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.
Shaun Evans talks to Digital Spy about his role as a young Morse.
By MORGAN JEFFERY for Digital Spy
It's been 11 years since Inspector Morse last appeared on our screens, but now the dogged detective is back, with a brand new face! 31-year-old Shaun Evans takes over the mantle from the late John Thaw, playing a much younger Morse in '60s-set prequel Endeavour.
Digital Spy caught up with Shaun to discuss the project, how it felt to work alongside John Thaw's daughter Abigail and the new-found fame that comes with playing one of Britain's best-loved TV cops.
What is the setup for Endeavour?
"Basically, it's a story set in the '60s about a young police officer who returns to Oxford - the place where he went to university - to help solve a crime. There's a missing girl, and while he's there, he confronts a load of ghosts from his past.
"It's revealed that he got his heart broken in Oxford, failed to get his degree and left in a hurry, sort of shamefacedly. So what we get is someone who's confronting those issues, while also helping to solve the case of this missing girl."
That young officer grows up to be Inspector Morse - were you a Morse fan before signing up?
"I was aware of the character, but I'd hesitate to say that I was a fan. As soon as I got the call, I read the books and became a massive fan of them. It was only then that I began to watch the films.
"So although I'd seen them and I knew them, I hadn't really watched them, if you know what I mean. But as soon as I started reading the books, I was like, 'God, this is brilliant'. I started to wonder what kind of character they were going to make him as a youngster, who turned into this [familiar] character in his late fifties. I thought it could be really great."
How did you land the role of Morse?
"To be honest with you, I had a lot of good fortune. I'd done a job with the production company [behind Endeavour] previously and they called me directly about it. They asked me how I felt about playing it and what my ideas were.
"At that stage, I hadn't read a script and I didn't know much about it. Hence me doing so much research and reading the books before we took the meeting and before we began to speak at length about it.
"So it came about in a very straightforward way, really. Rather than reading a script and there being a bunch of people in the running for it, it was something that came my way. I was excited and picked it up and ran with it."
You have a scene with John Thaw's daughter Abigail in Endeavour...
"Yeah, that's right. She played a brilliant part of a newspaper journalist. She was fantastic. It was the first time we'd met. Apart from anything else, the work she was doing on set that day was brilliant.
"She was lots of fun, really light and worked in a way that was conducive to everyone else doing good work. There wasn't any kind of heaviness or sentimentality that she brought to set.
"It was fun - she was an actor coming to set to do a day's work, you know? And then we had the added bonus that her dad had played the part that I was playing a couple of years previous! But first and foremost, she was doing a great job."
Are you worried how fans might react to seeing someone other than John Thaw playing Morse?
"Well... you've got to suck it and see, haven't you? Check it out and if you don't like it, then turn over! But there's so many nods to stuff that's gone before, that I think it will please those fans.
"To be honest with you, my hope is that it brings a new audience to it. I don't think any of us wanted to be a slave to what had gone before. You want to... I'd hesitate to say 'reinvent', but to put your own stamp on it.
"Like I say, if people are going to be naysaying at the beginning, then that's fine, that's cool. But I hope people do enjoy it. I don't think too much about it or concern myself with it."
What do you think the core appeal of the Morse character is?
"I think, for me at least, he's someone who's lost and makes mistakes. He's very human, I think, and I think that's what differentiates him from a lot of the other detectives. He does makes mistakes, he's flawed, and it's really easy to see that.
"I think that's why people have previously latched onto him and enjoyed it so much. So it's my hope that people will continue to enjoy this interpretation of it."
Did you get a chance to meet Morse's creator Colin Dexter?
"I did, yeah - a bunch of times actually. He came to set a few times, and we met before we started filming. Colin has the final say on who plays Morse, and always has done. He was very specific about it, so we chatted a lot and got on well.
"He was kind of everything I wanted him to be - very funny, very witty and very intelligent. He was a great guy.
"He played a small part in Endeavour as well - he's kind of in the back of a shot. I know he's done that in all of the previous Morse films, so I was pleased that we honoured that."
14 million people watched the final episode of Inspector Morse - are you prepared for that level of fame?
"I didn't know that! I haven't really given it much though, to be honest, my friend. Like I say, I just hope that people enjoy what we've done. I've yet to see it myself, so it's a bit difficult to comment! But I just hope that people enjoy it."
Endeavour is a one-off for now, but would you be interesting in playing Morse again?
"Yeah, definitely. I had such a great time. Such an interesting time on it. I had a lot of fun, so if it was to come back around… but who knows? I want to see this and then I can be more accurate about it.
"But I certainly had a good time and I feel like, in terms of the story and where he's at, there's definitely room for growth. But I didn't want to think about that at the time. You can only do the task at hand, and I wanted to bring this film to life in a way that was vivid.
"If it goes well, brilliant. If it doesn't [continue], then it's still brilliant, because my hope is that we've made a great one-off. It honours what's gone before, but it's kind of something new as well. That is my intention - I just want this one to be great. And then I guess we'll see things in a new light next year…"
Shaun Evans says he wasn't intimidated by taking on the role of a young Inspector Morse.
