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.’