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REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 2, 1987-1988) August 11, 2014

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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Series 2 (1987 – 1988)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014


In the history of most successful or long-lasting television shows, second season often happens to be the most important. Only after the first season, which in many ways serves as prolongated pilot episode, the surviving show is deemed successful, accepted by audience and respected by its creators. That also means that the second season often looks much better than the first. Such examples can be found in non-standard (or non-US formats), and one of them is second series (or season) of Inspector Morse.

The season was composed of four episodes (actually, feature-length TV-films), with first – The Wolvercote Tongue – aired on Christmas Day 1987, while the remaining three – Last Seen Wearing, Settling of the Sun and Last Bus to Woodstock – aired in March 1988. The Wolvercote Tongue had the distinction of being the first Morse episode based on the original television script (by Julian Mitchel) instead on Colin Dextrer’s novels (later being novelised by Dexter into The Jewel That Was Ours). The somewhat greater length of second series, unlike with other TV shows, didn’t manifest itself in poorer quality. On the contrary, Series 2 was better than Series 1. The most important reason for that was greater variety of characters, plots, and most importantly, plot resolutions.

Character of Chief Inspector Morse, played by excellent John Thaw, is, just like  in Series 1, the main asset of the show. In Series 2 he is less annoying than in Series 1, and his flaws – unsuccessful womanising and drinking – play significantly lesser role  in the plot. Mysteries aren’t solved through sudden revelations and those revelations don’t lead to last-minute violent confrontations. The plots seem more realistic – apart from The Settling of the Sun, crimes just happen because of unfortunate yet mundane coincidences rather than because of complex conspiracies or someone’s psychopathic malevolence. Greater variety of the Series 2, on the other hand, also leads to quite different levels of quality for each individual episode.

The Wolvercote Tongue might have been created, at least partially, with international audience in mind. For the first time Morse and his Oxford surroundings can be seen through outsiders’, or to be precise, non-British perspective. It is provided by group of elderly American tourists, which also allows opportunity for some humour based on cultural differences. The episode, that features very good Kenneth Cranham as their unfortunate tour guide, however, fails in its last segment because of unnecessary additions to boycount; the last murder is also directed very poorly.

Next episode, Last Seen Wearing, looks like major improvement. The plot about teenage girl’s disappearance leading to murder investigation might look too conventional and not very interesting, yet the episode was directed by very capable Edward Bennett. Script by Thomas Ellice also allowed enough space to give characters and their situations some broader social context – mainly through display of yuppie culture and “wild” capitalism of Thatcher’s Britain, although subplots dealing with religion and the way it affects some of characters’ lives might seem dated and less comprehensible to today’s, more “hip” and secular audience. The episode features very good cast, including young Elisabeth Hurley as free-spirited boarding school pupil.

Settling of the Sun, on the other hand, represents disappointment. The plot, that deals with some unpleasant and apparently unresolved issues of World War Two, is a complete mess. It is incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with 20th Century history; to those who are, some plot issues are telegraphed well in advance. The direction by Peter Hammond is dreadful, especially in the first scene that introduce some characters and never bother to explain why Morse happens to be close to them. As the episode goes on, it becomes less and less believable, most notably with outrageous way one of characters tries to deceive Morse (and the rest of Oxford) about his identity; subplot involving international intrigue is just icing on the cake. Amanda Burton, actress who would later star in Silent Witness, is here wasted in thankless (and rather unecessary) role of eye candy. Settling of the Sun is definitely the worst episode of the series and the worst episode of the show by that point.

Impression of the Series 2, or Morse in general, is rescued by Last Bus to Woodstock, based on the very first of Colin Dexter’s novels. Some might argue that the plot is conventional, generic and quite mundane. Yet the simplicity allows almost every character in the plot to be well-rounded and convincing, together with their motives. It also allows opportunity for some fine acting, most notably by Anthony Bate as emotionally vulnerable Oxford professor and Holly Aird as academically bright yet romantically inexperienced student. Because of that episode, Series 2 of Inspector Morse could be seen as one of rare examples of television saving the best for last.





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