Back in 2008, the Daily Mail commissioned crime novelist Colin Dexter to write a one-off short story featuring Inspector Morse, his curmudgeonly Oxford sleuth. Dexter’s ale-loving, crossword-solving operaphile featured in 33 episodes of ITV’s Inspector Morse between 1987 and 2000, and the show was voted the greatest British crime drama of all time by Radio Times readers in 2018 (Line Of Duty and Happy Valley were third and fifth respectively).
For the story, Dexter decided to delve into his character’s past, setting it in the 60s, at the start of Morse’s career.
Morse And The Mystery Of The Drunken Driver was serialised over three days in the paper, and then published two years later as part of an anthology with a new title – Mr E Morse, BA Oxon (Failed). The inspector’s first name had been revealed as Endeavour in a 1997 episode of the original show.
Like a clue that unlocks a murder investigation, that one story opened the door to a new TV incarnation of Morse – three dozen episodes, charting the detective’s transformation from a raw recruit on the verge of quitting the force to a world-weary veteran who has sacrificed every relationship in pursuit of justice.
Now the series, Endeavour, starring Shaun Evans as Detective Constable (later Sergeant) Morse and Roger Allam as his mentor, Inspector Fred Thursday, is returning for the final time with three two-hour episodes, along with a documentary called Morse And The Last Endeavour.
The series, Endeavour, stars Shaun Evans as Detective Constable (later Sergeant) Morse, pictured
The final three episodes are set in 1972, just a couple of years before the Morse books begin – though the first TV series of Inspector Morse was actually set in the late 80s.
The relationship between Endeavour and Thursday, as it becomes more bitter, almost like a father/son feud, has left many viewers feeling Endeavour has done the impossible and surpassed Inspector Morse in greatness (this final series also means Endeavour has beaten Inspector Morse by three episodes). Already Thursday and his spiky protégé have been stretched to breaking point, with arguments about police loyalty and corruption made worse by Morse’s unrequited love for Thursday’s daughter Joan (Sara Vickers).
‘I don’t think it can end well,’ Roger Allam admits. ‘I don’t see how it can really, because there’s a whole other, rightly beloved TV series that starts in the future where Thursday is never mentioned.’
Answering fan questions recently, Shaun Evans said he was ‘delighted’ so many people worry that Morse and Thursday will never be reconciled. ‘I’m thrilled that people care enough to even comment – I find that very satisfying,’ he said.
‘I think it’s far more heartbreaking, and therefore more memorable, if it ends in a melancholy, sad way. We know that neither Thursday nor his daughter Joan are mentioned in the Morse books or the television series with John Thaw. So it’s our duty to make a decision about why that is, and ensure they’re never mentioned again later on. It’s sad in one regard, but in another way I feel satisfied my job is done.’
I would love to have hung out with John Thaw – but I wouldn’t have asked him anything about Morse – Shaun Evans
Allam says the complexity of the two officers’ relationship has been one of the aspects he’s most enjoyed about the role.
‘In lots of situations between men, if there’s an age gap, somewhere hovering in the background is a father/son relationship. There’s a ghost of a father/son kind of thing hanging around – the father Endeavour didn’t get on with, and a kind of a son that I think Thursday would have liked. But there are occasions when perhaps they’re like an older and younger brother, or a teacher and a pupil. They both teach and learn from each other.’
The success of Endeavour is all the more remarkable because Dexter was initially opposed to further TV adaptations. He believed John Thaw, the late star of the original series, was irreplaceable.
The success of Endeavour is all the more remarkable because Dexter was initially opposed to further TV adaptations. He believed John Thaw (pictured), the late star of the original series, was irreplaceable
So determined was Dexter, who died in 2017, that he wrote a clause into his will forbidding Morse remakes.
But there had been a spin-off, Lewis, starring Kevin Whately as Morse’s sidekick Robbie Lewis, now an inspector himself, and co-written by the screenwriter Russell Lewis (no relation). Eager to adapt the Mail story for TV, Lewis met Dexter for a drink at the Morse Bar in Oxford’s Randolph Hotel, so named because Dexter was a regular.
Permission was given and the pilot of Endeavour aired in 2012, to mark the 25th anniversary of the first Inspector Morse. It was watched by eight million – the biggest audience for a one-off drama on ITV for five years.
Hugely impressed, Dexter gave permission for Evans to keep playing Young Morse. The actor surprised fans when he said he’d never seen the original show, and has always refused to watch it, because he didn’t want to imitate Thaw’s performance.
‘I’d love to have hung out with him because of the stories I hear. It sounds like we’d have a lot in common,’ Evans says. ‘But I doubt I would’ve asked any questions about the part. You have to find your own way with things in order for it to mean something to you. Also, whatever his particular way in was, it might not have been any use to me at all.’
Roger Allam didn’t have that option, since Fred Thursday was invented for Endeavour. And speaking before filming began on series nine last year, Allam said he’d never intended to play the veteran copper for so long.
‘I’d never done a long-running series like this before, and I was very resistant to doing it – I signed up for two years and then we just took it year by year. But it’s also very satisfying because I’ve never known a character this well.’
Thursday’s home life with wife Win (Caroline O’Neill) was quietly contented at the start of the series, and there was a running joke that his packed lunch followed an unswerving pattern: on Monday sandwiches with cheese and pickle, on Tuesday a filling of luncheon meat, and so on.
