Remembering John Thaw and “Inspector Morse”

John Thaw (1942-2002) would have been 80 today; which seems an odd thing to say, for he seemed 80 thirty years ago.

It wasn’t just because Inspector Morse, the character he played from 1987 to 2000, was a fuddy-duddy and a curmudgeon. The working class RADA trained actor had done a lot of hard living, drinking and smoking to excess and it showed on his craggy face, baggy eyes and snow white hair. Cancer took him at age 60, all of two decades ago. While I had seen some of his earlier performances in things like Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) and Chaplin (1992, he played Fred Karno), I didn’t discover how brilliant he was until recent years. And thereby hangs an embarrassing tale about how I have lapsed into middle age.

When my wife and I moved into a house, we allowed ourselves the indulgence of a tv in the bedroom. For quite a long stretch, our chosen nighttime entertainment was what we called “Soporific English Mysteries” (we’ve written about one — Lovejoy. And so we inevitably arrived at Inspector Morse, on account of it being one of the most popular TV shows in British history. I was vaguely aware of it when it was shown in America (PBS), but never watched it until a couple of years ago. We watched every episode and enjoyed it immensely. Based on a series of novels by Colin Dexter, its twin virtues were the novelty of its setting (Oxford University and environs) and the three dimensionality of its main character. Though Thaw had played hundreds of roles in the theatre, on television and in films, I expect he will always be primarily identified with Morse in the same way Peter Falk is with Columbo, or Telly Savalas is with Kojak, though with a good deal more finesse and subtlety. The idea of Morse is that he is a genius. He had studied at Oxford, though he didn’t finish due to the loss of a scholarship. He then served in the army before becoming a policeman, but seems to have retained lots of posh connections. Yet he seems thwarted, frustrated and cynical. His nasty attitude has kept him from progressing to positions of authority in the police department. In addition to his brilliant though not infallible skills at detection, his hobbies include classical music, doing crossword puzzles, driving fancy sportscars, and drinking ale on the job. (The latter is likely also a stumbling block to his career).

Morse’s partner, a younger man named Lewis (Kevin Whately) is something of a comic foil, cheerful, a family man, and far from intellectual. Morse browbeats and humiliates him mercilessly throughout the series, correcting his grammar, ridiculing his conventional lifestyle, belittling his optimism. It’s very much like Laurel and Hardy. You would think such a thing would be unpleasant, and such a character unlikeable, but such was Thaw’s charm and talent, that it was endlessly watchable. Morse always relented in the end, and found ways to apologize for his behavior. The third regular character was Morse’s boss, Superintendent Strange (James Grout), a gladhanding, political sort of character who cares chiefly about appearances and is always being embarrassed by Morse’s blunt and coarse ways. Most of the mysteries have something to do with Oxford, involving students, faculty, and others involved with the huge and ancient campus. This also adds another element of fascination to the show, as you become acquainted with the physical layout of the place, and its culture and customs.

In late 2000, the show’s creators did something you rarely see on television. They killed off the lead character! Morse died of a bleeding ulcer in a hospital bed, on the show! No show does that! And this was apparently before anyone knew that Thaw himself was fatally ill. The whole thing adds a poignancy to the end of the series. It feels as though something real happened.

There are three additional TV shows to know about in connection with Inspector Morse. Two are spin-offs. Lewis (2006-2015) starred Whately as his old character, now paired with a younger assistant who is more like Morse, in a sort of reverse of the old formula. The other series is a prequel set in the 1960s. Called Endeavor, it stars Shaun Evans as a young Inspector Morse, a long haired precocious genius. (Endeavor was Morse’s first name, after Captain Cook’s ship. It was inly mentioned once in the original series). This show launched in 2012 and still ongoing. The third show worth mentioning is Kavanaugh BC, Thaw’s second vehicle when he wasn’t doing Morse. In that one he played a very different sort of character, a liberal barrister, with a much kindlier personality, as well as lots of family and friends (neither of which Morse had too many of). This show ran from 1995 until Thaw’s death. None of these shows is as enjoyable as Inspector Morse, but sometimes you just have to settle.