The Guardian, 23 July 2012

Detectives Blog

We’re used to detective shows being predicated on tragedy: there’s no murder mystery without a murder, and no murder without tragic consequences. Everyone will be missed by someone. The tragedy is usually contained within that part of the story. But not in Morse.

Has there ever been a more perfect tragic hero than Inspector Morse? Morse is plagued by irritability and vulnerability, and by the knowledge that he’s smarter than everyone else in the room, but still too dumb to quit drinking after a burst peptic ulcer almost kills him. Watching them back, John Thaw seems tinged with grey, as though Morse is dying slowly before our eyes as the series progresses.

He’s a man weighed down by duty, instilled in him by the same hardcore Quaker parents who named him Endeavour. It’s a sign of how closed off he is, emotionally, that we only know him as Morse for 10 years: it’s not until Death is Now My Neighbour, the 31st episode, that he admits to his unlikely first name. ‘Why aren’t you laughing?’ he mutters at Lewis and Adele. ‘You poor sod,’ says Lewis, fondly.

Oxford has never looked more beautiful or less attractive than it does in Inspector Morse. Under the helm of directors like Danny Boyle, John Madden and Antonia Bird, its dreaming spires tower above nightmarish scenarios: goatish masters, backstabbing professors, vicious killers. And the university, particularly, seems like a hive of ill-directed rage, perfectly captured by John Gielgud as a thoroughly petulant chancellor (Twilight of the Gods). I think admissions applications went up during Morse, but I can only assume the putative undergraduates weren’t paying proper attention.

Morse wouldn’t be the detective he is without the ever-trusty Lewis (of whom more in a later column). Lewis is his conscience when he’s lawless (Driven to Distraction), his cashpoint when he’s stingy (Morse episodes, passim), his connection with the ordinary, the young, the town without its gown. Morse would also have been out on his ear decades earlier if Chief Superintendent Strange (the much-missed James Grout. Watch him in Box of Delights – about which I seem obsessed at the moment - to hear what a great character actor can do with the word ‘aeroplane’) didn’t have patience in abundance.

Morse is an intellectual snob – his irritable manner with Lewis usually stems from their cultural divide. When he gets another temporary assistant, Adrian Kershaw (Matthew Finney in The Wench is Dead), his estimation of the man rockets on discovering his first-class degree in history from Keble. And Morse’s fondness for clever women is well-known among his colleagues. Quite right, too, obviously.

If it’s Morse’s quakerish sense of duty which compels him to serve society by solving its crimes, he’s equally compelled by his need to make sense of the senseless. Morse is a creative, sensitive soul – as we know from his intense emotional response to opera – but he is also a crossword-solver, a man who needs to make order from chaos, to fill in blanks until hidden meaning is evident. And people who do crosswords, as Adele astutely remarks, have blanks in their lives, and no clue how to fill them.

If you’re hoping for a discussion of the final episode, The Remorseful Day, I’m afraid I don’t have it in me. I watched it when it was broadcast, and I shall not watch it again. It was bad enough when we lost Morse; but then we lost John Thaw, too. All I can say is that it rounds off the perfect tragic arc of his character: heart failure, brought on by the fatal flaw – drinking – that he could never overcome. RIP, Morse.

Iconic? Every time Morse says, ‘Lewis’ in an irritable tone, every time he drives his beautiful old Jaguar, every shot of Oxford accompanied by a heartbreaking concerto. You’d better believe it’s iconic.

Duffers? What do you want from me? Re-watching Morse has made me nostalgic and a little sad. That’s not my most critical frame of mind. So let’s just go with some of the bit-parts, especially the children, who are all too often wooden. Also Elizabeth Hurley – no stranger to a wooden performance herself – has frankly extraordinary eyebrows (Last Seen Wearing).