fri 15/12/2017

Inspector Morse's Last Round | reviews, news & interviews

Inspector Morse's Last Round

Inspector Morse's Last Round

As the young detective returns in Endeavour, we revisit this set report from Morse's final case

John Thaw on Morse: 'He is what he is. He’s not a successful human being, sadly for him'

Oxford. A glum afternoon in early spring, 2000. Tourists clogging the city’s arteries. On a terrace overlooking the river Cherwell, a tour guide finishes her spiel and shepherds a flock of pensioners on to the next destination. A lone squat figure with silver hair, leaning contemplatively against the railings, doesn’t budge. The tour guide is convinced he’s one of hers. A quick cup of tea, she says kindly, and it’s back on the coach to Stratford. He turns the sad hound’s face on her, with its blowtorch eyes, and advises her brusquely of her mistake.

Up on Magdalen Bridge, a group of Italian teenagers provide the finishing touch to this tableau of contemporary Oxford. They are real tourists looking down on fictional tourists. The focus of their gaze is an actor playing a detective whose fame is now the principal magnet for tourism in this city of learning. Earlier in the day a tide of Texans spilled into Broad Street to watch the old curmudgeon grill a suspect in his bookshop. The esplanade in front of Balliol College bulged not only with the paraphernalia of a film set - a truck or two, men in unbelted jeans, women in chunky boots and black puffas There were loads of star-spotters gazing through the pane of glass into the bookshop, waiting for a flash of silver hair, a glimpse of hunched shoulder.

This is what a trip to Oxford has become: a chance to visit not just the gleaming spires, but a city with the highest murder rate this side of Chicago. Imagine your luck if you turn up from Tokyo and there they are in a quadrangle in Magdelen College - the detective chief inspector and the sergeant, posing for photographs in front of the famous Jaguar.

The keen-eyed onlooker may also recognise the benign-looking gent in the wheelchair. In previous episodes of Inspector Morse he has had cameos as, among others, a college porter, a bishop and a tramp (when, on set, he was mistaken for the real thing by a genuine down-and-outer, who stole his meths, only to discover it was water). But there is something fitting about this last role, in a tour group whistlestopping through central England. He is Colin Dexter (pictured above right), whose pen launched a thousand coach parties.

This is the final case for Inspector Morse. We’ve heard it all before, of course, but those who have read the The Remorseful Day will know that this really is it. The series of novels was begun in 1975, the television films 12 years later. “He started off in his early 40s,” says Dexter, “and he must be at least 70 now. Very few police officers are over their mid-50s.” Retirement beckons, and anyway the chief inspector has also been poorly. Ulcers, exacerbated by daily sousings of warm beer, plague his innards. There have been 81 deaths in 33 cases for Morse - including three heads of college, one of them a paedophile - making an average body count of 2.45 per episode. But there is one final death which he will neither solve nor even investigate; one body which, always squeamish at a freshly bloodied crime scene, he will not have to view. In short, like so many people on the cusp of retirement, Morse himself is about to shuffle off his mortal coil.

I didn’t want any happy ending for Morse. He didn’t really deserve a happy ending

You can’t say he didn’t have it coming. “Right from the word go,” says Dexter, “he was drinking too much and not looking after himself very well, not spending enough time sleeping or exercising.” All the same, when I spoke to John Thaw as he was about to shoot the scene with the elderly tourists, he says, “I couldn’t believe it at first. But there you are. I wouldn’t honestly say I’d had enough, but I think it’s rather fortuitous for everyone. I think it’s a good time to go out, rather than drift on with a possibility that it doesn't get any better.”

For his part, Dexter reckons that “none of us as writers gets very much better as we get older. You get short of ideas, you wonder where you’re going to go to next. I felt that I’d said enough about the relationship between Morse and Lewis. There are only so many variants on going into a pub and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t pay for the round, Lewis.’”

Perhaps it was indeed time to terminate the series. But all those who have warmed to Morse’s gruff manners over the years may regret the fact that Dexter has deprived him of the final prospect of comfort and ease. “You could make him fail on a case, retire him, get him married,” says Dexter. “I didn’t want to do any of those things. I didn’t want any happy ending for Morse. He didn’t really deserve a happy ending. I gave him some character traits which seem to me wholly objectionable. He’s terribly mean with money. He always has some excuse of forgetting his wallet or only has a £50 note. He’s an ungracious and ungrateful man. He never says thank you to anybody, very very seldom indeed to Lewis.”