The relatively unknown actor has stepped into John Thaw's shoes to play the massively popular TV detective in his younger days, in one-off ITV prequel Endeavour.
"It wasn't intimidating, no, it was exciting," said the 31-year-old Liverpudlian. "I think that's because I'd guessed they were looking for the right person, so I was excited they thought I could do it."
The prequel, which fans will know takes its title from Morse's closely-guarded first name, is based on a short story by Morse's creator Colin Dexter and is scripted by Russell Lewis, who wrote the Morse spin-off, Lewis.
It sees the young Morse working as a police inspector after being kicked out of Oxford University, and lays the foundations for the Morse we came to know during the original series.
Shaun explained: "You see the beginnings of all the things which made him so popular in his later period; he's struggling with women even then, struggling with work and struggling with himself, but he already has a love of classical music and crosswords, poetry, old cars and beer."
But anyone thinking the title suggests we might see a more open and carefree Morse is mistaken - as the actor revealed his character is just as curmudgeonly in his earlier years.
"It's called Endeavour, but he's very secretive about his name, even then," he said. "That was one of the things I found so interesting about him. Can you imagine being embarrassed by your first name? And having issues of letting people in and keeping everyone at arm's length? We see the beginnings of that, because only a close few get to know his name."
Endeavour is on ITV1 on Monday January 2
Morse is back!: They’re big boots to fill, but the actor playing the young Morse in a new prequel does it – and says he was just as irascible then.
By Michael Hellicar for the Daily Mail
Eleven years have passed since Inspector Morse breathed his last . And when he did, Oxford’s grumpiest policeman – with his love for crosswords, opera, real ale and his vintage red Jaguar Mark II – became the 82nd death after 33 episodes and 13 years.
‘Thank Lewis for me,’ he muttered, finally recognising his loyal sidekick’s crime-solving talent as he succumbed to a fatal heart attack. There would be no more Morse stories, declared his creator, Colin Dexter, and in any case, John Thaw, who played him, died of throat cancer two years later.
But now Morse is back on TV, looking decidedly younger but being just as curmudgeonly as ever. The fledgling Morse, played by the relatively unknown Shaun Evans, is a disgruntled detective constable in his late 20s, unlucky in love, unhappy in his job, unable to settle and unwilling to compromise. So no change there then.
The two-hour prequel, which will lead to a series if successful, is called Endeavour, his rarely used first name. At its peak, the original Morse attracted more than 18 million viewers in the UK, and the show, which began 25 years ago, was sold to some 200 countries. So taking over a role that will be for ever associated with the award-winning Thaw would be a formidable task for any actor.
Yet Shaun, 31, says, ‘I’m more excited than daunted. I’m not really following in his footsteps because I’m stepping into Morse’s life when it’s a freshly laundered sheet. If they’d tried to continue Morse from where he left off, by replacing John, it would have been an almost impossible task for anyone. But for me there’s no tradition to carry on because I’m the prototype.’
The Liverpudlian, who has also appeared in Ashes To Ashes and Inspector George Gently, is tall, dark, skinny and brimming with enthusiasm – the antithesis of Morse as we knew him. But Shaun says, ‘You won’t get any big surprises with young Endeavour. The back story is still the same: dropped out of university after a love affair went wrong. Spent two years in the Army. Joined the police by default, but can’t take to the discipline and routine. Even in those early days, he’s still a loner.’
In the new episode, set in 1965, Morse is on the point of handing in his resignation when he’s dispatched from his police station in rural Oxfordshire into Oxford itself to join the hunt for a missing schoolgirl. He takes lodgings for the temporary assignment, arriving by bus carrying his small collection of opera music and a cheap record player.
In later years, of course, Morse would have a state-of-the-art stereo to play discs from his vast library. The only Jaguar he gets to drive is a police car but there is a nod to the future when Endeavour has to make some inquiries at a used-car garage.
Shaun says, ‘I see this beautiful red Jaguar Mark II, and I’m sorely tempted, but a detective constable’s pay wouldn’t stretch to a car like that. And there’s a nice touch. The registration number is 248 RPA – it’s the exact car that Morse will drive in later years. In real life it’s had a couple of owners since Morse finished in 2000, but we tracked it down to make a guest appearance, and it looks as good as ever.’
Morse fans will see other pointers to the way the young Endeavour will turn out. Attending his first postmortem, he faints when the pathologist gets to work with his scalpel. ‘This was just the start,’ says Shaun. ‘Even in latter years Morse would be squeamish around dead bodies and try to avoid looking at a corpse.’
Endeavour is taken out by his boss, DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), who tells him he needs a beer to steady him after his collapse in the mortuary. ‘But I don’t drink, sir,’ he protests. Yet being forced to swallow the pint sparks the beginning of Endeavour’s interest in real ale. Morse fans will spot Colin Dexter making his usual cameo appearance in this scene, while several directors of original Morse episodes get a mention in Endeavour because some characters have been named after them.
Another link with the original show is that Thaw’s actress daughter Abigail, from his first marriage to Sally Alexander, plays a journalist. ‘There was no getting away from the history of Morse,’ says Shaun. ‘It was touching, and sentimental, to have Abigail there and, if possible, to get her blessing for putting my own stamp on the part her father made famous.’
