by Laura Barnett - The Guardian
Morse is back – but in a prequel starring this man as the young inspector. Can he escape from John Thaw's shadow? Laura Barnett searches for clues on the shoot
It's early morning at a ghostly disused RAF base, and I have just been transported back to the 1960s. A woman struts past me in a green mini-dress, hair backcombed into a beehive. A vintage blue and cream bus sits in a car park. A man in a serge suit and a beige mackintosh sits on a folding chair, smoking a cigarette. Through all this strolls a tall, loose-limbed young man with piercing blue eyes and a strangely familiar expression.
The expression – avuncular yet determined, confused yet confident – is familiar because it's the default expression of Inspector Morse, the opera-loving solver of shire-based crimes. But Morse has not come back from the dead: the loose-limbed young man is actor Shaun Evans, seen recently in Martina Cole's The Take, who is playing a young version of the gruff, Jaguar-Mark-2-driving sleuth immortalised by the late John Thaw. This site, on the outer reaches of west London, is the set of Endeavour, a one-off film for ITV that takes its title from the inspector's first name, once the source of great mystery and finally revealed in 1997, at the end of the episode Death Is Now My Neighbour (Morse had joked that his first name was actually Inspector).
Set in 1965, Endeavour was written by Russell Lewis, who also penned the Morse spin-off Lewis. It is intended to mark the 25th anniversary of the first ever episode of Morse, The Dead of Jericho, scripted by a certain Anthony Minghella. Endeavour stars 31-year-old Evans as Morse's younger self, an Oxford university dropout who has joined the police and is now investigating the murder of a 15-year-old girl found naked in an Oxford wood. Although Morse is the star of the show, using his crossword-solving powers to crack the case, he is, in effect, the sidekick for once, since the investigation is led by DI Fred Thursday, played by a taciturn Roger Allam.
TV prequels are an uneasy business: for every Smallville (the excellent US series tracing the life of Clark Kent before he became Superman), there are 10 The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (George Lucas's clunky 1990s series). And with ITV already devoting a good portion of airtime to Lewis, the inevitable question about Endeavour is whether this could be Morse overkill. Diehard fans of the original have certainly been bristling at the prospect of another actor taking on a role that Thaw made his own. "A tetchy young copper is not going to credibly have the same scope – or life experience – that Morse senior had," sniffed one on the website Digital Spy. "Morse worked to a large degree thanks to the portrayal by John Thaw," said another. "Whoever replaces him is on to a loser."
If Evans is worried about any of this, he isn't showing it. I sit with the Liverpool-born actor in his tiny trailer and ask him how it feels to step into the great man's brogues. "I don't feel a responsibility to be faithful to what has come before," he says briskly. "I didn't watch Morse growing up. If the ghost of John Thaw was here looking over my shoulder, I hope he'd be supportive."
The man who was smoking in the serge suit turns out to be Paul Plausin, who has appeared as a spare detective in countless episodes of Morse and Lewis. "I do miss John," he says. "He had an incredible memory – whatever you'd told him the last time you worked together, he'd remember exactly. And he was a chain-smoker, so whenever he was shooting a scene, there'd be an ashtray nearby. That suited me down to the ground."
A languid inspector calls
The company behind Endeavour is Mammoth Screen, which also makes Lewis. Over lunch in another (larger) trailer, fitted out with reclaimed bus seats, Michele Buck, the company's joint managing director, tells me that Endeavour was partly inspired by a short story featuring the young Morse that Colin Dexter, creator of the inspector, wrote for the Daily Mail at Christmas time in 2008. "Colin has very much been a part of this," she says. He even, apparently, had casting approval. "We had a very tense day," says Buck. "We took photos of various actors along and we were thinking, 'Please think it should be Shaun.' And Colin looked at him and said, 'He's perfect – there's something sensitive about his face.' People think of Thaw as gruff, you see, but he was so sensitive."
Why all this reverence? Well, Morse still has quite a pedigree. This was, after all, the programme that some mighty British screenwriters and directors cut their teeth on: as well as Minghella, John Madden and Danny Boyle are credited with a number of episodes. The phenomenally popular series would continue for 13 years, encompassing 33 shows. Back in those dark days before cable reruns and watch-again websites, the ad breaks in every Sunday-night episode caused a power surge as the nation clicked on its kettles. In 2000, more than 18 million people watched the final three shows, which culminated in Morse's death from a heart attack. It struck him down – where else? – in the picturesque quad of an Oxford college. Later, grey and weak in a hospital bed, Morse, affable to the last, uttered his dying words: "Thank Lewis for me."
With each episode two hours in length, the shows had a languid feel that challenged preconceptions about TV detective drama: Morse could be reflective where others were fast-talking and even faster-paced. This is the legacy that Buck hopes Endeavour can live up to. "The original Morse had a huge impact on television," she says. "People said, 'The audience won't stay with it,' but they did. It was a breathtaking piece of scheduling. Hopefully," she adds with a bright smile, "with the grammar of Morse and the style of today, people will feel the same about Endeavour."
Dexter is not on set, so I call him to ask how he feels about seeing the character he swore he would never revive back on screen. He chuckles. "Oh, I have no worries about it at all," he says. "I really ought to have said more about Morse's past in the books. Until I wrote that short story, I didn't really have much of an idea about what he had been like as a young man. Shaun seems like an admirable actor. I think [Endeavour] will be good, though you never quite know."
Named by a Quaker
Endeavour is full of clues about the man Morse would become: we see him listening to opera, admiring a familiar-looking red Jaguar Mark 2, taking a rather keen interest in attractive women; even talking about his parents (they named him after HMS Endeavour, by the way, his mother being a Quaker and following its tradition of picking virtuous qualities for names). For inspiration, Russell Lewis reread all of Dexter's novels. "I wanted to create a continuity between the world of the television show and the world of the books," he says. "I worked my way back from the guy we know to the guy he would have been." He included a small part as a journalist for Thaw's daughter Abigail, also an actor. "If you had the option," he says, "why wouldn't you?"
For Buck, who sees Morse as "an old-fashioned thinker with old-fashioned values", the 1960s setting puts some important distance between Endeavour and the original. "There's something comforting about a 1960s murder," she says, "about seeing him solve crimes in a time when things were much more black and white."
But this definitely isn't the nostalgic, soft-focus 1960s portrayed by the likes of Heartbeat: Endeavour's director, Colm McCarthy, has directed episodes of The Tudors and Spooks, while editor Masahiro Hirakubo worked on Trainspotting and The Beach. I couldn't tell too much from my morning on the set, which saw the derelict barracks standing in for Cowley police station, but the final edit, when I see it, is a different beast entirely. It has the same dark hues, stirring operatic soundtrack and unsettling camera angles that we came to expect of the original, and the script zips along like a Jaguar – although a much sportier model, perhaps, than a Mark 2.