When this damning verdict is put to Thaw, he ruefully agrees. “I feel sorry for him because no matter how he tries, and he has tried occasionally, he can’t change. He is what he is. He’s not a successful human being, sadly for him. But I find that rather touching. He had a lot of good qualities but they were undermined by the other side of him, which was a bit unforgiving, a bit hard, a bit snobby and patronising. But he meant well.”

 

It was always going to be a gift of a role for whoever got it. Thaw was playing in a Ray Cooney farce in Toronto when the offer came. He had never heard of Colin Dexter. He once explained that he wouldn’t have been keen if Morse had had anything in common with Regan, the character in The Sweeney which made his name. “The fact that the was so different was an attraction,” he has said. “I’m more akin to Morse than Regan.” But that begs the question, how akin to Morse is he? How much of himself has he put into the role? “There must be parts of me. I can be a bit grumpy sometimes but I’m not patronising and I don’t look down on people.” The one thing he hasn’t put in is his own voice. Thaw is less gravelly than Morse, with faint traces of his native Manchester, while the odd vowel stirs memories of his estuarine accent in The Sweeney.

As ever, though, in The Remorseful Day the feeling is unavoidable that it is Dexter, rather than Thaw, who has given Morse some more of his own story. Detective and writer share a passion for Wagner, English beer, The Archers, crosswords and untouchable younger women. The title is a quotation from a poem about the dying of the light by AE Housman, to whom both men are devoted. A couple of books ago Dexter gave his detective diabetes (while his partial deafness went to at least three characters, including two in this final case). And how about this one? When Thaw was asked at a recent press conference to recall his favourite moment filming Morse, he nodded across at Dexter and said, “The day he bought a round.”

And now their visits to the doctor have a certain symmetry. There is a scene in The Remorseful Day in which Morse lies to his doctor about how much he has been drinking. “When you got to see the consultant all you’ve got to do is divide your intake by four. That’s what I do,” says Dexter. As he says this he is in his regular berth at the bar of Randolph Hotel. It is somewhat before midday, but he has already begun on his unrecommended daily intake. “And they all know this anyway, so they all multiply by four. I’ve been through all that many times. ‘How many bottles of scotch do you have every week?’ ‘It depends how big they are.’ Then you get told off for trying to be funny. But it boils down to, ‘Are you drinking an awful lot?’ ‘Quite a bit.’ ‘Could you tell me how many?’ ‘Yes, if you like.’ Then you have to be fairly competent at division by four.”

Thaw and Dexter have never really socialised partly, Thaw says, because “I don’t drink, and he likes to go out and have a pint. That would be a bit boring for me.” He chose abstinence about halfway through his stint as Morse. “It was probably having to drink all that bloody beer. I remember we did a scene in the Randolph bar. Colin and Julian Mitchell [one of the distinguished adaptors of Morse, including Danny Boyle, Peter Nichols, Malcolm Bradbury and, for this film, Stephen Churchett] were talking very loudly in the background of the shot. It was 9.30 in the morning and I had to drink a pint in one. Of course in those days because I drank people thought, we’ll give him real beer. I think we did two or three takes. I was nearly sick afterwards.”

There is one final question at the end of Inspector Morse. What will happen to Lewis? Because of a discrepancy between the novel and the script of The Remorseful Day, caused by the need to explain Whately’s absence from the previous film, two alternative futures exist for Lewis. In the film he has qualified to become an inspector, and is waiting for a vacancy. In the book he has not. “He’d become a very high-ranking officer, Lewis will,” says Thaw. “I think he’ll have learnt a great deal from Morse.” Dexter begs to differ. “Well,” he says with a wistful shake of the head, “he’s going to be a sergeant for the rest of his life.” “I think he’s probably right,” adds Lewis. It is one mystery to which we will never know the answer.

(Since I wrote conclusion in 2000 for the Radio Times, there have been seven series of Lewis.)

Jasper Rees on Twitter

This is what a trip to Oxford has become: a chance to visit not just the gleaming spires, but a city with the highest murder rate this side of Chicago

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