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 For one thing, Evans’ quite brilliant performance is nonetheless overshadowed by playing a part originally made legend by another acting great.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.
You wait for months for a psychological thriller, and then two come along in the same week and and on the same TV channel. Go figure.
Blake Morrison’s novel on which this three-part adaptation is based describes itself by that term – psychological thriller, the same as Ruth Rendell’s Thirteen Steps Down reviewed here yesterday – but for some reason the TV trailers seemed desperate to avoid applying that label to The Last Weekend and instead made it seem like some soapy melodrama. As a result I skipped it when it aired on ITV, and only a recommendation from a friend on Twitter made me reconsider and go back to the ITV Player “On Demand” service to catch it after all – and I’m hugely glad I did.
The basic premise appears simple: two university friends (rich barrister Ollie, working class primary school teacher Ian) get together over a summer Bank Holiday for their annual reunion, together with their respective partners Daisy and Em. But right from the moment that Ian steps out of his car at a ramshackle holiday cottage in the countryside and is greeted by his old friend, there’s a strange atmosphere – an odd way to the manner with which they greet each other and embrace. There’s an over-the-top, passive-aggressive sporting bet made. We learn that Daisy was originally in a relationship with Ian rather than Ollie. The sense of unease and discomfort that something is out of place under the surface keeps getting stronger. Is someone up to something?
Then comes the bombshell when Ollie confides in Ian that he has an inoperable brain tumour and is dying. Or is he? There’s something about this that doesn’t feel right. Nothing else seems to support Ollie’s declaration. A crucial piece of dialogue is obscured and lost to us (and apparently also to Ian) by a blast of car engine noise. Is Ollie lying? Why would he? The longer the first episode goes on, the more everyone seems to be keeping crucial secrets from everyone else, and the stranger and more unnerving the situation feels; even the music starts to evoke the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie.
Then there’s the realisation that our one rock of presumed normality – Ian, our down-to-earth ordinary bloke and main point of identification – is also behaving increasingly oddly. First he abuses dinners at a classy restaurant over a trivial misunderstanding; then he starts to grow suspicious over the interaction between his wife Em and his best friend Ollie on the drive home. Perhaps he’s transferring a sense of guilt from his own clearly surging inappropriate feelings toward Daisy. The final scene of part one sees Ian reacting very oddly altogether as Daisy greets the unexpected arrival of a male friend of hers; is Ian starting to grow psychologically unstable, or are we reading too much into this? Then we realise that the way the scenes are being shot are also growing increasingly off-kilter: if Ian really is sliding into some sort of obsessive paranoia over things, then it seems he’s dragging us right in with him. We can’t trust what we’re seeing and hearing any more than the character can.
The whole thing conjures up a powerfully effective air of doubt and tension. While there’s been hints that the later episodes might end up in violence and murder, there’s been nothing anything as overt in the first episode – and yet it’s been utterly gripping. This is one of the rare shows that not only makes the multi-part format work for it (unlike Thirteen Steps Down which really suffered with the week-long break between halves) but even provides a miniature study in how to create brilliant little cliffhangers leading into advert breaks to ensure that you’re not going to stray far with the remote control.
The real stylistic coup de grâce, however, is the sudden shift away from the golden-hued summer days as we fast forward three months to a chilly, misty autumn – at which point Ian suddenly turns to camera and breaks the fourth wall to talk directly with us. Initially it’s jarring and shocking, but it’s done so well that soon it settles into an excellent way of explaining key character insights and plot details, as well as facilitating flashbacks to scenes from the friends’ university days. But soon that feeling shifts again and the whole thing starts to feel weird, as Ian wanders wraithlike through the scene of past crimes – whatever crime there may or may not have been in the interim. Has someone died? It feels like it; maybe Ollie wasn’t lying about the tumour after all. Or maybe someone else is lying and/or dying. Maybe everyone is lying. The more that the ghostly future Ian insists he doesn’t want to mislead us, the greater the feeling of dread that he’s doing just that.
The acting of the lead duo is first rate: as Ollie, Rupert Penry-Jones proves once again that he can take the posh, handsome golden boy template and deliver a truly nuanced and different dramatic portrayal every time. But it’s really Shaun Evans (virtually unrecognisable from his recent role as a young Inspector Morse in Endeavour) as Ian who dominates this, not least thanks to his impressively delivered pieces to camera – no easy thing to execute believably. He’s helped immensely by an incredibly polished script by Mick Ford, a very good actor in his own right whom I remember from many roles in the past. I swear I can really hear Ford’s cadence coming though the rhythm of Evan’s own delivery of the natural-sounding dialogue.
As I wrote yesterday, Thirteen Steps Down suffocated from being compressed into too small a slot, which forced it to be heavy handed in order to get everything in: it was clear that the lead character was a psycho going off the deep end the minute he stepped into frame. But The Last Weekend has been given more time to set out its skewed but believable characters and then slowly reach out and grip the audience with the creeping tension. It juggles the need to tantalise and intrigue with not making things so complicated that it puts viewers off. We know something is wrong even if don’t know what, yet we can’t look away. The psycho here could be anyone. Or all of them. Or none of them. Or maybe it’s us. Pass the medication, nurse.
There’s two episodes to go, and the remainder could yet fail to live up to the standards set in this first hour. I really hope not, because as it stands this is one of the most impressive pieces of original British drama I’ve seen in a long while – a match in quality to all that Scandi-Nordic-Noir fare we’ve been lauding so much over the last 18 months. That this is from ITV and so far removed from the standard cop/medical/period drama genres usually required to get a commission from any British TV broadcaster these days makes it even more astounding and welcome.
Currently showing on ITV on Sunday evenings at 9pm. Episode 1 is available on the ITV Player. The complete series is released on DVD on September 3 2012.
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.