By Tom Anderson
In 1972, during a rather rainy family holiday to Wales, an author named Colin Dexter conceived an idea for a detective story starring an Oxford-based police inspector named Morse, and spent the next eighteen months writing what would become Last Bus to Woodstock, published in 1975. This kickstarted what would become a phenomenally successful cultural franchise in the United Kingdom, Inspector Morse; while Dexter’s 13-book series would be reasonably popular, Morse would shoot to lasting impact in the 1987-2000 TV adaptation. John Thaw put in an iconic performance as Inspector Morse, with Kevin Whately as his loyal sidekick and foil, Sergeant Lewis, as they solved crimes (almost invariably involving murder) in TV film-length episodes of more than one and a half hours (longer, as ITV carries adverts). By the 1990s, in the UK Morse had practically eclipsed Sherlock Holmes as the go-to example of a fictional detective to be referenced in casual conversation, and in 2018 the readers of the Radio Times named Inspector Morse the greatest TV detective drama in history.
As well as being gripping to watch, the series offers numerous examples of tropes worthy of discussion in adaptation, before we even get to the Prequel Problems. The Morse series is an example of how the popularity of a literary original can be eclipsed by its adaptation, which poses a quandary to the author in how to respond to it. Dexter was closely involved with the series from the start (and can often be found in cameo roles as a random passer-by in the background or similar) with early episodes usually based closely on his stories, then a long gap of original plots before returning to his books for the final specials. Dexter falls into the category of authors who accept the greater popularity of the adaptation and indeed shifted their own later books to take it into account. For example, the Sergeant Lewis described in Last Bus to Woodstock is a Welsh ex-boxer in his sixties who seems to be older than Morse, whereas Whately’s Lewis is a youthful Geordie (someone from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for the uninitiated). In the early books Morse drives a Lancia, whereas in the TV series his Jaguar became iconic and may even have helped the company’s popularity. Dexter typically either incorporated changes like these into his later books, or at least avoided contradicting them with descriptions altogether. He stated that he felt the TV version of Lewis was a better character than the one he had originally conceived.
John Thaw’s Morse, while generally consistent with the book character, also feels somewhat more well-rounded and (eventually) sympathetic as a character. Both versions of Morse are functioning alcoholics who share a sense of sophistication in their cultural tastes; they are fond of opera and classical music and investing in audiophile sound systems for the purpose, and their love of the Times cryptic crossword puzzle often helps them come up with eureka moments to solve cases. However, the book-Morse is a somewhat cruder character, more prone to womanising and with views on pornography that would feel slightly out of character for Thaw’s version. Both are grumpy and cynical but with a good heart deep down, though Thaw’s acting tends to bring this out in a more sympathetic way.
There is one peculiarity to Morse’s character which has created a strange ‘late arrival spoiler’ phenomenon, similar to how modern releases of Planet of the Apes feature Charlton Heston yelling at a certain statue on the cover, despite that being a big plot twist at the end of the film. Morse is only ever known as ‘Morse’, his first initial occasionally given as E, and refuses to disclose his first name to anyone. In his youth at Stamford School (also Dexter’s alma mater) he acquired the nickname ‘Pagan’ due to not using his Christian name. (Unrelatedly, Morse is usually portrayed as an agnostic or atheist, though in the short story Morse’s Greatest Mystery there are hints he may be reconsidering). In the books, Morse’s embarrassing first name is given only once, at the end of the penultimate book Death is Now My Neighbour, when his nurse in hospital insists he owes it to Lewis; his parents, admirers of Captain James Cook, named him Endeavour after Cook’s ship. This great revelation is utterly spoilt by the fact that, for instance, my collection of the books captions a photo on the cardboard sleeve as ‘Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse’, not to mention the title of the prequel we’ll eventually get to!
