Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse has been one of literature and television’s most enduring figures other the past forty years. Created by Colin Dexter in the late 1970s, Morse is for many the last of the great gentlemen detectives which once dominated British crime fiction. I’ve always enjoyed the character of Morse – both in the television series that starred the late, great John Thaw and in Dexter’s own novels.
The series rested upon the great dichotomy that maintained its existence – grit and elegance. Many of the Morse novels and the episodes of the series rested upon the grittier, more macabre side of life – The Death of Jericho may be set in Oxford, but it is the Oxford that tourists rarely visit. Yet they also were supported by the elegance of both Oxford and Morse’s intellectual mind. He is, as he states in Last Bus to Woodstock, “Morse of the Detective” and like Dicken’s own inspector of Bleak House fame it is the fine line between the elegance of his detection and the grim nature of the crimes’ he investigates which makes both the character and the stories he inhabits so engaging.
In the sixth series of Russell Lewis’ excellent prequel, Endeavour, we find the young Morse (Shaun Evans) still a Sergeant but now back in uniform. After the closing down of Cowley Station, Morse, Strange (Sean Rigby), Thursday (Roger Allam) and Bright (Anton Lesser) have been each sent to different divisions. Bright is now in charge of traffic; Thursday has been demoted to a Detective Inspector following the death of DC George Fancy at the end of the last series and Strange is now working in the Interdepartmental Steering Committee. With the main cast separated, it seems that Strange’s desire for them to find the killer of George Fancy is remote – yet the disappearance of Anne Kirby brings them all back together when Morse stumbles upon Kirby’s body by the foot of a Pylon.
Yet Morse feels prevented from working on the case by Detective Chief Inspector Box, now in charge of Oxford’s new detective unit. Box, a former robbery detective is quickly out of his depth dealing with the sordid murder meaning it is up to Morse and Thursday to find the true killer.
Lewis’ opening episode for the latest series of Endeavour helps to revive and give new energy to the series, something that not a lot of programmes that have run for so long can say. It also allows viewers who haven’t watched previous series to jump on in and become as immersed in the world as those who have been watching since the very beginning. Lewis effortlessly engages the audience not only with the central mystery of who killed Anne Kirby and why they killed her but also with the characters at the heart of the drama.
By having such a stark contrast between Box and Morse, with Thursday in the middle, drama is able to mount not simply because of the mystery but in the tug of war for how to be a detective. Morse represents a more compassionate, intellectually driven detective whilst Box is the archetypical dirty cop of the late 1960s and early 70s; Box thinks that beating suspects will get him the results he desires. Lewis gives both strong and well-developed characters that make sure the audience is invested in both characters, even if we may be somewhat repelled by Box.
The direction and cinematography in this episode are astoundingly good. From the elegant and fluid opening sequence to the dramatic conclusion of the story, Johnny Kenton is fully in control of the vision of the story and brings true scope and majesty to the episode. Some of the shots in the episode have a Constablesque grace that captivates its viewer – particularly the sequences of Morse in the fields and at the village fete; like the story itself the contrast between the tranquil, almost pastoral scenes of the Oxfordshire countryside and the grittier parts of Oxford allow for the programme to be truly successful. Both Endeavour and Morse existed in the eye of a storm of contrast; both programmes delicately balance between being traditional detective series and something that almost feels removed from the modern genre.
The acting throughout the episode is excellent. Shaun Evans gives a terrific performance. Morse has been through a lot and he seems defeated at the start of the story, now that he is back in uniform. Yet, once he becomes embroiled in the Kirby case, he regains his drive and his instinct for crime. Evans invests Morse with an inner melancholy, a trademark of Thaw’s performance. Yet as any great actor does, Evans does not simply replicate Thaw’s performance – rather he instead incorporates elements of his performance and introduces his own twists on them.
Endeavour is one of the best programmes that ITV has produced this century and even in its sixth series it still feels as fresh and engaging as it did when it was first broadcast. With complex and intricate mysteries matched with fantastic acting, superb writing and awe-inspiring direction, Endeavour is television of the highest quality – detective fiction taken to a new level of subtle and sublime entertainment. Endeavour truly is a TV event that you cannot miss.
Endeavour Continues Sunday at 8.00pm on ITV.