What with the excitement over the new series of Sherlock earlier this year, I criminally managed to overlook the latest series of Endeavour. Both shows had their fourth series on the telly back in January, and for what it’s worth some of the episodes of said series were broadcast on the same nights, and while the BBC’s modern-day reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes is the one that’s been getting all the attention (as well as more viewers) it has to be said that ITV’s depiction of a young Endeavour Morse as a junior police officer in Sixties Oxford is one of the best things on television.
[At this point, a spoiler alert is probably in order; if for some reason you’ve not yet seen the fourth series of Endeavour, please be advised that this blog-post contains information that you might not want to look at just yet. You have been warned.]
As well as making use of the central characters’s first names (even though Morse’s one in particular is hardly ever used, to the point where most of his colleagues don’t even know what it is), both shows take a format consisting of short series of long episodes (ninety-minute ones in both cases). In terms of British crime drama, this was a format pioneered, back in the late Eighties, by Inspector Morse and subsequently followed by the likes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Jonathan Creek and many others. Sherlock started back in 2010 and now has thirteen episodes under its belt, while Endeavour began in 2012 with a one-off pilot and is now seventeen episodes old. Sherlock is full of references to the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and subsequent adaptations, while Endeavour’s focus of reference is the enormously popular original series, Inspector Morse, which was based on the novels by Colin Dexter and ran from 1987 to 2000. Both centre around gentleman-detectives, socially awkward but very clever individuals who can infuriate others as well as catch the criminals. Both are very well-acted – in terms of the support cast as well as the leads. Yet, for all that there is to say about Sherlock, I’m finding myself preferring the more understated Endeavour. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. When I was a teenager I read and greatly enjoyed Conan Doyle before I discovered Colin Dexter, but when I read the latter I found Morse – the beer-drinking opera buff who was allowed to get it wrong and have romantic feelings about the women he encountered on his cases (however unrequited they may have been) to be a much more rounded, human and in his own way likeable individual than the emotionally cold, cocaine-taking Holmes.
A recap of Endeavour is perhaps in order. The third series, which aired last year, skipped over an immediate follow-up to the second series which ended with Morse’s mentor Fred Thursday getting shot and Morse himself getting arrested; it was instead briefly explained that the former survived, the latter spent a month or so in prison before being released without charge and the institutional corruption they’d uncovered got brushed under the carpet. Instead, writer Russell Lewis used the third series to experiment with pastiches of The Great Gatsby (with a disillusioned Morse in the Nick Carraway role), Dirty Harry (all that running around between phone-boxes) and Jaws (although, what with Oxfordshire being landlocked, the man-eating animal at large was a tiger rather than a shark) which were much more enjoyable than they had any right to be. A minor character in the tiger episode happened to be the father of James Hathaway, the sergeant in that other Inspector Morse spin-off, Lewis. The last episode was dominated by a bank robbery which went wrong; Morse and Thursday’s daughter Joan were among those taken hostage in the bank. On borrowed time in all sorts of ways, Thursday literally coughed up the bullet that had been in his lung (in the plausibility stakes, that’s right up there with a man-eating tiger on the loose in the Thames Valley, but it didn’t seem to matter as much as it should’ve done) before tooling up and storming the building, leading to a tense denouement in which he opted to arrest rather than kill the villain (whose eventual funeral is depicted at the start of the Inspector Morse episode where Morse and Lewis go to Australia). Traumatised by those events, Joan, who’d been making eyes at an oblivious Morse even though she clearly had a thing for bad boys, left Oxford.
In a departure from the previously-established format, the fourth series was set mere weeks after the third rather than the following year, so in the Endeavour universe it’s still 1967. This allowed Endeavour to fully explore the impact of Joan’s disappearance on her family (young women leaving home without telling their parents where they were going was a common enough feature of the time to inspire one of the songs on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, released in 1967); being of the stoical, buttoned-up generation that came of age in the Second World War, Fred and Win don’t handle things well as their once-happy family falls apart. Morse, who belatedly realised his own feelings for Joan, is badly affected too but he’s also not the type to go in for heart-to-heart discussions about said feelings, and Joan’s eventual return doesn’t really resolve this by any means. We viewers know, though, that for Morse and Joan there won’t be a happy-ever-after, for like many a great literary detective Morse is fated to be unlucky in love (and besides, she doesn’t even know his first name while he can’t bring himself to address her by hers even when he’s proposing to her).
