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REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 1, 1987) August 3, 2014

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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Season 1 (1987)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014


Once upon a time there was a huge difference between US and British crime/mystery television shows. The latter were being significantly shorter with greater emphasis on quality over quality. Or, in other terms, instead of having seasons made out of 20+ episodes of varying (and often decaying) quality, British preferred to have a season made of few great episodes, often in formats closer to an average US TV-film or short mini-series. One such example can be provided by Inspector Morse, British TV show based on the novels by Colin Dexter and starring John Thaw as titular character.

The first season (or “series” in British terminology) was aired in January of 1987, consisting of three 100 minute episodes – The Dead of Jericho, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn and Service of All the Dead. In it the audience was introduced to Inspector Morse, detective of Thames Valley Police. This was not the first major police character in Thaw’s career; he had already gained popularity by playing Jack Reagan, tough leader of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad in 1970s show The Sweeney. Morse was, however, much different – a kinder and gentler policeman working in Oxford, which provided picturesque setting of university town more peaceful and idyllic than mean streets of London. Morse’s character was seemingly in tune with that place – in first three episodes he was portrayed as connoisseur and fan of high culture, including classical music, ancient Greek and Samuel Beckett’s plays. Yet, John Thaw’s Morse was also different from typical British countryside detective by having some character traits hardly in line with “stiff-upper-lip” stereotypes. In first series Morse doesn’t hide his love of bottle, matched only by his love of opposite sex, which often leads him towards dangerous situations and quite unprofessional behaviour, including advances towards female suspects in murder investigations. Due to seemingly low crime rate, Morse can afford such cavalier attitude towards law enforcement, yet it is his blue-collar and by-the-book subordinate Detective Sergeant Lewis (played by Kevin Whately) to whom he must rely to save his career and life.

Those character flaws make Morse more human and more fascinating character. That character is not only the main, but also the only relevant reason why anyone should watch Inspector Morse, at least based on the way first three episodes were scripted. All those expecting some sort of mind games or fascinating display of someone’s deductive abilities are going to be disappointed. Morse is more often wrong than not; murders are solved through mere coincidence, resulting in annoyingly predictable outbursts of violence at the very end. Some of the plots – like in Service of all the Dead – are seemingly complex enough to cause high bodycount, yet they don’t make much of a sense and the audience has to pay extra attention towards minor details to completely understand them. This could be explained by bad direction or bad screenwriting, which, like in many screen adaptations, discarded the complexity and depth of literary source.

The acting is, on the other hand, very good. Thaw and Whately are joined by diverse and talented cast. Most important are roles of women which, in a various degrees, become Morse’s romantic interests; all are played by truly remarkable actresses – Gemma Jones (Hogwarths healer Poppy Pomfrey in Harry Potter film series) in The Dead of Jericho, Barbara Flynn in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn and Angela Morant in Service of all the Dead. Some other minor roles are also quite interesting – Michael Gough as university official who shares Morse’s love of crossword puzzles and Roger Lloyd-Pack, best known for his role in sitcoms, here playing a man in rather dramatic situation.

First season of Inspector Morse, being produced almost three decades ago, also provides an interesting and, at times, fascinating glimpse in the world quite different from our own, and shows how technology immensely changed not only people’s lifestyles and attitudes, but also the way crimes are committed or solved. Morse, for example, enjoys his classical music only through vinyl records or audio-cassettes in his police car; lack of Internet or VCRs, on the other hand, forces characters to seek certain sort of entertainment in cinemas that show Last Tango in Paris. Even more significant is the lack of mobile phones, computerised databases or DNA forensics that make investigations more difficult; in one case, use of more primitive (and unreliable) methods of identification allows criminal conspiracy impossible in today’s world. Those and other details, together with Thaw’s excellent perfomances, give more than enough reasons for first season of Inspector Morse to be recommended.


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