Typically Morse will argue with Lewis about theories during the course of a case (while Lewis gets concerned about how frequently Morse is taking them to the pub to discuss said case, given his alcoholism) and often Lewis’ ideas will be closer to the truth, which Morse will occasionally admit. This dynamic, with Morse often arresting the wrong suspect or making other mistakes but getting to the truth in the end, appealed to audiences who were bored of the superhuman skill of the Holmesian great detective, and Lewis’ role is more active and meaningful than that of the typical ‘Watson’.
The Morse books and TV series feature occasional appearances of recurring characters; one facet of Morse’s character is his lack of ambition or sycophancy (a good detective and a bad policeman, as it is put at one point) means he is passed over for promotion in favour of his colleague Inspector Strange, who becomes Chief Superintendant. One of Morse’s few friends is a police doctor who performs post mortem examinations, and just as Morse is known only by his surname, he is only known by his first name, Max (his surname, DeBryn, is given only after he passes away only one book before Morse’s own death). However, the TV series struggled with actor availability, as Max’s actor, Peter Woodthorpe, only appeared in seven episodes before ill health forced him to withdraw – yet his performance still created an indelible impact on fans. His role was briefly replaced with Amanda Hillwood as Dr Grayling Russell, who was also hinted as a potential love interest for Morse (well, they share embarrassing first names…) By contrast, Chief Superintendant Strange became more of a recurring character in the TV adaptation than the original books, and he and Morse are portrayed as having a closer working relationship (though often fraught with disagreement) suggesting their acquaintance goes way back.
Morse’s backstory is only briefly discussed in the books and TV series; he was a scholarship student at the fictional Lonsdale College of Oxford University who was academically gifted, but dropped out due to poor performance following a failed love affair and a broken heart. He joined the local police for want of other work and has remained there ever since. In the (excellent and highly recommended) TV episode “Masonic Mysteries” we learn Morse’s mentor when he was a sergeant was named DS Macnutt – a clever pun on the real identity of ‘Ximenes’ who set the Observer crossword puzzles, D[errick] S[omerset] Macnutt. That story also featured none other than Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars) as Morse’s old enemy Hugo de Vries.
The Morse TV series came to an end in 2000 with the character’s death in The Remorseful Day, sadly to be followed by the real-life death of John Thaw only two years later. The continuing popularity of Morse meant that further media was, perhaps, inevitable. Kevin Whately’s Sergeant Lewis is promoted to Detective Inspector and got his own sequel spinoff, Lewis (2006-present). Yet this necessarily had to cope with the absence of the iconic character of Morse himself. How to get around this? Step forward our old friend, the prequel!
As is common with attempts to revive a number of other classic British TV series in the 21st century, the prequel, titled Endeavour (bang goes any chance of the revelation of his secret name ever being a surprise to new viewers again…) was initially made as a one-off pilot in 2012 to test the waters. Shaun Evans was cast as the young Morse. Interestingly, the pilot (set in 1965) did not attempt to depict Morse’s aforementioned backstory as a college dropout, but already begins with him having joined the CID after two years as a uniformed constable. The drama of the pilot instead involves Morse becoming disillusioned with the police as a career path, but changing his mind after his new immediate superior, DI Fred Thursday, finds him to be a man he can rely on in the midst of police corruption and civic intrigue. Morse’s college background opens doors to him that Thursday, a working-class veteran of the Second World War, cannot enter and helps solve the mystery of a missing schoolgirl. At the end of the pilot, Thursday convinces Morse to stay on, and wonders where he might be in twenty years’ time (i.e. roughly when the original Morse series began). Via camera trickery, Evans’ Morse looks into his car mirror and sees Thaw as his future self looking back at him, and the pilot ends with a sense of ‘how the legend begins’.