Another story arc is the ongoing development of Morse’s simmering resentment against the powers-that-be, be it via his ongoing alienation from the conformist careerist Jim Strange (his future boss) or his anger over his missing sergeant’s exam paper (he, and everyone else, was convinced that he’d aced it, but his paper mysteriously got lost in circumstances that one assumes have a lot to do with his having got on the wrong side of those in high places) which resulted in a will-he-leave-Oxford sub-plot in which he was offered (via Strange, interestingly) a guaranteed promotion and pay-rise in return for transferring to a police unit in London. We viewers know that Morse will stay in Oxford (and not marry Joan Thursday or anyone else); although Shaun Evans could never be accused of merely impersonation John Thaw, it is however important for there to be markers for the viewer to see how this intellectual junior officer becomes the gruff, curmudgeonly DCI we all know and remember from the old show. But, what with that show having run its course some seventeen years ago, there may well be viewers of Endeavour who have no knowledge of what the young Morse will become (although I doubt that; as Inspector Morse gets regularly repeated on ITV3 it wouldn’t be hard for viewers who’ve been drawn to Endeavour with no prior knowledge of the original series to watch the late, great John Thaw as the older Morse).
Did I say the acting was first-rate? Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as Fred Thursday are both superb in their respective roles and deserve all the praise they can get. The support cast does a thoroughly good job too, notably Abigail Thaw as the journalist (who deserves better than to be referred to as John Thaw’s daughter every time her being in Endeavour is mentioned), James Bradshaw as the pathologist (getting the best lines and clearly enjoying himself more than he ever did in The Grimleys) and Dakota Blue Richards as WPC Trewlove. Some minor characters have developed a lot as the show has progressed, not just Joan Thursday (Sara Vickers is brilliant in her scenes with Shaun Evans) but also the straight-laced, old-colonial Chief Superintendent Bright who has become a more rounded character than the usual bewildered police chief trying to keep his detectives in order (which is what he was, more or less, in the first two series). He’s played by Anton Lesser, a solid character actor who’s been in a lot of stuff in recent years – he was also the boss in that sadly short-lived BBC series The Hour, Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall and Fagin in Dickensian, and he’s really good in Endeavour (in which he shot the man-eating tiger, and how many actors can say they’ve played a character who’s done that?).
The fourth series saw an emphasis on aspects of the Sixties which moved more towards the popular perceptions of the decade than has hitherto been the case in Endeavour. The ‘white heat of technology’ was represented by a very big computer (designed by some Oxford boffins to beat a visiting professor from the Soviet Union at chess, although Morse also used it to find someone’s address) and a nuclear power-station (which was the focus of the climax in the last episode), while at the local hospital some Carry On-style goings-on between a doctor and a student nurse soon gave way to something much more sinister. The Cold War put in an appearance, what with the Russian professor and references to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the prospect of nuclear fall-out in the episode with the power-station. Morse, we learned, can speak Russian which I don’t think ever came up in the original series.
Then, of course, there was the culture clash of the second episode as pop music interrupted the classical music which Morse prefers. A caricature of Mary Whitehouse locked horns with the Wildwood, a rock band which was a fictional composite of various real-life outfits (there were nods to, among others, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and early Pink Floyd). Both were of interest to the Oxford City Police’s finest – the former had been receiving death threats while the latter popped up on the police radar when some dope was found in a dressing-room they’d used, but they were later connected to a dead builder who’d become more involved with them and their groupies than anyone was prepared to admit to. The uptight Morse – seen as an oddity by the band members, what with his being a young man in a suit – was shocked by a gem of a revelation from Thursday about smoking dope during the North African campaign. The Mary Whitehouse character’s daughter – a smoker and a vodka drinker behind her mother’s back – declared her love for Morse (he, being pre-occupied with Joan, didn’t reciprocate) and then fell out with her bigoted, domineering mother. The band’s manager’s alibi fell apart when it was revealed that the Kinks were banned from playing in the USA, so he couldn’t have been on the phone to someone in New York discussing their forthcoming tour (nice try, thinking the police wouldn’t know that; good thing WPC Trewlove’s got her finger on the pulse). Bright and Thursday, their status as men from a bygone age emphasised more than ever in this episode, got to discuss the changing times and the nature of hatred. The pop music, brilliantly, was all done specially for the show by the people normally responsible for the classical music in Endeavour. The highlight of that episode, though, had to be the bit when Morse was forced to face his inner demons when he got drugged and started hallucinating (no Sherlock-style mind-palace for him, alas, although in Morse’s case it would probably be more of a mind-pub).
