jump to navigation

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 5, 1991) September 13, 2014

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 5 (1991)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Fifth series of Inspector Morse faced show’s creators with the another challenge of sticking to the familiar and popular formula while providing audience with something new. The answer to that was apparently very simple. They decided to make Morse “bigger”. This was achieved in two ways – by increasing number of feature-length episodes from four to five and through larger budgets, that would become apparent in the last episode of the series.

The series begins with Second Time Around, episode that could be described as “standard” Morse mystery, with rather simple plot but very well-written and, what is even more important, well-acted characters. Violent death of veteran police official leads Morse to re-open the investigation of unsolved child murder and also gives opportunity to display protagonist’s liberal views on law enforcement and criminal justice (which could be interpreted as creators’ attempt to atone for Morse’s Dirty Harry-like antics in Series 4). Those views are highlighted thanks to the presence of Morse’s old and more conservative colleague, played by Kenneth Colley (best known as Admiral Piett and original Star Wars trilogy). His presence makes the episode interesting, together with dependable character actor Oliver Ford Davis (another Star Wars veteran) as one of murder suspects. Young Christopher Ecclestone also does very good job out of otherwise thankless role of a disturbed youth.

Fat Chance provides the series with one of the weakest script, at least to those who watch the show while expecting something like complex and intriguing murder mystery. It is also an episode in which the authors try very hard to wear left wing and social liberal views on their sleeves. It reflects in plot that connects struggle for female priesthood in Oxford with slimy entrepreneurs who exploit frustrations of overweight women and peddle dodgy slimming products. The way those two plots are connected is rather easy to guess and, actually, nothing much happens in the episode. The fans of the show, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t mind much. The acting and direction is very good and the episode turns to be one of those rare occasions in Morse when the titular character actually gets the “girl” – in this case played by charming Zoe Wanamaker.

Who Killed Harry Field? is an episode title that suggests lack of inspiration. Despite that, the script by Geoffrey Case successfully connects the subplots involving world of art with subplots of political corruption. The episode is also one of the first to acknowledge that Oxford with its ancient architectures and traditions didn’t completely stick to the past, and that at least some of its citizens got involved with Swinging Sixties. Much of the plot actually deals with the way baby boomers had to abandon bohemian lifestyle and anti-establishment ideals of their youth and had to (or failed to) conform to 1980s realities. Like in many Morse episodes, murder mystery is not as interesting as characters; the latter again provide opportunity for some fine acting. The most memorable is Freddie Jones as murdered victim’s father. On the other hand, the subplot dealing with Morse’s loyal Sergeant Lewis seeking promotion and transfer from his boss looks more a way to fill running time and ends rather predictably, since most fans of the show also happen to be fans of Kevin Whately.

Greeks Baring Gifts is a superb example of a murder mystery that allows scriptwriters to cover many different social issues. Script by Peter Nichols begins with a killing of a Greek immigrant cook that hints at multiculturalism in modern Britain and related conflicts to be the main issue. After a while Morse’s investigation and the plot make a different turn and plot explores the conflict between the “old money” establishment and self-made entrepreneurs from working class. Experienced Morse viewers know that the resolution of murder mystery has little to do with both subjects, just like the presence of dark and sinister-looking James Faulkner (now best known as Pope Sixtus VI in Da Vinci’s Demons) as the most obvious villain points towards someone else as actual murderer. The end of the episode is one of the more melodramatic and one of the most disturbing; despite that Greeks Baring Gifts is one of the better written, directed and acted Morse episodes.