When he was offered the role, Shaun realised he didn’t know much about Morse. ‘I’d seen a few episodes on TV but hadn’t read any of the books. So I read everything I could and tried to see what made the man tick. I found someone brilliant at his job, but not very good with his life. He wanted desperately to make every thing work – his relationships with women in particular, and his need for friends – but he had failed. And that’s what so endeared Morse to viewers.
'He was human, with flaws. He was moody, difficult, taciturn and stubborn in his later years, and now we see he was no happier when younger. His life isn’t complete and probably never will be, and he knows it. He can’t find his place in the world. He’s asking himself, “Am I in the right job? Is Oxford the right place for me?”
‘I decided that if I was being asked just to do an impression of Morse then I wouldn’t be interested in the role. It didn’t make sense to have me play a part in the same way someone else had years earlier. But there was no conflict; it was agreed I should give young Morse a life of his own.’
And that new life might continue – at the end of the show there’s a line that suggests Endeavour could develop into a full series. DI Thursday offers the young man a job with him as they drive past Oxford’s dreaming spires. ‘The world’s long on academics, Morse,’ he observes, ‘but woefully short of good detectives.’
ITV's 'Endeavour' imagines the early years of Oxford sleuth Inspector Morse. Olly Grant meets its star.
Liverpool-born actor Shaun Evans was under no illusion of the daunting task he faced stepping into the shoes of the late John Thaw. Last August, 31-year-old Evans was unveiled as the face of ITV’s Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour – the title referring to Morse’s long-hidden Christian name – which airs on Monday, marking the 25th anniversary of the original series.
Set in 1965, it sees Colin Dexter’s beloved sleuth transformed into a younger version of the Morse we knew from 1987 until 2000. A rookie cop. A teetotaller. A proto-Morse. And a disillusioned one, on the brink of resigning from the force. “You find him at a point where he’s like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this any more,’ ” says Evans. Until, that is, a murder case sets him on the road to, well, everything that follows.
News of the prequel catapulted Evans from rising star (best known for gangster drama The Take) to object of mainstream scrutiny. Fan reaction, though, was mostly disapproving – not of Evans so much as the toying with Morse’s legacy. “IS NOTHING SACRED???” read a typical tweet. Evans didn’t go online to read them. “That’s not my bag,” he says. But anyway, he adds, why be cowed? “You just have to get on with it.”
Seated in his on-set caravan, Evans shows me his character’s jacket, bought from a period clothes shop in London’s Ladbroke Grove. “It’s an original 1960s Burton suit,” he says proudly. “It took me five hours to find,” which says something about his eye for detail. A singular dedication to a correct outcome. Now, who does that remind you of?
Morse fans can take comfort in the knowledge that Dexter had a hand in Endeavour. Following a short story he wrote for a newspaper in 2008, Dexter was asked to consider a TV version. Dexter said yes. And though he didn’t pen the script (that fell to Russell Lewis, who had previously written episodes of both Morse and its spin-off Lewis), he did approve Evans’s casting, and also wangled his trademark cameo.
In fact the film is rammed with intertextual nods and winks. We meet The Car: a black Mark 1 Jag rather than the burgundy Mark 2. And we watch Endeavour Morse have his first beer, solve crosswords and recoil at corpses – Morse being famously squeamish. The Morse-Lewis coupling is also reworked, with Endeavour playing understudy to DI Fred Thursday (The Thick of It’s Roger Allam). There’s even a reference to Thaw himself (who died in 2002) via his actor daughter, Abigail, who plays a journalist.
Evans hopes all the references won’t be seen as de trop. “You have to pay attention to those things because you want to please the audience,” he explains. “But you have to want to do your own thing with it as well.” Did he ask Dexter for pointers? “Not really.” He thinks for a second. “It’s like any job. You don’t want someone telling you how to do it. I need to find out for myself.” Pause. “I’m not being overconfident. But if I was to go cap-in-hand to everyone who had an opinion, I’m not paying attention to my own.” While he devoured old episodes, he was determined not to simply replicate Thaw: “I certainly wasn’t copying any walks, talks or tics.”
One thing Evans did borrow from Thaw, though, was his intensity. Allam, who once appeared in a 1997 episode of Morse, thinks this was one of Thaw’s gifts. “There was always the sense of a rich interior thought process,” he says, and he thinks Evans captures this too.
Has Evans absorbed Morse’s pedantic qualities? I ask it jokingly, but Evans considers carefully. “He’s a big thinker, and I’ve been thinking about things more,” he says. “You end up taking on a predominant atmosphere of whatever that person is like.” For example, he says, three years ago he played Kurt Cobain in the play, Kurt and Sid. “It was only afterwards that I thought, God, I’ve gone absolutely mad.”
The question is: will viewers now see Morse through the prism of Evans? ITV certainly hope so, since the concept would translate naturally to a series. But Evans thinks Endeavour can stand alone. “Listen, I hope previous generations enjoy it as much as the original. But my hope is that we get a new generation of people who enjoy this one film, too.”