It’s so many years now since Inspector Morse was new to ITV, it really belongs to another era. And yet, when it was new, it was very new. The two-hour films, the score, the pacing, the roster of guest stars, we’d never seen a police procedural of this quality before.
That first series was 34 years ago, in 1987, also the year the world first met The Simpsons; it was the year British Airways was privatised, the year Thatcher won her third election; the year of the Iran-Contra scandal; the year of the Great Storm, of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster (the ironically named Herald of Free Enterprise), the King’s Cross fire.
A different world.
There were 33 episodes, the last five of which eked Morse out at the rate of one per year, until his on-screen death in November 2000.
The first spin-off, Lewis never quite had the gravitas of Morse, and of course has been forever tainted by the antics of one of its co-stars. In a way, it was always a bit of a stretch. The workmanlike Lewis was never the brains of the operation, and was too settled, too normal, and too happily married to be a lead detective. For his spin-off, they killed off his wife, and they still managed 33 episodes, but you can’t watch Lewis now, can you?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Endeavour was more of the same, the cruel flogging of a dead horse, and I wouldn’t blame you if you’d avoided it, if you viewed it as a relic of the past, of the kind of television rendered obsolete by Mad Men, Game of Thrones, even Luther. But I’m here to argue that it is not only worth watching, but is probably, by now, better than Morse. It has outgrown its source, and the only problem it has is that the in-universe future of Endeavour is Morse, which means the producers and writers are somewhat hamstrung by canon.
Shaun Evans as the younger Morse has produced a nuanced performance, which is engaging and sometimes moving. Yes, you do see him making a series of decisions that will leave him as a lonely problem drinker in the 1980s, but you also see the brilliant mind who becomes indispensable to his superiors, notwithstanding his issues.
One of the things that makes Endeavour better than Morse and Lewis is the period setting. It’s another different world, though not as distant from the original series as the original series is from us. The producers do not go over the top with period detail, but they do bring in plot elements that resonate down the years. A body found at a deserted train station on a branch line that closed in 1964, for example. Or a photographer girlfriend who disappears off to Vietnam. The formation of the Thames Valley police force. It’s not a 60s world of Carnaby Street hipsters and psychedelic 60s pop, however. It’s a 60s Oxford of seedy travelling salesmen, racist hairdressers, secretly communist Oxford dons, Commer vans and Ford Zodiacs.
Detective Constable Morse is introduced in 1965, and the most recent series finished in 1971. There have been 33 episodes, but I do hope they don’t stop now, just because 33 happens to be the magic Morse number.
The character starts as bag man to mentor Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), an old school copper and war veteran, whose old fashioned phlegmatic decency sometimes clashes with Morse’s intellectual idealism. Starting the job at the same time as Morse is Police Constable Strange, a proper plod and woodentop who joins the Masons, doesn’t frighten the horses, and thus eventually becomes Chief Superintendent Strange in Morse. Strange is there to have the life Morse could have had if he’d been less of the maverick. The Chief Superintendent of Endeavour, meanwhile, is DS Bright (played by the chameleon-like Anton Lesser). Bright’s role is to be constantly appalled at the way of the modern world, but to be smart enough to recognise Morse’s talents.
Endeavour is a window into a vanished world, a world of quieter streets, outside toilets, and local newspapers, and most of the time it works beautifully. There have been a couple of upsetting errors. One of these was the inclusion of the 1971 Rolling Stones track, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” in an episode set in 1968. When you first hear it, it seems as if it’s a piece of non-diegetic almost-period music, but then Morse goes into a party where it is playing on a record player. This is so wrong it feels almost deliberate, as if placed to make the viewer feel the wrongness of Morse at the party: he just doesn’t fit with people his own age.
But it was probably just a mistake.
You can get Endeavour on the ITV Hub, with adverts, or on Britbox, without.