The season finale, Promised Land, represents greatest departure – both for Morse and its titular character. Death of imprisoned gangland boss and possible judicial review send Morse and Lewis to Australia in order to protect key witness who lives under new identity. This plot allows the most spectacular change of scenery – small town in Australian outback proves to be very different from Oxford, and the script by Julian Mitchell uses opportunities to explore many cultural differences. The best thing about the episode is a way it highlights differences between Lewis and his superior – while Morse, being high culture snob, doesn’t like common Australian cuisine or country music, his loyal working-class sergeant appears more in tune with the locals and their way of life. This also allows for a rare scene of male cop bonding between Lewis and his local colleague (played by John Jarrat). The acting in the show is great and the most recognisable face belongs to young Noah Taylor playing one of the more straightforward characters of his career. The episode ends with one of the more spectacular shots of the entire show, that connects the Australian setting with titular character’s love of opera.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 4, 1990) August 31, 2014

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 4 (1990)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Fourth season (or series) of popular television drama is usually the point when the show “jumps the shark”. The creators and producers are burdened with increasingly difficult task of satisfying the target audience with familiar  plots and characters while avoiding repetition and boredom at the same time. Some shows avoid this trap, while some don’t. Inspector Morse, juding by its fourth series, did it only partially.

Four episodes (which are, actually, feature-length television films) continue to stick to the  formula established in previous three seasons. The most noticeable difference in comparison with Series 3 is the absence of pathologist Dr. Grayling Russell; with her gone, fourth season lacks continuity and the main characters loses any excuse for not looking at other women. By that point, Colin Dexter ran out of novels for screenwriters to base episodes on, so it reflected in even more creative freedom. The episodes at times look very different, but their content at times succumbs to unnecessary melodrama and unconvincingly violent resolutions, just like in first two seasons.

The Infernal Serpent, the first episode, begins very promisingly and actually turns out to be the best. Death of an respected environmentalist minutes before the important public announcement leads audience to believe that the subject is going to be major scandal. Director John Madden dutifully plays to those expectations by providing some quite suspenseful scenes in which John Thaw’s middle-aged police official have to deal with black operatives and their rather unsubtle efforts at major cover-up. But, just like in most good episodes of Morse, the thing that triggers such course of events is coincidence. The real mystery Morse has to uncover is much closer to home and related to Morse’s old friends at Oxford University and their dysfunctional family lives. Like in many Morse episodes, music is an important part of background and the acting is superb, especially with Geoffrey Palmer as sinister Oxford don.

The Sins of the Fathers features rather weak and not very convincing “whodunnit”, which is, on the other hand backed by an interesting plot background, providing some insight into class differences and transformation of capitalism in late 20th Century Britain. The murders seem repetitive and too theatrical, but the general impression is again rescued by excellent acting. Veteran Lionel Jeffries gives great performance in the role of old patriarch, but the most impressive is Lisa Harrow as one of suspect’s wives (and not only in scene when she swims in her house pool in front of Morse’s ogling eyes). Director Peter Hammond, on the other hand, tends to show scenes through distorted glasses and lenses, which, at times, looks unnecessary and diverts too much attention from the actual plot.

Driven to Distraction could be best described as Inspector Morse’s attempt to emulate Dirty Harry. Plot, characters and even some scenes tend to resemble Don Siegel’s 1971 classic thriller. Oxford women become prey of a vicious serial killer. Morse, just like Harry Callahan, quickly finds the most likely perpetrator who is, just like Scorpio in original film, obviously and demonically evil (played by always, Patrick Malahide, always dependable in such roles). Morse during his investigation feels too burdened with paperwork and legal requirements so he decides to simply cut certain corners, even it means obvious breech of law and someone’s constitutional rights. In doing so he receives support from the character of female police detective (played by Mary Jo Randle) who is supposed to represent modern and “progressive” aspects of law enforcement. Driven to Distraction strays from Dirty Harry formula only at the end, in well-thought plot twist which is, unfortunately, wasted in rather poorly directed scene of melodramatic confrontation.

