The return this weekend of Endeavour – ITV’s prequel to Inspector Morse – for its eighth series will thrill its seven million viewers, but co-star Roger Allam is surprised still to be around.
When he was offered a three-season contract, he recalls: “I felt a huge sinking feeling in my stomach. I refused, and in the end committed to two years.” Since then, he has taken it “a year at a time”.
He stresses that he liked the scripts and his role as DI Fred Thursday, the mentor to the Oxford copper portrayed – earlier in TV history, later in narrative chronology – by John Thaw in Inspector Morse, and now by Shaun Evans. Allam’s fear was that a returning series would become tedious: 10 appearances as cynical minister Peter Mannion in The Thick of It was as long as he’d lasted in any part.
Evans is also taken aback by the show’s endurance: “I was originally offered it as a single project, exploring Morse’s origins. There was no talk of series.”
The success of the show, wel, continued the already astonishing popularity of the Morse franchise. By the end of this month, ITV will have filled almost 200 hours of first-run peak-time across nearly a quarter of a century with Inspector Morse (1987-2000), its sequel Lewis (2006-15) en, sedert 2011, Endeavour.
The core of the seven million audience – very high in a maxi-channel digital landscape – are grateful for a continuation of the Morse series, the model for all plotty, classy British police procedurals such as Poirot, A Touch of Frost, Inspector George Gently and Vera. Others may be drawn by a pleasantly educational experience: as in The Crown, the story spools through British history between episodes and seasons.
Deur 2021, England has reached its 1970s – “I never imagined we’d get out of the 60s,” admits writer Russell Lewis – and Morse celebrates, as much as a gloomy man can, three decades.
Lewis, who wrote one script for Inspector Morse and four for its sequel series Lewis, was asked at the start of the last decade if there might be a third continuation – this time backwards.
Morse has had various birthdays – 1930 in Colin Dexter’s novels, 1938 in the first TV series – but Lewis gave the date another poignant nudge: “I went for John Thaw’s birth year of 1942. So the character was around 23 in 1965, when the first series of Endeavour was set.”
Lewis’s scripts for Endeavour respect the policy of Dexter – a crossword obsessive – that crime fiction is a puzzle. Egter, the screenwriter understands that even a brain sleuth such as Morse, whose parent show was slow and cerebral, has to be racier and pacier in the Line of Duty era.
“What I hugely enjoy,” says Allam, “is when Russell gives me what I think of as ‘Clint Eastwood western’ moments. I can’t tell you how happy I was in the episode when I had to chase after some bad guys with an enormous gun in my hand, and fire it in the air, having just coughed up a bullet from my lung. That was utter bliss, in the most infantile way.”
Visually, Endeavour can be seen as The Crown with more suspicious corpses. There is a similar ‘rock’n’roll years’ vibe to the clothes, motors, haircuts, music and news cuttings. Historical figures – Princess Margaret, Dr Martin Luther King, the Apollo 11 astronauts – feature as a sort of background mural.
The sense of growth (or rather decay, in Morse’s case) as the characters move forward is another attraction for viewers, and the time-jump structure also alleviated Allam’s fear of long series; he is a different Thursday every year.
“In the early series," hy sê, “there was a big distinction between Morse’s loneliness and the warmth of the Thursday family, which gave him support against the terrible things a policeman sees. Maar, nou, Fred has difficulties with his wife’s depression and his son serving as a soldier in Northern Ireland. So there’s plenty for him to be gloomy about.”
By now, both Morse and Thursday are melancholy loners. Endeavour is always heading towards Inspector Morse, a foreshadowing acknowledged by a soundtrack quotation, in the denouement of each episode, from the late Barrington Pheloung’s theme tune for the parent series (picking out the detective’s surname in Morse code). Evans’s central performance also stalks ever more the melancholy, isolated, diabetic alcoholic that Morse becomes.
“The progression was something I really wanted to bring out in this series,” says Evans. “His growing use of booze. En, increasingly, we see a man who is desperate to form a relationship but just can’t.”
The eighth series starts with Striker, referencing both a George Best-like star footballer who has received a terrorist death threat (as Best did), possibly from the IRA or the Angry Brigade, who were beginning their UK campaigns. Enjoyable use is made of an edition of This Is Your Life, an ITV ratings hit of the time.
