'Masterpiece: Mystery' adds an origin story to the popular Inspector Morse franchise, with 'Endeavour' deftly exploring the nascent detective and his 1960s environs.
By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
Both Inspector Morse and the man who played him, John Thaw, being dead, and all the books Colin Dexter wrote about the Oxford, England, police detective having long since been adapted, there are only so many ways to go with the franchise.
There is "Inspector Lewis," ongoing since 2006, which focuses on Morse's put-upon sidekick sergeant (regular guy Kevin Whately), who now fills his late governor's shoes, with a Morse-ish assistant of his own (Laurence Fox, intellectual, arty). Four new episodes of that series appear beginning July 8 on PBS' "Masterpiece: Mystery."
You could remake the original novels with another actor, which is pointless, if not just plain wrong: Even though the character was created originally for the page, Thaw is now as inextricable from Morse as wetness is from water.
A third option, and it is a popular one, is a prequel, the retrospective origin story. "Endeavour," which gets its American premiere Sunday (also on "Mystery") and takes its title from the chief inspector's long-unrevealed first name, takes us back to 1965 and the moment that young Morse (Shaun Evans) returns fretfully to Oxford. Having already left school there, joined the army (with a similar lack of success) and become a policeman, he is now one of a busload of junior officers being brought in from a neighboring jurisdiction to help search for a missing teenage girl.
He is not yet the irascible white-haired terrier we know from "Morse," and Evans, who has something of Thaw's chin and height, does not attempt an obvious imitation of his coming self. But even before we see Morse's newly young face, we are teased with his totems — with the sounds of opera and a glimpse of a crossword puzzle. (Not for the first time — or the last, depending on how you look at it — will a crossword figure into a Morse mystery.) Two fingers type what looks like a resignation letter; living in his future, we know better.
Before "Endeavour" is over, we will have seen Morse introduced to driving a Jaguar (with a cameo appearance by the very Jag he will later own); to his first taste of ale, which he will keep on tasting until the end; and to pathologist Max de Bryn (here played by James Bradshaw). Abigail Thaw, John Thaw's daughter, has a small part as a newspaper editor, possibly just so she can ask Morse if she's met him someplace. And author Dexter, whose stamp of approval, or at least allowance, is on the current series, makes a background appearance, as has long been his practice.
Worked up by Russell Lewis, who also developed "Lewis" and wrote the "Inspector Morse" episode "The Way Through the Woods," it is a suitably complicated and pictorially engaging work of period suburban mystery, with a large cast of characters (college students, high school girls, snooty academics, a jaded aristocrat, a used car salesman, a beautiful soprano), most of whom I accused at some point of being a murderer, right to their televised face. All but one were not.
Alongside Morse himself, the most vivid character here is a new one, Roger Allam's bearish and paternal Detective Inspector Fred Thursday, a well-centered man with a deep velvet voice who knows talent when he sees it, and gives Morse — who is not ambitious for advancement, but helpless not to work out a puzzle — room to move. (I would watch an "Inspector Thursday" series eagerly.) Meanwhile, four new episodes of "Endeavour" have been commissioned, and that news is better than good.
By Luaine Lee McClatchy-Tribune News
PASADENA, Calif. — Filling the oxfords of one of Britain's most famous gumshoes could make most actors quake with fear. But not Shaun Evans. When Evans was first approached about playing the cultured and cantankerous Inspector Morse as a young man, he had his doubts.
After all, John Thaw had portrayed the crossword puzzling Morse for 33 episodes over a span of 13 years. And it seemed the TV persona, which aired here on PBS, died with him when Thaw passed away in 2002.
Evans told his agent he'd like to read the books first and asked him to find out how many other actors were on the list to play young Endeavour Morse. (Yes, that was his first name, Endeavour.)
Evans was a voracious reader as a kid, a passion that helped earn him a scholarship to a vaunted high school in his hometown of Liverpool.
A day or two passed, and his agent phoned again. "'There is no list,' he told Evans, who was in Los Angeles. 'They're being very specific about just you playing the part.' So Evans read all of Colin Dexter's "Morse" novels.
"When I read the books, I thought, 'Here you've got a character who has reached his midlife. He's never married, seems quite unhappy in the choices that he's made in his life and in his general interactions with people. And so for me, I thought, "That's interesting. I wonder how we can get him at the beginning of that.'
"So by the time I did get back I had ideas about how I felt it would work out," he says.
Evans made it clear that he wasn't interested in doing an impression of Thaw. "I'm not your man for that. And I wish you the best with it," he told them. "I think they were kind of delighted by the fact that I'd taken the bull by the horns and read the books and had some ideas about it."
Those ideas will be evident on KUED-Ch. 7 Sunday at 8 p.m. when Evans dons the mantle of the 1960s Morse in "Endeavour" premiering on "Masterpiece Mystery!"
Evans, whose family hails from Northern Ireland, admits he's sometimes frightened to take on a new role. "You have a little bit of fear, but I think that's what's exciting," he says, shifting in the overstuffed leather chair.
"The idea of, 'Can I do this?' But it's a personal thing; it's not for anybody else. It's like you wonder if you can actually do this. You often have it, but it's a fleeting thing because the reality is you're trying to brainwash yourself so much with the script that you have in front of you and all of the different components of it. And (you want to) make sure your subconscious is working properly. You only have really one moment of like, 'Oh well, no.' I also think that that moment is very important because it's good. I'm challenging myself. This is good."
He's been challenging himself ever since he trekked to London at 18 to study acting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. "It forced me to grow up, and it also gives you an opportunity to see there is another world outside of the one that you've been brought up in," he says.
Evans' dad is a taxi driver, his mom a health care worker in a hospital. He has a brother 11 months his senior, whom he describes as slightly "wilder" than he was when they were kids. Evans, 32, says he was 26 when his heart was broken by a failed romance. But he isn't soured on the idea.
"I love the whole thing. In hindsight I love the heartbreak. But at the time, 'Ohhhh, this is awful.' 'Let's do it again.' 'Who's next?'" he laughs.
His grandfather's death last year added to his heartbreak, but bolstered him as well. "Part of being alive is dying as well," he says.
"But I remember thinking very specifically to make the most of things. To make the most of time with people we love. If you love people, tell them you love them. Don't be losing sleep over tiny things. Life is complicated enough."
So far things have been relatively calm for him. He says he's enjoyed a "good, anonymous" life. But asked if he's prepared for fame, he says, "I don't even think about it. I was surprised about the amount of interest in 'Endeavour' before we began to shoot. We did a photo shoot and the day after the photo shoot ... it was in the papers and on Sky News and I remember thinking, 'Wow.'
"I just turned my phone off and thought, 'Well, it'll pass.' I had more pressing things. I wanted to do a great job with the opportunity that I'd been given. And if you put too much pressure on the idea of people watching you, it stops you being able to watch people."