Morse Code

YoungMorseby Brad Nelson   3/31/14
John Thaw starred as British detective Inspector Morse for twelve seasons, from 1987 to 2000. Morse is an intense, thorough, no-nonsense, but mild-mannered inspector who, according to the summary at, has “an ear for music, a taste for beer and a nose for crime.”

Morse and his trusted subordinate, Sergeant Lewis, tended to find the most interesting and bizarre cases…such are the necessities of a crime series destined for television. The plots tended to be convoluted and gadgety with so many twists and turns that it could be difficult to keep track of them. This seems to be true of the genre, in general.

So when you watch one of these detective series (whether Morse or Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect) you’re likely watching because of the interest and charisma of the main characters, not because the plots are all that well done. (I find that usually they are not, even in the best of crime dramas.)

John Thaw as Inspector Morse certainly fits the bill in terms of a compelling character (in a dry sort of way), plowing his way sometimes through plots so convoluted and constructed that they might make Agatha Christie blush. But through it all, Morse is Morse, and if you like Morse (I do) then you’re good to go.

If memory serves, that original Morse series ran its course with (small spoiler alert) Morse eventually dying from his ongoing heart ailment. So along with convoluted plots you got this dour element of realism….for a genre of TV that is already stretching it in terms of watchability. But Thaw still made it work.

By mere chance, I recently discovered that there is a two-season mini-series (four episodes each) streaming on Netflix chronically young Morse when he was just entering the force and hadn’t yet earned even his sergeant’s stripes. It’s called Endeavor.

Young DC Morse is played by Shaun Evans. And I was reluctant to take a chance on viewing this series because it has become de rigueur to cast in 20-something roles metrosexual yutes who typically wise-ass their way through their parts. We see this so often these days, including the truly atrocious portrayal of Sherlock Holmes by Robert Downey Jr. It’s as if today’s filmmakers are saying that it is impossible for them (or their viewers) to put themselves into the mindset of another person and place. Instead, they make historical figures our contemporaries (well, not mine, but you know what I mean).

Not only does this change the very nature of the characters, but it’s like an admission of societal narcissism — the idea that all things should always reflect our self-gratifying image of ourself. But isn’t the greatest aspect of fiction (let alone history) being able to walk in someone else’s shoes?

So I expected very little when I took a chance on this prequel series to Inspector Morse. And in some ways, I got what I expected. The actual plots of the two episodes that I have watched so far are typical of this genre and nothing at all special. But what a surprise to see that they didn’t cast young Morse as a modern metrosexual hipster-dufus girly-man, perhaps with tattoos running all up and down his arms while soap-boxing about the supposed dread of CO2.

Instead, Shaun Evans gives a rich, even complicated, performance of a 1950’s (or thereabouts) serious young Englishman with a sharp mind for code-cracking if not a particularly endearing personality (to his co-workers). He’s not a girly-man or an environmentally-squishy man. He’s a man. It seems almost inconceivable to me (there are six episodes left, so there is plenty of time to disappoint) that a series could be produced today in Britain that didn’t take on the socialist-secular-environmental-whacko ethos of the modern day. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t set this in the actual time period. Kudos to the filmmakers.

Young Morse (in a sort of role reversal compared to Lewis) is mentored by the truly likable DI Fred Thursday, played expertly by Roger Allam. These are your two primary characters in Endeavor, with a couple more satellite characters including Morse’s boss, who has a personality clash with him, and Morse’s peer rival who is simply jealous of him. This isn’t super-riveting TV, but it won’t insult your intelligence. And for me, that goes a long way.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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9 Responses to Morse Code

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Mark Dawidziak in The Columbo Philes suggested that TV detective series can be based on plot (such as Banacek), character (such as Magnum, P.I.), or both (such as Columbo, of course). He also noted how well the different shows fared in the ratings. I happened to stop watching series TV around 20 years ago, so anything since then (and most shows even then) will be unfamiliar for the most part (including Inspector Morse).

    Of course, the name Thaw inevitably reminds me of the notorious murderer Harry Thaw from a century ago. He didn’t exactly get away with murder, but his mother (who had control of the family fortune) vowed to spend whatever it took to keep him from being executed, and eventually succeeded.

    Incidentally, I suspect you meant “reluctant” rather than “reticent”. I wish I knew how to prevent such peculiar wrong-word errors, having made enough myself.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “This isn’t super-riveting TV”

    Compared to the few samplings I have seen of current TV fare, this is Macbeth by comparison.