He has a right way for doing everything and he wants to pass this on to his children – teaching his son Sam to warm shoe polish with a heated spoon before applying it to his boots. ‘Look after your shoes and your shoes will look after you,’ he says.
But this is Britain in the 60s and 70s. Things are changing, and it hits Thursday hard.
‘His household filled with Dickensian warmth has gone,’ says Allam. ‘Things have become more bitter.’
WHY YOUNG MORSE IS ON THE WAGON
In the show, Endeavour Morse has been off work for months, drying out after his drinking spiralled out of control
As the series returns it’s spring 1972, and Endeavour Morse has been off work for months, drying out after his drinking spiralled out of control.
The opening episode begins in classic style, without ever straying over the line into parody. After a symphony orchestra concert, a body is discovered in college gardens.
The cause of death is unknown, and the only clue is that the corpse is missing a shoe.
And so Endeavour is into his final three cases, and there’s a sense throughout the series that the final curtain is about to come down. One of the main characters is talking retirement, another is up for a promotion that will mean leaving Oxford, and secrets hang everywhere in the air.
What these secrets are won’t be fully revealed until the show starts to air later this month.
ITV publicists are being very mysterious. And Colin Dexter would surely approve of that.
Fellow crime writer Val McDermid said of Dexter’s genius, ‘What he does is to link the different worlds of the city of Oxford in a labyrinth of lust, greed, deceit and ambition. The interweaving makes sense because Oxford is a small enough city for the collisions between classes and cultures to happen regularly.’
As Dexter pointed out, the enduring appeal would have faded if Morse had worked on a caravan park in Rotherham.
He liked to claim that Morse was born on a wet afternoon in north Wales in 1972, at the kitchen table in a cottage where his family were spending their summer holiday. To give himself a break from his grumbling children, Dexter, who worked for the examinations board at Oxford University, started to jot the opening paragraphs of a crime novel. His only aim was to distract his mind.
It was the beginning of a franchise of 13 novels, many short stories and 33 episodes of Inspector Morse – plus another 33 episodes of Lewis and now 36 episodes of Endeavour. The adaptations have stuck fairly closely to the books – with notable exceptions.
In the novels Morse does not drive a red Jaguar Mark II, but a Lancia. And despite Whately’s portrayal, the Lewis of the books wasn’t a Geordie but Welsh.
Dexter devised the ending first, then wrote the beginning. After that, he said, half the work was done – it was now a question of filling in the rest, like a crossword.
He sat down to write every evening after The Archers on Radio 4, and worked until 9.30pm, when he slipped out to the pub. If he got stuck, he went for a walk.
He could never write while listening to music, not even his beloved Wagner.
He first became hooked on crosswords at school, when another boy showed him a cryptic clue: ‘Nothing squared is cubed (3 letters).’ The answer is ‘Oxo’ – nothing squared is 0 times 0, and it’s a stock cube.
This kind of wordplay abounds in Endeavour, with cryptic hints scattered through every episode for fans to decode. John Thaw’s daughter Abigail plays the reporter Dorothea Frazil. ‘Frazil’ is a form of ice, so D-Frazil means de-ice… or ‘thaw’.
The original series played similar games. Morse’s first name was a secret until a 1997 episode.
Until then, the nearest he came to revealing it was with a crossword clue: ‘My whole life’s effort has revolved around Eve.’ An anagram of ‘around Eve’, when the letters are revolved, is ‘Endeavour’.
As for his surname, it’s probably a salute to the maestro of crossword setters, Sir Jeremy Morse, who died in 2016.
One early episode of Endeavour sees Morse dealing with a firm of solicitors called Vholes, Jaggers and Lightwood – who are all named after lawyers invented by Dickens, in Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend respectively.
In another, Thursday says his own mentor was a Sergeant Vimes. Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels will know that name: Sam Vimes is the incorruptible copper who fights crime on the streets of Sir Terry’s fantastical city of Ankh-Morpork.
Evans sees Morse as damaged by his childhood. ‘It stems from losing his mum to cancer at an early age. That fissure has not allowed him to be fully available to someone else.
It would take a very specific person to a) engage him, and b) put up with him. I think all those things combined is what keeps him alone.
He grows tired of people easily, and would either leave them before they leave him, or be attracted to that which will not make him happy. If you think back to the pilot, he falls for the killer.
I don’t think it ends well for me. How can it? Fred Thursday isn’t mentioned in the Inspector Morse series – Roger Allam
But if you think of someone more mundane, like when he was dating a nurse, it wasn’t thrilling enough for him. Normality isn’t thrilling enough for him.’
Evans is adamant he won’t play Morse again. He doesn’t even want to watch the original series, to finally see John Thaw’s portrayal.
‘Maybe in a couple of years’ time. It’d make me feel sad. I’d sooner just go out the back door and not think about it for a few years, let it settle. I don’t need to keep jumping in and out of it.’
But thanks to that clause in Colin Dexter’s will, no other actor can ever play the character. With a typical bit of Morse wordplay, this series will put the End into Endeavour.
Unless, in a decade or so, Shaun Evans relents… and returns to our screens as a middle-aged Endeavour.
Endeavour, Sunday 26 February, 8pm, ITV1. Morse And The Last Endeavour will air next month on ITV1 and ITVX.