The series concluded with an investigation into the disappearance of an academic in a rural village which seemed at first glance to be going the way of The Wicker Man (not a good setting for an earnest and determined copper) although in the event the villagers’ neo-paganism was a red herring; it was actually good old-fashioned jealousy that did for the academic, and in any case the nearby nuclear power-station was where the action really was. It was as a result of the finale in the power-station that Morse finally got his promotion – Hornblower-style, on the basis of action above and beyond the normal call of duty rather than by way of the exam – and he and Thursday both got medals, leading to a fine cine-footage-style shot of Fred and Win smiling outside Buckingham Palace. Does a well-deserved retirement now beckon for the character who’s been played so well by Roger Allam? With Morse having finally made sergeant, maybe it’s time for Inspector McNutt, named as Morse’s old boss in the original TV series, to enter the stage – although maybe not, as it’s already been announced that Roger Allam will be in the fifth series which is in the pipeline. There were a few questions that viewers might raise (the Thursdays’ son not being mentioned at all amid the furore of Joan’s disappearance, the Wildwood’s sleazy manager not being arrested for perverting the course of justice, Bright’s wife not visiting him in hospital, the lack of follow-up regarding the discovery of a Scottish hit-man’s body in the boot of a car, how the GPO was able to replace or repair Morse’s phone so quickly after he threw it against the wall), but all in all I found the fourth series of Endeavour to be thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable viewing (once I finally got round to viewing it) and I am now looking forward to the next series. In the meantime, I might as well work my way through some old Inspector Morse episodes via the ITV Hub.
This year being thirty years since Inspector Morse first aired, there were nods a-plenty to the original show and it was fun trying to spot those in addition to trying to work out who the murderer was. I once again managed to miss Colin Dexter’s background appearances, but then I’ve always had as much success at spotting those as I have had solving cryptic crossword clues (in any case, author-spotting has been much harder this time around as the old boy’s now 86 and doesn’t appear in person any more). What with getting kidnapped by one of Oxford’s many serial killers and sneaking Morse into the power-station, Abigail Thaw’s character had more to do this time (I’d like to think that that was because Russell Lewis realised he was under-using such a good actress), and her father’s second wife Sheila Hancock made a much-publicised appearance as the Tarot-reading old lady in the last episode. There was a reference to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (the first film that John Thaw starred in), while I presume that the unnamed London unit which offered Morse a job was a nod to The Sweeney. I took a reference to what someone was ‘last seen wearing’ as evidence that they were attempting to do something silly like crow-barring all of the Morse novel titles into the dialogue in some way, although this turned out not to be the case (Thursday did mention Cain but not any daughters he many have had, and no-one spoke about a jewel that had been theirs or death having recently become their neighbour). When Bright was hospitalised it was with a bleeding stomach ulcer, the same as what Morse had in The Wench Is Dead (both the novel and the TV adaptation). Actors who’d previous been in either Inspector Morse, Lewis or both were in evidence (the obvious one – Roger Allam – aside, there was among others James Laurenson, who’d been in the first-ever episode of Inspector Morse and who now played the wheelchair-bound professor in the computer episode). As with Sherlock, even the most trivial things are deliberately placed, such as lines and sub-plots which refer to minor characters from Inspector Morse (including Susan, the woman who Morse fell in love with as a student), music (always an important aspect of anything Morse-related), the made-up yet very plausible Oxford college names and all sorts of little puzzles; my favourite (now that it has been pointed out to me) is the name of the Abigail Thaw character, Dorothea Frazil – the word ‘frazil’ means ice crystals, so ‘D. Frazil’ means de-ice or, of course, thaw.
The latest series of Sherlock was good, after a mediocre start. But Endeavour is better.
The latest series of Sherlock was good, after a mediocre start. But Endeavour is better.