramp up this “perfect countryside” message just in case the preceding 100 minutes haven’t quite sold it enough.

All of this would be fine, if we cared about the individual cases so that the unmasking of the killer was a fulfilling moment. What amazed me was that for most of this series, I didn’t bother working out who it was … and I didn’t care when it was revealed, either. Most of the time it was obvious by osmosis by the end anyway (including one solution totally given away by casting: a star name with nothing to do for the first 90 minutes of an episode is invariably going to have to be the killer, or else why have them?) The lack of urgency or interest in unravelling the case seems to extend to the characters as well: in the middle of a multiple-fatality case, Lewis trudges up to the crime scene with his shoulders sagging, as if for all the world it was no more pressing a matter than giving a talk to the local Neighbourhood Watch. Each case – no mater the victim tally or the high profile nature – seems to be just the two main characters working in isolation with little help, and the number of times witnesses suddenly turn round in the middle of an interview and announce “I have to go” – and be allowed to walk off – is stunning. If this truly is the pace and vitality of the British police, it’s amazing that anyone even gets served a speeding ticket.

But the show has two particular strong points going for it: Kevin Whately as Lewis, and in particular Lawrence Fox as his assistant James Hathaway. It’s for these two actors, and the relationship between the characters, that we watch and most enjoy the show, and ironically as other elements of the show seem to be faltering or in deep sleep, this interpersonnel dynamic has never been better – and nor have the actors. Whately has some good moments as he reveals the reasons for his antipathy to psychiatrists; his nearly-romance with pathologist Dr Hobson is still rather sweet, while meeting a former officer who was his sergeant before Hathaway is unexpectedly interesting. Hathaway of course gets more of the eye-catching character moments, and Fox plays them for all their worth and effortlessly steals the show at times, whether he gets food poisoning or is revealed to have once been something of a “gifted child” himself in years gone past, which have clearly left some deep wounds.

The best episode this season in terms of the Lewis/Hathaway dynamic was surely “Wild Justice”. Not only do they seem particularly comfortable working together by this point (sharing a running joke about the difference between monks and friars: “No, go on sir, after you” says Hathaway about who gets to deliver the punchline this time around) but they each have bigger concerns distracting them: Lewis wondering whether to take early retirement, Hathaway considering voluntary redundancy to pursue an academic or even religious vocation. In the end, Lewis misreads his junior’s motivations, thinking that Hathaway would stay only if Lewis retired and the inspector’s position became available. Rather sweetly – and unusually for a show that usually plays everything as unspoken sub-text – Hathaway patiently explains that its the reverse, and he’ll only stay if Lewis does.

It’s a genuinely effective and affecting moment between the two. Unfortunately it’s also the one where the ending is rather undermined by that God-awful CGI sunset behind them as they share another pint.