At last, a reason to rejoice in the start of a new school year: Inspector Lewis is back in Oxford.
Students, former students, and others in the vicinity are being murdered; and the mystery, as always, is tied to the elite, effete goings-on within that most hallowed university. Effete in the most feminine sense of the word this time, since “Old, Unhappy, Far Off Things” takes place at a women’s college.
As ever, Kevin Whately as Lewis is ol’ reliable. No matter how convoluted the plot—and screenwriter Russell Lewis has made this one pretty convoluted—we can be sure it will be unraveled by Lewis’s dogged police work and the scholarly perspicacity provided by Laurence Fox as “the dishy Sergeant Hathaway” (to quote Oxford M.E. Dr. Laura Hobson as parroted by one of my Criminal Element colleagues).
We can rely on Inspector Lewis for other things as well, such as literary references that make the bookish members of the audience coo with delight and send the rest of us scurrying to Google for assistance.
Here we begin with the episode title, a reference to William Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper”:
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
Why Wordsworth? His great-niece Elizabeth was the first principal of Lady Margaret Hall, the first women’s college at Oxford. Now co-ed and still going strong, LMH served as inspiration for this episode’s fictional Lady Matilda’s College and as the location for the episode filming.
The story begins with a gaudy. (A gaudy is a very posh alumni dinner, but you, clever person, already knew that from reading your Dorothy L. Sayers.) This particular evening marks two momentous events in Lady Matilda’s College history: The college has decided to admit its first male undergraduates and its principal, Diana Ellerby, is preparing to leave her post. (She’s bound for Princeton.)
Yet before we have time to wonder whether one event has anything to do with the other, the first body hits the floor—or the darkened stairs to be more accurate—Lewis and Hathaway are on the scene and a complicated history begins to unfold involving Lewis, Lady Matilda’s College, a girl in a coma, a former colleague and an unsolved crime from ten years past.
The body count eventually ratchets up to five, and there are quite a few moments when the story ventures too far over the line that separates plausible from “oh, come on.” Still Lewis perseveres because, plausible or not, he takes these things seriously—and therefore so do we.
Even the withering disdain of Juliet Stevenson as college don Diana Ellerby doesn’t daunt him. And she certainly is daunting in her patented fashion. Whether you know her as Lady Elms from The Hour or as Keira Knightley’s mom in Bend it Like Beckham, no one plays reasonable-bordering-on-unhinged like she does.
Saskia Reeves as Lewis’s former colleague Alison McLennan also deserves a mention. She takes a tiny role and fills it with provocative possibilities. (Happily, we’ll see her on Masterpiece Contemporary this November in Page Eight, a spy thriller written by David Hare.)
Now in its fourth series, Inspector Lewis is a follow-up to the enormously successful Inspector Morse mysteries based on/inspired by the novels of Colin Dexter. The farther along we go, the more complex the principal characters become; and lead writers Russell Lewis and Stephen Churchett handle these subplots gently and believably. I suspect, however, that their greatest pleasure is weaving scholarly and literary references into their plots. We’ve encountered everything from Egyptian mythology to C.S. Lewis in episodes past.
In this episode, an undergraduate costume party involves dressing up not as Spider-Man or a pussycat, but as Venetian Renaissance characters like Dottore Della Peste and Arlecchino. I’m guessing you won’t find parties like that at Princeton. Nor are you likely to find a college professor who names her home House Beautiful, not to be boastful or in reference to the magazine, but as a tribute to John Bunyan’s 17th-century religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Cambridge-educated Sergeant Hathaway catches most of the allusions, but Lewis isn’t above tossing off a few lines of Tennyson just to remind him who’s boss.
Me, I’m still marveling over the origin of House Beautiful. I had no idea. (Did you?) That’s why I enjoy visiting Oxford with Inspector Lewis. I always learn something.
Watch “Old, Unhappy Far Off Things” on the PBS website.
Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.