I am generally a fan of PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery!
It doesn’t hurt that Alan Cumming has been doing the little intro thing for a while, but the main reason is that most of the
shows programmes are British. I can’t help it, I cut my mystery teeth with Agatha Christie¹ *shrug*
As luck would have it, I only caught one episode of the long running Inspector Morse when it aired there, and I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. (I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but hey, it is what it is). I did catch a couple of episodes of its first spin-off, Lewis, and enjoyed them quite a bit.
Then at some point last year I became aware that a tv movie prequel about Morse had been made and was going to be broadcast by Mystery! and, after seeing a couple of the trailers, decided to watch it.
So happy I did!
Nota bene: I have since watched (and loved) all four episodes of season 1 and the first three episodes of season 2. I am delighted to report that a third season has been commissioned. Eventually, I hope to own the UK DVDs.
I have no idea who closely the character of Detective Constable Endeavour Morse resembles the later Detective Inspector Morse in demeanor and mannerisms, but I found myself liking him, as played by Shaun Evans, very much indeed. I do know that there were many references to the Inspector Morse series in Endeavour, and a couple of nods to John Thaw, but as I said, having only watched the one episode of that series, I don’t really have a point of comparison.
Like most great fictional detectives, Endeavour Morse is very much an odd duck.
The son of a taxi driver, he attended Oxford on scholarship, yet left at some point without getting a degree. Morse has a prodigious memory and has read extensively on a number of fields–philosophy, history, literature, all the classics (probably in the original Greek or Latin). His love of opera is so deep that, as we see when we meet him at the beginning of the movie,² he owns a portable record player and a fairly extensive collection of LP vinyl records.
Morse is restless, drifting through life in a haze of dissatisfaction.
After leaving Oxford, he spent some time in the Royal Corps of Signals as a cipher cleck before quitting that and applying to the police. He has been a Constable for a mere two years, yet he is ready to resign and look for something else–another temporary job, perhaps, rather than a career. Before he can submit his resignation, however, he finds himself transferred to the Oxford City Police Cowley Station, as support for the investigation on the disappearance of a young girl.
One thing leads to another, and Morse becomes interested in the case. His mind is engaged, busy puzzling over the sparse leads and minimal clues at hand, as well as the characters and personalities of the people involved. What happened to young Mary Tremlett? And how? Most importantly, why?
His interest and obvious intelligence soon catch the eye of Detective Inspector Fred Thursday, who takes Morse under his wing. An interesting character in his own right, DI Thursday takes a personal interest in the young, awkward, painfully honest constable, as they both work to find the answers to these questions.
I loved how the mystery is played out. It is never obvious who did it, nor why, for there are several equally plausible answers. Once the truth is revealed, it’s so very logical. And I really liked how the different threads were tied.
Young Morse is such an appealing character. He is not cold or overtly unfriendly, though he is aware some see him that way. What he is, is somewhat socially awkward, unsure of himself when it comes to relating to people. It is pretty obvious that he knows just how intelligent he is, and how much he knows, not just compared to the coppers he works with, but in general. It is also obvious that neither his intelligence nor his awareness of it has made him happy or given him personal satisfaction so far. And so he is very self-contained, keeping most of himself to himself.
Morse is surprised, and once again unsure, when DI Thursday shows a personal–one might say paternal–interest in him, actually listening to his conclusions. Morse is much more familiar with the smirking disdain directed at him by Detective Sargent Lott and DC MacLeash.
Under Thursday’s tutelage, Morse learns to pay as much attention to the people involved in a case as to the physical evidence available to him. The body of the missing girl is found naked in the woods, and as the missing person inquiry turns into a full murder investigation, secrets come to light. But are the obvious answers the right answers, or are there more secrets at play?
For his part, Thursday is a policeman to the marrow, his integrity an essential part of who he is, his commitment to justice total. He is very much aware that there are dark undercurrents, parties more interested in keeping some of those secrets than in finding the truth. This is, in part, why he zeroes in on Morse. A quick and accurate judge of character, Thursday know that he can trust this slightly out of place, slightly awkward young man.
The production values are excellent, and the casting is brilliant.
I was very taken with Shaun Evans’ portrayal. His Morse is awkward, earnest, more intelligent than most of everyone else around him. Not once, however, do we see the actor behind the character. There are no obvious ticks or grandiose gestures. There is none of that “watch me be smart!” undertone that can be found in other fictional detectives.
Mr Evans uses his eyes, his voice, his body language, to convey just enough to help the viewer understand what Morse feels at any given time. It’s lovely to watch, truly.
Roger Allam’s Thrusday is also fantastic. He inhabits the career detective, the honest cop in a den of corruption, so seamlessly. He is never the sidekick or faded shadow to Morse’s leading man. He has much to teach his young protegé, and while he respect Morse’s intelligence and knowledge, he never feels threatened by it, being secure on his own.
And the chemistry between them is so easy, so natural. Actually, all the actors, down to the smallest of bit parts, are well cast and acted. The superior dons, the self important minister, the oily salesman, the sneering schoolgirls, the smirking Sargent. It helps that they have truly good material to work with. There are so many small, quiet moments. One line of dialogue, one look, one gesture–so much meaning.
This is very much a period piece, with such careful attention to detail.
There is not one anachronism in the whole movie. All the vehicles are from the early 60s–cars, ambulances, buses. All the every day items, from Morse’s prized phonograph to the hair styles, from the old portable typewriter³ to each and every piece of paper visible on the screen, every decoration, every piece of furniture. Signage, adverts on streets, buildings, businesses. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the cigarette brands were from the period!
The music is also great. There are snippets of music from the 60s, several sweeping arias, and great atmospheric music during key scenes. The radio programmes in the background, the noise–have you noticed how different today’s cars sound? And the way light is used…that first exchange between Morse and Thursday, with the later backlit, an almost ominous silhouette. The rain, the woods, the river…
And of course, the location. Oxford in all its glory. The university is both backdrop and character in this particular play.
I wholeheartedly recommend Endeavour. A caveat, though: the version available in the US (the one I watched) has been abridged somewhat, as are all the programmes broadcast here through Mystery! This is due to time constraints stemming from the show’s format. If you have access to the original ITV version, you are one of the lucky ones. Enjoy!
¹ Though I’ve found out that I can’t watch any of their adaptations of Dame Agatha’s work–I know the books too well, and like the characters too much, to abide by some of the arbitrary changes made. Seriously, making Inspector Battle gay in Cards on the Table? What the ever loving fuck?
² It’s two hours long, and the first season/series after didn’t air for well over a year. In the US, you cannot even buy, as it’s not considered part of the tv series. It’s a movie. Pilot, my ample fanny.
³ There was a very similar typewriter in my house for many a year. I wonder what happened to it…