morseCrossword addicts will have noticed that I embedded “MORSE” into the last paragraph of the previous post. That’s appropriate for today’s candidate, as the series itself played the same trick, embedding clues and red herrings into the soundtrack, appropriately in Morse code. Indeed, Morse’s name was embedded in the opening theme (although some CW pedants complained that the timing made it sound a bit like t-t-o-r-s-e…)

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. The crossword addict, opera-loving, beer-swilling Inspector Morse, as played by John Thaw, was created by author Colin Dexter. The first Morse novel, Last Bus To Woodstock – referring to the village near Oxford, rather than a jaunt to Yasgur’s farm – was published in 1975, and Dexter continued to publish at a rate of one every year or two until the series started on ITV in 1987.

Morse is a complex character – the son of Quakers, like Columbo he’s unwilling to reveal his first name (we finally find out that it’s Endeavour). There’s a terrific amount of backstory that we find out about, piece by piece: the failure to get a degree from Oxford, the parents’ divorce, the sister’s suicide – it all adds to this character, and helps explain his acerbic nature.

Having avidly seen every episode, I have to say that the final is my favourite – spoiler alert! – Morse gains a new respect for Lewis when he comes to visit Morse following his first heart attack. Morse has taken up bird watching, and is attempting to identify a bird, but he’s not sure whether it’s a – Lewis takes over the glasses, identifies it immediately and explains exactly which of the two birds it is, and how to tell the difference. It’s a beautifully acted little piece of television, and just goes to remind you how good John Thaw and Kevin Whately are in these roles. If you’ve watched the previous 32 episodes, I guarantee this couple of minutes will bring a lump to your throat.

Inspector Morse is as much about how this spiky, complex personality is an effective detective (if not very good at being a police officer), and how his sidekick (who is very good at being a police officer) is actually a better detective than either himself, or Morse, gives him credit for.

At the end of the day, the strengths of Morse are pretty much all round: good source material (all the books were adapted for the series), a strong cast and crew, enough budget and location filming to get it right, as well as good additional material – I can’t remember a single episode of Morse dipping under the quality horizon – no sharks were jumped in the making of this programme…

So how close to Columbo is Morse? Well let’s run the numbers and see what we can work out…

Ahead Of The Game: Certainly, when compared to Lewis, and Morse has flashes of insight. However, Morse wasn’t always right – sometimes even arresting the wrong person. (Columbo did that a few times – on purpose – once to smoke out the real culprit, or as a kindness). Score: 5/10

Car: it’s a Jaguar (even though Morse drove a Lancia in the books – until the TV series started, that is). Of course, John Thaw and Jaguars go together quite well, but at least this is a classic Jaguar. It was given away in a competition after the series ended, but apparently it was terrifically unreliable and John Thaw hated it – it had to be pushed as often as not, with engine noise added in later. But for all that, I can’t score it higher than Bergerac’s TVR. Score: 6/10

Catchphrases / ambience: “LEW-IS,” said exasperatedly. That was about it for catchphrases. As for the ambience – the dreaming spires of Oxford, the nicer bits around the Thames. More pastoral than Bel Air… Score: 8/10

Investigative Style: Morse follows the leads as they come along, and despite occasional flashes of brilliance, he’s still an ordinary investigator making the usual investigations. Score: 6/10

Personality: about as “English” as they come – or at least, the subset of white male Englishness that listens to Radio 4 and regards the Times crossword as being a nice accompaniment to a few real ales and lunch at the pub. To that end, I know a few people like Morse, so the character rings true, in the same way that Columbo authentically portrays a certain type of “man of the people”, so, in his own way, does Morse. Score: 10/10

Sidekick: Lewis is a perfect foil for Morse. Less intuitive, but much more of a “play by the rules” type of guy, in the same way that the other detectives in Columbo generally tend to be. Score: 5/10

Violence: no fights, no car chases, no on-screen violence, pretty much like Columbo. Score: 8/10

I knew Morse would be the first of the big-hitters, and that’s why I wanted to cover a few others before leaping head-first into the a-list, as it were. Because now it gets serious. This is the leaderboard:

  1. Inspector Morse: 48 points
  2. Dixon Of Dock Green: 34 points
  3. Bergerac & The Sweeney: 29 points

Can anyone displace Morse? Or are these sort of ranking lists just becoming a kind of antique?

3 thoughts on “In Search Of The British Columbo (4): Inspector Morse

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