The Endeavour pilot works rather well as a one-off prequel film, full of little references, if we leave everything between it and the eventual Morse series vague. However, the success of the pilot led to a regular series being made from 2013 to the present day. Critically judged on the basis of its inherent quality as a drama, I would say Endeavour is variable but more usually worth watching than not. Easily one of its greatest strengths is the character of Thursday, a pillar of strength and incorruptibility who nonetheless has family troubles, makes bad financial decisions and struggles to cope with the changing radical society of the 1960s. Of course Thursday’s popularity means he has remained in the series for years (as the well-defined in-universe year has reached the end of the 1960s and start of the 1970s) and even fronted ITV advertising campaigns. Unfortunately, this has caused a quandary – a Prequel Problem, indeed. It was fine to make up the name Fred Thursday for a character who appears in a one-off pilot film as a temporary inspiration for Morse, but after years of mentorship, why is Macnutt rather than Thursday described as Morse’s mentor in “Masonic Mysteries”? Furthermore, why is Thursday never mentioned at all, as such a huge figure in Morse’s career? Probably the best explanation for this sort of inconsistency, as my colleague Alex Richards has pointed out, is just to reflect on how private a person John Thaw’s Morse is portrayed as, so it does become more believable that he just never volunteers information on any of this to Lewis.
A common issue with prequels of this type (see also the Only Fools and Horses prequel Rock and Chips, for instance) is that they become more explicitly period pieces and often feel the need to hit the viewer between the eyes with a sledgehammer consisting of a theme-park version of a particular era. Endeavour is variable on this point, but a number of episodes are themed around somewhat painfully ripped-from-the-headlines 1960s stories, such as a tense debate about racism between ‘Charity Mudford and Marcus X’ (i.e. Unity Mitford and Malcolm X), a Gerry Anderson-a-like puppet animation studio, Cold War intrigue with visiting Soviet athletes, Apollo 11 as the backdrop to a story, etc. Other themes feel more fitting with those of the original series, like Masonic corruption being a persistent threat in the background (with Morse sergeant’s exam paperwork getting lost after he exposes said corruption). His colleague Jim Strange is shown complying with the Masons, by contrast (at least at first), hinting at the reasons for his more rapid ascension. Finally, there is the prosaic matter of the shift from Oxford City Police to the combined Thames Valley police force following government reforms to policing.
Some of the episode themes get particularly far-fetched at times. Morse and Thursday’s ultimate superior, Reginald Bright, is initially portrayed quite negatively and part of the problem of police corruption; his character shifts more positively over time, possibly due to pressure from the actor Anton Lesser (some speculate). In the third series episode “Prey” his experience big game hunting in the British Raj leads to him saving the day by shooting a tiger that turns out to be behind killings near a stately home – whose groundskeeper, in a link to Lewis, is the father of Lewis’ future sidekick James Hathaway. At the end of the fourth series, Morse and Thursday save Oxford from being irradiated when the villain of the week tries to cause a meltdown at a nearby nuclear power plant, for which they are awarded the George Medal. These incidents feel very out of place compared to the prosaic tone of the original Morse books, though they are somewhat less jarring with the TV series as it did later feature bigger-scale plots including trips to Italy and Australia.
In addition to a young Jim Strange (played by Sean Rigby), another recurring character is a young Dr Max DeBryn, played by James Bradshaw in a masterful imitation of Peter Woodthorpe’s original fan-favourite portrayal. Ironically Bradshaw’s Max has appeared in many more episodes than the original! Arguably this performance is one of the most impressive things in Endeavour, and certainly Bradshaw is much more believable as a young Max than Shaun Evans is as a young Morse. Admittedly, emulating John Thaw’s unique portrayal is a considerable challenge; as with attempts to recast people in iconic roles from other 20th century TV series (the JJ Abrams Star Trek films spring to mind) there is always the problem that actors today typically just do not look as ‘craggy’ and ‘weathered’ as their counterparts from earlier eras at the same age. In a good side-by-side comparison, John Thaw once played the Danish detective Lieutenant Holst in a 1975 episode of ITV’s The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, when he was 33 – younger than Evans is now, yet Evans still looks more ‘boyish’ on screen. There is a problem when the series is now running out of years in which Evans is supposed to grow up to become Thaw!
