We suffer from hannibalrisingophobia: a fear or suspicion of the poorly-done origin story.
For every Batman Begins, there’s a Hulk; for every Rock and Chips, there’s a First of the Summer Wine – although as the (grand)parent series was hardly Marcel Proust to begin with, it didn’t really have a Clegg to stand on.
There’s always a degree of scepticism when a film studio or television company eschews taking a risk on an original idea in favour of revisiting an established – and therefore safely bankable – concept, and in the case of Inspector Morse, the threat level rises from ‘pint in the pub with Lewis’ to ‘carpeted by the boss for making an unholy muck of the case AGAIN’.
The tipping point at which the original series’ hitherto uniformly-high quality began to slide was when the stories delved too deeply into the principal character’s private life. By chipping away at his past cases, his youth and even his real name until most of the mystery was gone, a great deal of the charm of the dejected detective was lost – which is why news of an origin story, portraying Endeavour Morse as a young man, was greeted (by us, anyway) with the kind of palpitous response usually reserved for trips to the dentist or unexpected visits from the in-laws.
Thankfully, there’s no need for any complicated or painful orthodontic work; the other half’s parents have gone off on a SAGA cruise around the Caribbean instead of coming here; and Endeavour is refreshingly, reassuringly good. Not perfect, but then nor is Morse himself.
The year is 1965 and Detective Constable E. Morse (Shaun Evans) is amongst the coppers drafted by Detective Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam, who played Denis Cornford in the 1997 Morse episode, Death is Now My Neighbour) to help out on a missing-persons case which quickly becomes a murder inquiry.
A dissatisfied Morse, who is on the verge of quitting the police altogether, finds himself back amongst the dreaming spires under which he studied for – but didn’t complete – a degree in classics, the place where a fellow undergraduate broke his heart, the city that is inextricably-bound to his past and future: Oxford.
‘Squeamish, are we?’ quips Dr Max Du Bryn (James Bradshaw) as he gleefully points out the bloodiest parts of a fatal gunshot wound. ‘You won’t make much of a detective if you’re not prepared to look death in the eye.’ The pathologist and Morse’s necrophobia are just two of many kisses to the future that appear in Endeavour.
Russell Lewis’s script is stuffed with tiny references to the original series and Colin Dexter’s novels, reconciling differences between the two and giving fans of both a chance to see again the famous red Jaguar (it narrowly avoids getting smashed up like it did in The Dead of Jericho, the first Morse television story), to look out for Dexter’s inevitable cameo (in a pub, of course) and spot allusions to characters, places and events that won’t affect the lachrymose lawman’s life for a long time to come.
However, these are all ultimately just ephemera. The reason this production works is that it doesn’t rely on the past – or the future – to be effective. Like the picturesque location and Barrington Pheloung’s wonderful incidental music, the trappings of Inspector Morse are secondary to an excellent police drama with a plot that is as fine a tangle of dead-ends and deception as Colin Dexter ever conceived, a superb supporting cast (which includes another Morse veteran, Patrick Malahide) and – crucially – a formidable performance by Shaun Evans as Endeavour.
Although physically Evans doesn’t immediately bring to mind the late John Thaw, there’s something in his demeanour, in his eyes, in the slight hunch of his shoulders that expertly captures the essence of the character Thaw made his own. He adds a callow vulnerability, the occasional hint of elation (the smile when he first sits behind the steering wheel of a Jaguar is joyous) and a continual sharpness that the older version only displayed in bursts of boozed-up inspiration. Rarely has somebody so flawed been portrayed by someone so flawlessly.
If Endeavour becomes a series, Evans can confidently take it forward without fear of the ghost of his illustrious predecessor/successor materialising in the Jag’s rear-view mirror – provided it maintains this one-off drama’s quality and independence from the mythology of Morse. A young Chief Superintendent Strange passing through the cop shop would be acceptable; a juvenile Robbie Lewis turning up at the Manor Ground with a gaggle of Newcastle United fans would not.
However, that’s conjecture for the future. Now, it’s simply a case of putting the hannibalrisingophobia to bed (until someone at ITV decides to do Fitz’s youthful antics in Edinburgh in Eddie or a series set in fifties-King’s Markham called Young Wexford) and dropping the threat level to ‘listening to opera whilst doing a crossword whilst thinking of the beautiful woman who got away – AGAIN’. Endeavour is something to savour.
Aired at 9pm on Monday 2nd January 2012 on ITV1.
Released on DVD on Monday 9th January 2012 by ITV Studios Home Entertainment.
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