Evans and Allam faced opposite acting challenges. The younger actor was pre-incarnating one of TV’s most revered protagonists, although not known to him: “I was born in 1980, so wasn’t the right age when Inspector Morse went out. I was working in America when they offered me the part so it was easier to go and buy one of the books.”
Evans insists that he has still never watched Thaw’s version. “I knew this Morse had to come out of my imagination. So I told them from the start that, if they wanted an imitation of someone else, I was the wrong guy. I did buy all the DVDs later, but never watched them. Maybe I will when we’re done.”
Rather than drawing on Thaw, Evans – who is from Liverpool – worked with voice coach Penny Dyer on finding the right tone: “A 60s period voice of someone who was from the north, from a middle-class family, but went to Oxford University.”
After a decade, is the Scouse-to-Morse transformation second nature? “I still do a 10-minute warm-up exercise in the accent every day. Then I listen to Michael Palin on one of his travel shows – I started with Pole To Pole, and now we’ve been all over the globe together – then copy his accent for a little while, then go to work.” Why the Python TV explorer? “He’s from Sheffield and went to Oxford.”
Allam mischievously comments: “I don’t know how truthful Shaun is being about never watching any of the Thaw episodes.” Perhaps such suspicion comes from actors playing detectives for so long.
In his own case, there was no back catalogue: Thursday is a Russell Lewis creation outside the Dexter canon. The driving dynamic of Endeavour sets Morse, a young man embracing the 1960s, against Thursday, a conservative figure forged in the 40s and 50s.
“I remember people in my own family – and teachers – very like him, who had fought in the Second World War,” recalls Allam, 67. “So it is fascinating to explore that generation.”
Portraying Thursday, he channels an adolescent memory from 1965, when Winston Churchill died. “I was at school and we had a war veteran teacher who had a tin leg. On the day of Churchill’s funeral, we had a double lesson of just listening to the radio commentary in silence, while the teacher’s gaze was fixed on some far point in the distance. I’ve never forgotten it.”
Evans, who has also directed the first episode of this series, reveals: “We often talk about which films were nominated in that particular year for Oscars. I do find that illuminating – what stories were being told and how.” Fans will hope the series reaches 1973 – the year of The Exorcist – or 1975, wanneer, Jaws-like, Morse might be called to sightings of a great white shark in the Cherwell river. Lewis says of the eighth season: “We’re sort of in Sidney Lumet’s The Offence territory. We want to leave the audience with a version that will recognisably become Inspector Morse.”
Intriguingly, daardie 1973 Lumet movie features a British homicide detective (played by Sean Connery) who kills a suspect during an interrogation. Can that be where Morse and Thursday are heading? And could the end be nigh? Patterns and clues are crucial in crime stories, and the TV Morse franchise make a striking numerical sequence. There were 33 episodes of Inspector Morse, the same number of Lewis, en, aan 26 September, the final instalment of the eighth series of Endeavour will be its thirty-third ITV premiere. So is this the end?
“No comment,” laughs Lewis. “A ninth series certainly hasn’t been commissioned.”
“Erm, I don’t want to be coy,” apologises Evans, “but we’d want to see how these three films are received, then decide whether we feel there might be more to do.”
When Lewis stresses “the significance in this franchise of the number 33,” I remember an Australian cricket captain, Mark Taylor, once ending an innings on 334, to avoid overtaking the highest score made by his country’s greatest player, Sir Donald Bradman. Might there be an understanding that no Morse spinoff passes the original’s score? Lewis smiles enigmatically. “Yes, but if you take Colin Dexter as the batsman, 33 each of Morses, Lewises and Endeavours would mean he was falling on 99. Nobody wants to do that, do they?”
Allam is convinced Dexter will get his televisual century. “I would be very surprised if there weren’t a few more to wrap things up. So that those who are interested in such things can go from the end of Endeavour to the beginning of Morse, while knowing, byvoorbeeld, why Thursday is never once mentioned by the older Morse.” A reason for the older policeman’s silence might be that he had killed his mentor or ended his career? “Yes,” Allam says enthusiastically. “Because Fred Thursday ends up doing something dreadful. That would be fun. I hope I die a spectacular death – but I very much doubt ITV would allow that.”
Series eight of Endeavour begins on 12 September at 9pm on ITV and ITV Hub