By Sam Wollaston for The Guardian
You know how sometimes even the most adventurous foodie just fancies cheese on toast for tea – familiar, comforting, English and a little old-fashioned, especially on a Sunday night? Well, it can be like that with television, too. Nothing too innovative tonight, please, no parallel universes or subtitles. Murder, oh yes, you need a dunnit in order to ask who, but not too graphic or weird. The sex should be hinted at, rather than actually done. Endeavour? Perfect.
The Inspector Morse prequel, now in its fifth series, has reached 1968, where the Rolling Stones are on the radio. Not that young Morse (Shaun Evans) is doing much swinging or spending the night together with anyone. Promoted to DS in the new Thames Valley force, he is more sure of himself and grumpier than before, further along the journey towards Colin Dexter/John Thaw’s character. He has no time outside work for much apart from opera and the crossword, certainly no time for the new boy: cocky, young DC George Fancy, whose focus is mainly on what he calls “crumpet” – and he is not talking comforting teatime treats.
Victim No 1, a former boxer, has been shot, then a metal spike hammered into his ear. Ouch. The next, a history don, has been stabbed in the eye with a steak knife. Both eyes. “Eye eye,” says Dr Max DeBryn (I love James Bradshaw’s DeBryn, sort of Endeavour’s Gil Grissom in CSI Oxford).
Murder No 3 tops the lot, or rather does not – he has been decapitated, body left in the bed, head under a silver cloche. For your main course … head of art dealer! We don’t see it, of course – this is Endeavour, not Game of Thrones. We see the disgust on the faces of Morse and DI Thursday (Roger Allam); secondhand gruesomeness.
Turns out these murders are all inspired by the biblical paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, who turned the horrors of her own life into scenes of women’s vengeance on the men at whose hands they had suffered.
Now, a modern-day (well, 1960s) Gentileschi, Ruth Astor, is exacting revenge on the members of a vile men’s dining club, like something between the Bullingdon and the Presidents Club – worse, even, if that is possible. Never has murder seemed so just or such fun. Go on, one more, he is the worst of the lot, rock to the skull, bash.
Has Endeavour suddenly found relevance in the real world, then? Let’s not get carried away – it is a whodunnit, but a clever and excellently crafted one (by Russell Lewis), with plenty of whydunnit, too. I like Shaun Evans’s new pricklier Morse and the lovely period detail: not just the cars and the telephone exchange, but in the attitudes of the day.
So, familiar, maybe, and comforting (as comforting as murder can be). But it is also really good. If it were cheese on toast, it would be made with the finest English cheddar and there would be some kind of pickle.