Masonic Mysteries, final episode of the series, begins with Morse  in romantic relationship with a woman who shares his love of opera. Experienced viewers know that this is too good for Morse to last or to be true and Morse’s girlfriend (played by Kevin Whately’s real life wife Madelaine Newton) predictably becomes murder victim. To make even worse for Morse, he actually becomes main suspect, which means that he will be investigated by Chief Inspector Bottomley (played by sinister-looking Richard Kane). To make things even worse, Morse appears to be victim of a diabolical set-up with everyone but his most loyal associates doubting his innocence. Script by Julian Mitchell drops hints about major conspiracy – echoing real life debates about undue influence of Free Masons in British law enforcement – but the resolution of mystery is even less convincing; Morse became target of psychopathic supervillain whom he had put away many years ago. Character, even when played by Ian McDiarmid (best known as Palpatine in Star Wars film series), however, fails to rise over the cheapest comic book cliches and the way episode (otherwise well-directed by Danny Boyle) ends is quite disappointing.

 

 

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 3, 1989) August 21, 2014

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 3 (1989)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Third series (or season) of Inspector Morse shows what a successful television show looks like after reaching maturity. The creators, by that time unburdened with the need to blindly follow Colin Dexter’s original novels and with the character and setting already established, had more creative freedom. That resulted in a show  looked diverse than in previous two seasons, while the season functioned as more coherent whole in terms of plot.

The most noticeable change could be seen with the introduction of another recurring character – Dr. Grayling Russell (played by Amanda Hillwood), pathologist who replaces Morse’s old friend Max and who happens to be an rather attractive woman. Morse, being notoriously weak towards the opposite sex, can’t ignore it and the scripts of all four episodes chronicle how their relationship slowly evolves from professional towards something more personal, dropping all kinds of charming little hints about the way they differ in lifestyle, worldview and musical tastes. Third series also introduces audience and fans to some previously neglected details of Morse’s past, namely his Oxford studies and befriending people from academia, while retaining mystery about his first name.

First episode, Ghost in the Machine, is the best. Julian Mitchell’s script begins with rather mundane theft of aristocrat’s erotic art leading to complicated murder mystery which forces Morse to use small army of policemen at victim’s vast country estate (which still doesn’t prevent another murder). The case, which also provides some insight into Oxford University’s inner workings and office intrigues,  is resolved in a simple but elegant manner and features an excellent acting by Patricia Hodge in the role of aristocrat’s “stiff-upper-lip” wife. The colourful locations, which feature old architecture,  also play an important role – not only by providing a specific atmosphere, but also  by being the key for resolving mystery.

Second episode, The Last Enemy, is significantly worse, and this could be, in most likelihood, explained with its basis in Dexter’s novel The Riddle of the Third Mile. Writer Peter Buckman changed the some of important details from the book, yet it retained its complex plot, making it almost incomprehensible for most of the average viewers. Its resolution at the end proves to be quite banal. The general impression of the episode is rescued by fine acting, especially thanks to Barry Foster, one of Britain’s most reliable and most recognisable character actors, as Morse’s old friend.

Third episode, Deceived by Flight, benefits from show producer’s increasing creative freedom. The basic idea for the plot was inspired by Kevin Whately, actor playing  Sergeant Lewis, Morse’s loyal sidekick, and his real-life love for the game of cricket. Dexter devised the basic plot that would revolve around the cricket match and even allow Whately to display some cricket skills with his character infiltrating cricket team as undercover investigator. Anthony Minghella provides good script, yet the most impressive of all is the cast, that, among others, includes Sharon Maughan as murder victim’s wife and one of the most intriguing of all Morse’s women. One of the smaller parts is played by Nathaniel Parker, who could later star in his own British police show as Inspector Lynley.

Final episode, The Secret of Bay 5, is a rather loose adaptation of Dexter’s novel The Secret of Annexe 3. It begins with one of the most intriguing openings in the show – scene of Mel Martin in underwear  suggesting that her character would play important role in the plot, either as victim or femme fatale triggering murders. By the time one of those two assumptions is revealed to be correct, Martin is, for the most part, absent from the screen. The other characters and fine plotting, however, keep audience’s attention. The episode’s ending – which often happens to be weakest element in the show – is here quite satisfying, with mystery being revealed through Morse’s clever trick rather than through convenient coincidences. Although not the best, this episode concludes the general impression of Series 3 as the best in show until that point.

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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

INSPECTOR MORSE

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.

 

 

 

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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

INSPECTOR MORSE

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.