Ultimately, however, I feel the biggest problem with Endeavour is a reluctance to embrace the flaws that helped make Morse a beloved character, highlighted by the usual Prequel Problem if character development happens in a chronologically later piece of media. Morse is initially portrayed as a teetotaller and slides toward alcoholism after Thursday gives him a drink to recover from fainting after seeing a body (a problem Morse retains in the later series) but as Endeavour has gone on and uncertainty over how long it will continue, it has become indecisive about portraying this. Easily the biggest issue, however, involves sexism. In the original series, Morse is quite sexist towards the idea of women in policing, and a small number of episodes are focused on him grudgingly conceding that they may have something to offer after being proved wrong (notably in one story focused on a female psychologist). Unfortunately, this creates a huge inconsistency, because Endeavour added a WPC named Shirley Trewlove (Dakota Blue Richards) for series 3-5, and – presumably because of a sense Morse wouldn’t be sympathetic to a modern audience otherwise – he is portrayed as usually being the one who defends her against sexism from colleagues. Perhaps this could be attributed to Morse being a character who defends new vulnerable recruits in general from the shut-in society of the corrupt police, rather than being framed in terms of gender, but it still seems inconsistent.
Ultimately this is a broader problem because beat WPCs were organisationally segregated from male police in the United Kingdom until the mid-1970s (the time-travel police series Life on Mars, despite not being shy about portraying contemporary sexism, had already been criticised for ignoring this) so Trewlove’s role is an anachronism regardless. By contrast, a much more realistic- and in-character-feeling bit of sparring between Evans’ Morse and a strong female character is his periodic clashes with Oxford Mail editor Dorothea Frazil, interestingly played by John Thaw’s daughter Abigail!
This is only the most obvious example of young Morse being portrayed as more open-minded than his older self – which is not inherently unreasonable in how many people’s values shift as they age, but one does feel that the tone of this 1960s-set series would have been quite different if it had somehow been made in the 1990s or the 1980s alongside the original, and it damages the suspension of disbelief. It’s not even that this feels unrealistically like 2010s people in a 1960s setting, as with some period dramas – often everyone else feels like they are 1960s people but Morse specifically is a time traveller in terms of values, especially jarring given the crustiness of the character we’re familiar with.
In a previous article, I described Colin Dann’s Farthing Wood: The Adventure Begins as a technically excellent piece of prequel fiction, but not a compelling story in itself. Endeavour falls at the opposite pole to my mind. Though variable in quality, at its best it is an excellent 1960s period police drama, and to be clear, there would certainly be nothing wrong in principle with our protagonist being an open-minded character who defends others against closed-minded colleagues – providing we were not expected to believe he was the same character as someone who thinks differently twenty years later. Endeavour is therefore a good television programme but a bad prequel, and its problems as a prequel stem from it being perpetually extended from what was originally a one-off pilot. It’s not without its moments of prequel-linking excellence, such as Bradshaw’s portrayal of Max, Morse’s fitting backstory struggles with Masonic corruption, and the occasional clever reference, but on the whole one is often left with the feeling that it would be better if it wasn’t explicitly connected to the original Inspector Morse and involved original characters. Apart from the more specific issues described above, ultimately it suffers from perhaps the most fundamental prequel problem of all: we know that Morse, Strange and Max must all survive to the 1980s, and therefore in gunfights or other tense situations we know they’re safe and conversely tensely watch other characters as the obvious targets.
I will conclude this review with an observation of an interesting time paradox; in a shout-out to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, at one point Fred Thursday says he trained under “Sergeant Vimes of Cable Street”. The character of Sam Vimes was conceived by Terry Pratchett in 1989, when the original Morse series had become hugely popular, and Morse may well have been one of the fictional detectives who influenced Pratchett in creating the character (though American examples were more obvious). If so, we therefore have the interesting Moebius strip that Vimes inspired Thursday who inspired Morse who inspired Vimes!
More Prequel Problems articles on the way!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.