My Contemporary British TV Detectives

Morse Mode

Morse Mode

From episode one, I wanted to love Morse. I’m sure loads adored him. Morse had so much going for him—intuition, a temper, a love for beer to duel with his upper-middle-class condescension—I’m sure John Thaw, who played Morse for 13 years, had to shoo away the ladies with a cricket bat.

The long-running Morse series was good. Sometimes great. Thaw (1942-2002) carried Morse’s hunched shoulders with a lot of style, and the episodes, based on Colin Dexter’s plots, were tight and surprising. I'll recommend all seasons—even the "Morse Goes Abroad" episodes. The show was entertaining, pretty and moral, and rarely cheesy; it didn’t plump its storylines with stupid jokes, like Midsomer Murders. Morse himself was smart and cynical, though still hopeful—a detective grappling with art and life, as Morse would say. It used Oxford for backdrop, and Morse drove a Jaguar—what wasn’t there to love?

But in 33 episodes, at most I admired Morse, which puts him on the tail end of favorite detectives. Morse rarely struggled with anything except his memory. There’s little change in the series besides a man getting older—which should be profound change, except Inspector Morse was probably elderly and cranky by age 13, and we don’t see much. There’s some hinted-at, frowned-over, existential doubts about his background, but they’re never really elaborated upon. So he’s too distant; the best detectives aren’t.

I don’t blame Thaw, of course; I’m sure Thaw controlled every mopey, detached twitch the directors wanted. Thaw was a master. For example, one month after I’d watched maybe a dozen Morse episodes in a row, I threw in a DVD of Jeremy Brett in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of Four, and up popped a completely different Thaw—earthy, funny, frightening—in battle with Sherlock Holmes.

But Morse led to Inspector Lynley (upper-class inspector with a working-class partner; fancy-pants detective driving around in a gorgeous car), and, more importantly, Inspector Lewis. Lewis, Morse’s partner, was the best part of Inspector Morse: he was the reason I watched every episode. Lewis (Kevin Whately) had grip and compassion. He had problems at work, home, and inside himself, and as he grappled with them, he grew. Which might explain why he got his own series—and why I’ll talk about him later.



Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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