Although it’s now almost a decade since John Thaw passed away, it’s still easy to hear the sadness in the voice of his daughter, the actress Abigail Thaw, when she remembers her first reaction to the idea of a young actor stepping into her father’s shoes.
“I was quite taken aback,” she recalls, echoing a feeling one imagines of many Morse fans. “Because I couldn’t figure out how they would make it work. Then my agent asked me if I could think of someone who could play a younger version of my dad. I honestly couldn’t think of anyone.”
Shaun Evans will doubtless garner many excellent reviews for his performance as the young Endeavour Morse in this week’s one-off drama, but few verdicts will carry as much weight as Abigail Thaw’s. “Shaun has made an excellent job of it,” she asserts in the same forthright way often employed by her father.
She agrees that part of the reason his performance is so successful is that he doesn’t attempt to slavishly copy John Thaw, who died of throat cancer in 2002. But just occasionally, a subtle reminder suggests itself. “Hunched over a pint, drinking it in big gulps,” she says. “And obviously thinking at the same time. That was very like the way my dad played it. I think he also got the way that Dad would sometimes be very emphatic, the way he would speak when he was angry. He got that really well.”
Thaw, 46, had the chance to witness Evans’ performance at close quarters as she has a role in the drama as Dorothea Frazil, editor of the Oxford Mail, in the pages of which Morse spots a clue. Originally, she’d envisaged a smaller cameo along the lines of the one Morse author, Colin Dexter, enjoys, but it snowballed into something bigger. “Russell Lewis is such a good writer,” she enthuses. “I was chuffed to bits to play the part. When I first read it, it brought a tear to my eye.”
It’s easy to see why, not least because when Morse is about to leave the office, she says to him, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” “It is so sweet,” she laughs. “It was left hanging unexplained, which was nice. I think Russell’s got an idea for her. If it gets made into a series we might see her again. Fingers crossed.”
Auditioning for Inspector Morse
Although the part marks Abigail Thaw’s debut in a Morse-related drama, it transpires that this is not for want of trying. When her father was still playing the part, she auditioned for a role without telling him. Sadly, she didn’t get it. “I couldn’t believe it when I didn’t get it. I was outraged!” she says, laughing. “‘Don’t you know who I am?’ No, you can’t play that card, not if you’re trying to go it alone. Anyway, I can laugh about it now.
“I didn’t tell Dad for a very long time,” she continues. When he finally found out, he just said, ‘Ah, kid. Never mind, maybe next time.’ He was always philosophical about that kind of thing. When I started acting I would say to him, ‘I haven’t heard anything.’ And he would say, ‘I’ve been waiting 25 years to hear whether I got this or that job.’ You win some, you lose some.”
Following in her father's footsteps
John Thaw separated from his first wife, the academic Sally Alexander, Abigail’s mother, when she was three. Abigail was raised by her mother and her partner, Gareth Stedman Jones, in a communal house in Pimlico, an unconventional but happy upbringing. She saw her father regularly, however, throughout her childhood, and he was closely involved when she declared an interest to follow in his footsteps.
“He didn’t want me to become an actress,” she recalls. “He didn’t want the pain or the rejection for me. But he did support me completely once I’d made up my mind. He was terribly anxious about whether I’d get into Rada. Once I was in, he came to see everything and would give me the odd bit of advice, more as a father than a critic.”
Like her father, Abigail has done a lot of work in the theatre throughout her career, punctuated by time out to raise her daughters Talia and Molly Mae. Were there opportunities to appear on stage with him?
“There were suggestions of doing King Lear, but we never did. At the time I never had a burning desire to act with him, but now that he’s gone, of course, I wish I had.” Looking forward, Thaw is passionate about the possibility of future Endeavours. “I would love it to be commissioned for a full series,” she says. “Not just because it might lead to my character being expanded, although that would be nice, but really just because it feels so right.”
Abigail Thaw appears in the first episode of Endeavour on Bank Holiday Monday at 9:00pm on ITV1/ITV1 HD.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 23 December 2011.