If you were a fan of the Inspector Morse mystery series, as I was, you might be forgiven for imagining that Morse was born old. A man so steadfastly set in his behavior and his world view came that way straight out of the box, right?
And yet we always knew Morse, as portrayed by white-haired, steely-eyed John Thaw, was a sensitive soul. Even if we never witnessed it, we could easily envision him shedding a tear while listening to a favorite aria, perhaps while reflecting on a lost love. And that might have made us wonder about a time when Morse’s old habits were new practices, and when the first filmy layers of his famously gruff exterior were laid in place.
Endeavour, the latest presentation on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, transports us to that time—back to when the world and Morse were young.
Detective Constable Endeavour Morse, so young he’s not yet reluctant to use his given name, hasn’t been on the job more than a proverbial minute and he’s already drafting his letter of resignation. He no longer holds the same “interest and motivation” for police work that he did at the time he signed on. What he imagined the work would be we don’t know. Scowling, tight-lipped, and shy, Morse isn’t saying. Then things go from bad to worse: Morse is transferred to Oxford, a place that, for reasons he hasn’t divulged, it seems he’d prefer never to see again.
Young Morse, it is revealed for those who didn’t know already, studied Classics at Oxford (you’ll hear one of the characters refer to the subject as “Greats”). He then went into the Royal Signals (“It didn’t take,” he tells a former Oxford classmate) and from there to the police force—a highly unlikely route for a young man who spent his formative years reading Petronius in the original Latin. Now he’s adrift between two worlds: too common for his Oxford connections and too cerebral to fit in with the average copper. It’s a motif that was revisited numerous times during the 33-episode run of Inspector Morse on PBS from 1988 to 2001.
The case, too, is the type Morse would later be called upon to investigate on more than one occasion. A young girl goes missing after arranging to meet an older man under clandestine circumstances. A young man is found dead in an incident that could be related to the girl’s disappearance. Poetry and crossword clues are involved. Opera singers, snooty academics, and healthy helpings of the eternal struggle between “town and gown” are, too. In short, Endeavour contains everything you could desire if your life hasn’t been quite as full since John Thaw died in 2002.
Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse captures the character’s reticence and unease around people. He barely allows a hint of a smile to peek through even when you know he’s blissfully happy, and he manages to convey the innocence that Morse never completely outgrew.
Writer-“deviser” Russell Lewis, who also created the Morse spin-off series Inspector Lewis, fills Endeavour with references and in-jokes that will make old-time Morse fans very happy. He makes sure we learn where Morse developed his taste for ale, his passion for classic Jaguars, and his dislike of Freemasons. He plays on the titles of Colin Dexter’s Morse novels—Last Seen Wearing, Last Bus to Woodstock, and The Dead of Jericho among them. He finally gives Morse’s old ally Max the pathologist a surname. And he delivers some poignant moments, particularly in a brief scene with John Thaw’s daughter, Abigail Thaw, as a newspaper editor.
“What did you say your name was?” she asks.
“Morse. Why?” he replies.
She looks at him carefully. “Have we met?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Another life, then.”
Sigh . . .
Endeavour was a hit when it was broadcast in the U.K. earlier this year and as a result four more episodes have been commissioned starring Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse and Roger Allam as his superior officer, DI Fred Thursday. Shooting is expected to begin later this summer.
Next on Masterpiece Mystery we move from the Inspector Morse prequel to the Inspector Morse sequel, as Inspector Lewis, starring Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox, returns with four new episodes starting July 8.
It’s going to be a great summer.
All images © ITV 2011/Jonathan Ford for Masterpiece
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.
Read more coverage of Masterpiece Mystery on Criminal Element.