By Andre Paine - Crime Scene
Thirty years from Inspector Morse's screen debut, the detective remains a firm favourite in ITV's 1960s prequel. Crime Scene meets the cast of Endeavour as they prepare for a fifth series.
Get ready for even more Morse. Following strong ratings for the recent fourth series of Endeavour, which marked the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of Inspector Morse, ITV has confirmed that the fifth season of Endeavour will be extended from a quartet of investigations to six feature-length episodes.
Shooting begins in April in and around Oxford for a series, set in 1968, which will further explore this enduring character in the early stages of his career. It's a gift for the original show's fans, who get to see the young Morse in what are essentially six lavishly produced films.
"I'm glad you said that, because that's our intention - we hope that each director will make something cinematic", says leading man Shaun Evans when Crime Scene catches up with him at ITV's London HQ. With his strong Scouse accent, Evans isn't much like Morse in the flesh. He claims he doesn't actually get noticed by fans, perhaps because Morse is a slightly melancholy cop dressed for the 1960s.
Based on Colin Dexter's fictional detective, the prequel was devised by Russell Lewis (also a writer on the original series and spin-off Lewis), who says he's now relishing creating "further chapters in Morse's secret history." Dexter, who took several years to be persuaded about the prequel, is a consultant to the producers. But the 86 year-old author's cameo appearances were notably absent in the fourth series because of ill health.
"When we started [Endeavour] we actually became really good mates", says Evans of the Morse creator. "He's actually a friend, he's inspiring, a top man. He wasn't able to come up to set, sadly. But we have a little nod to him, which is important. So whilst we haven't been able to have him in person, his presence is very much felt."
Like one of Morse's cryptic crossword puzzles, it's easy if you know the answer. Look out, for instance, for a portrait of Dexter on the wall of the office of Oxford Mail editor Dorothea Frazil in series 4. Of course, she's another nod to the show's history: actor Abigail Thaw is the daughter of John Thaw, the original Morse.
Russell Lewis has made other hidden references to Inspector Morse. The dictionary definition of "frazil" is slushy ice. So "D. Frazil" might also mean de-ice - or in other words, Thaw. For the anniversary, Series 4 also had some further casting connections to the original: James Laurenson, who played Professor Amory in opening episode "Game", was in the first-ever Morse in January, 1987, while Thaw's widow, Sheila Hancock, appears in the season finale.
Roger Allam (The Missing, Ashes to Ashes), who stars as DI Fred Thursday, dimly recalls an episode of Inspector Morse in which he appeared ("Death Is Now My Neighbour" in 1997). "There were some people I knew in it", he recalls. "I knew John Thaw through Sheila, who I'd worked with at the RSC."
While ITV and Russell Lewis are clearly mindful of celebrating the original series, the stars of Endeavour are - perhaps disappointingly - focused on the job in hand. "Our story's taken place before those stories, so what do you do?" says Allam. "You can't get arch about it, so it can't make any difference to our playing of the scripts that we get."
For 22 year-old Dakota Blue Richards, who play WPC Shirley Trewlove, the 30th anniversary was not something of which she was even aware. "As much as it is obviously a prequel to Morse, I think Endeavour is its own series and all the actors have their own interpretations of their characters," she tells Crime Scene. "We're vaguely aware at all times of Morse will end up. But I've never seen the [original] series and, for as long as I'm in the show, I think I'd rather not watch it."
While fans might point to the appearance of PC Jim Strange (who's risen to Chief Superintendent in Inspector Morse), the evocative music by Barrington Pheloung (including the closing theme from Morse) and even a Jaguar (Mk 1 this time), Evans is adamant that it's a very different show. "The writer has put some things in, but they're so well embedded that unless you were a big fan you wouldn't [realise] - and that's not to be pejorative about it, but it's not a nostalgia fest", he says, claiming that he's not seen the original series either.
Evans has a point. Series 4 deliberately used the strikingly modern architecture of St. Catherine's College as a contrast to the city's ancient institutions. For "Lazaretto", Icelandic director Börkur Sigthorsson (Trapped) was brought on board for a change of tone. "It's very dark, it gives it a different flavour," says Evans of the episode.
The leading man is himself increasingly involved in the post-production process of Endeavour and reveals he's recently taken on his first directing job (for a BBC series he declines to name just yet). During our interview, he shows a keen interest in the craft of making a major series. "It costs a fortune", he says of the location shoots, crediting the financial support shown by ITV and Mammoth Screen.
Character is also important to the show's enduring popularity, with Evans seeking out "interesting conflict" with his partner and superior officer, DI Thursday. "I think it's good that there are changes in their relationship", adds Allam. "If things get too fixed, it just starts repeating itself and becomes a bit dull for us. So I think it's good that grit is introduced."
Morse has fallen out with his police employers again in Series 4, following his failed sergeant exams - a surprise result that suggests the powers-that-be want him out. However, the actor sees his character as a dedicated officer who's evolving into the detective who will one day solve cases "by the power of opera or crosswords".
Thursday is something of a mentor to Morse - and a fellow ale drinker - though the senior officer is a World War II veteran who's never going to express his emotions. He's been particularly troubled as he tries to find his daughter Joan (Sara Vickers), who fled Oxford in the wake of a traumatic raid on the bank where she worked in the Series 3 finale. Her departure at the end of the series was also a romantic blow - one of many more to come - for Morse.
The job is always going to come first for Morse, though Evans can see beyond playing the famous role in Endeavour in the not-too-distant future. "I think I'll know when it's right", he says of the prequel's end. "I just think we'll know when the stories have been told."