    In both Endeavor and Inspector Morse, it is clear that Morse is an honest, socially awkward man who does not let anything, including politics, get in the way of finding the truth. And he pays for all of these traits. He is, in certain ways, the type of man one would want to be running things. But human natural being what it is, this cannot happen, at least it cannot happen but rarely. It is something like finding the honest politician. Theoretically possible, but not something to count on.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This description reminds me of a Gordon Dickson novel from the 1970s; I think the title was The Glory Game. It involved a man named Tan Dalton who succeeded in defeating an alien enemy — knowing that he would have to accept a heavy price (in his case, basically becoming an outcast) for doing so.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I was also going to say that Mr. Kung’s description of Morse was very interesting.

        I just watched the third episode of “Endeavor” and it was decent enough. Fairly well acted throughout.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished episode three of this last night. It’s about a British aeronautic manufacturer who has built a new missile of some type and is marketing it…with the help of the visit of Princess Margaret. During the royal visit a murder takes place on the factory room floor.

    The PC elements were light, but there were some. When first viewing the missile, Morse is a bit repulsed, giving out a bit of a Greenpeace vibe (as if Russians and other baddies were a figment of the West’s imagination). And, of course, the president of the company that makes the missiles has the simplistic slogan of “What’s good for our company is good for Britain,” which is probably technically correct even if it was presented in a way as to mock business and patriotism.

    And the family who are the owners of this aeronautic company are, of course, the worst kind of people because they are management. And in this show the monarchy is mocked. Granted, that aspect may have just been showing what was going on at the time.

    But in the end the killer turned out to be a union boss on the factory floor, so I guess it all balanced out. But right at this moment, perhaps due to my denseness, I cannot tell you why he did it. I need one of these sharp people, such as Timothy or Mr. Kung, to explain it to me. I just can’t keep track of all the twists and turns.

    But, holy smokes, did women look sexy back in the sixties (or late 50’s) with their long hair, skirts, and lipstick. We’ve definitely lost something due to the androgynous bent of feminism. Young Morse strikes up a bit of a flame with a girl he meets at the factory who he went to school with years ago. She’s gorgeous in her 50’s aquamarine outfits. Remember how stunningly beautiful many of the women look in the series “Mad Men”? You get that here. That I can keep track of.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The business executive’s motto probably comes from “Engine Charlie” Wilson, Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower, who told the Senate during his confirmation hearing that he had always operated (at GM, which he ran) under the assumption that what was good for the US was good for GM, and vice versa. Al Capp took the latter part and made frequent use of “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA” in Li’l Abner before he began to target liberal lunacy more in the later 1960s.

      Properly speaking, of course, neither side is right, at least not when crony capitalism is added into the situation. Even aside from that, trade issues can make the interests of specific businesses (such as tariffs or other restrictions on imports either of vehicles or of the raw materials for making them) different from those of the country as a whole. But otherwise it’s probably reasonably accurate.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The fourth episode of season one of “Endeavor” finally hit upon an excellent episode. It didn’t depend upon plot twists but upon actual story and character development.

    This will spur me on two watch season two if I can find it. They have only the first season on Netflix (although they do have some “Inspector Morse” as well which I may get into…I doubt I’ve seen them all and I doubt I watched one in ten years).

    With this fourth episode, I can give the “recommend” label to at least this first season.

    In this fourth episode there are three somewhat intersecting storylines. The college is, or may be, involved in corruption regarding the sale of property to the town council for development. Meanwhile, DI Thursday suspects that an old crime-boss nemesis is part of the corruption and there’s some great back-story involving this.

    Meanwhile, Morse has family issues. His father has taken ill and Morse must rush ome. He and his father have as stilted a relationship as you can imagine, but very effectively acted and written.

    This is all interspersed around a hit-and-run of a college professor (the same college that is selling land to the town council) that Morse thinks is actually murder. And there is another murder, for sure, that takes place later of a young woman. And this murder may be tied in with one or both of the plot lines above.

    This is the episode where DI Thursday by far has the most work to do. And Roger Allam is truly excellent in the role. There is some very good back-and-forth between Thursday and Morse.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    On BritBox I watched the first episode of Kavanagh QC. It stars John Thaw at James Kavanagh.

    Although this is certainly not a comedy, the formula for the show (at least gauging form the first one) could have been taken right out of Rumpole of the Bailey. However, unlike Rumpole, Kavanagh is surrounded by a bland cast.

    The first episode is interesting if only because Ewan McGregor is cast as a guy accused of rape. But I found the courtroom battle equally bland. And the gadget ending was eye-rollingly politically correct.

    John Thaw is fine in this but from the looks of it this is a very conventional drama. It lasted for six seasons so there must be something to it, one would suppose. However, gauging from the first episode and from one review I’ve read, I’ll probably pass on this: “Every cliché of defense law drama, including the sanctimony.” That certainly shows up in the first episode.

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