There’s a moment about halfway through the first part of ‘Magnum Opus’, just before the second ad break in fact, where academic Wouter Eisler (played by Stephen Boxer with an extraordinary German accent) confirms that the picture found with the murder victim is an alchemical image.
It represents, he explains, “Nigredo… the Blackening… the first stage of the great work.” There are four stages in total, we are told. “So this could be just the beginning,” sighs Lewis, with the air of a man who just for once would like to come up against a straightforward killer, with no convoluted agenda.
The idea of a murderer following a theme is hardly original, it was probably old even before Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye, and has cropped up in Se7en on the big screen and Messiah on the small. Morse had his moments too, with one memorable episode paralleling Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Almost like a character in a story then (which of course he is, but that’s not the point) Lewis is now anticipating a series of murders, and on this fairly slight basis sets to digging around in the world of Alchemy. Although we’ve not really taken to him yet, nevertheless it’s hard not to sympathise with new Chief Superintendent Moody (Steve Toussaint) when he comments that it’s all “A bit vague… bit nebulous.”
An unusually-grumpy Hathaway’s only response is that “This is Oxford.” Which is true, although again, the last thing a character in a Lewis story should do is highlight just how common this kind of intellectual carry on is in Oxford – it would be like Jessica Fletcher’s friends all refusing to see her because every time she pops up people start dropping like flies.
What’s especially pleasing about Lewis, perhaps over Morse even, is the gradual development of the regular characters. Hathaway is no longer deferring to Lewis, and grumpiness aside seems comfortable to be in charge of the investigation.
And whereas the mention of famous Oxford literary collective ‘The Inklings’ would once have prompted a “Who are they, sir?” from Lewis, and a sigh of exasperation from Morse, Kevin Whatley’s ‘ordinary copper’ has come across them often enough to now be pretty much on first name terms. When the group is mentioned here he cannily asks if it’s Tolkien or CS Lewis – alas it turns out to be neither of them but instead one Charles Williams.
It’s a real person, I’ve checked, so I can’t really blame him for his name but for people of a certain age it’s hard not to think of one-time Golden Shot host, Charlie Williams – and certainly for a few minutes I found myself anticipating a series of grisly murders, all the result of some slapdash crossbow firing.
We learn that Williams (the Inkling version, not the stand-up) was the exponent of a theological movement which believed in a kind of literal transformation. Not just the figurative transfiguration of bread and wine, but believers becoming almost Christlike and literally taking on the sins of others.
Quite how in reality this is seen to work is unclear – but there’s a small group of guest stars utterly convinced of it, enough for two of their members to claim it has actually happened to them. By coincidence, or more likely not, they are the same two people murdered in Part 1 by a mysterious gloved alchemist.
Whatever else is going on (and I’ve not even mentioned Hathaway & Maddox’s excursion to the local S&M club) it seems that we might be in the middle of a holy war between the Alchemists and the Disciples of Charles Williams.
Well… This is Oxford.
Aired at 9pm on Tuesday 20 October 2015 on ITV.
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