30 years of Morse – how John Thaw’s legacy lives on in Endeavour

Abigail Thaw tells RT about the clever ways her father is remembered in the ITV drama starring Shaun Evans

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Endeavour Morse, ITV’s longest-serving detective, celebrated his 30th anniversary last week. Starting with John Thaw’s first outing on 6 January 1987 the original Inspector Morse racked up 33 episodes in 13 years – followed nine series of the Kevin Whately sidekick spin- off Lewis, and now the 1960s prequel Endeavour (which starts its fourth series this Sunday). With its beautiful Oxford backdrop, its intellectual-but-preposterous mysteries and its procession of grumpy heroes, Morse embodies traditional British TV murder mystery at its best.

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But, in 1986, when John Thaw was weighing up whether to take the part, it didn’t seem cosy or traditional at all – it seemed like a big risk. “Dad believed in it – it was just a bit scary as to whether or not it would take off,” says John Thaw’s daughter, the actress Abigail Thaw (who now, in a neat nod to the original Morse, plays the Oxford Mail editor Dorothea Frazil in Endeavour). Midsomer Murders and Poirot have gone on to turn cosy feature-length mysteries into a staple of the ITV schedule – but it took Inspector Morse to blaze the trail, says Abigail.

“It was this premise of being two hours long – which everyone was very sceptical about. Channel 4 hadn’t been out that long, and it was all about fast, furious, youth-culture programmes.” But despite – or perhaps because of – its leisurely pace, Inspector Morse was an instant hit. That first episode, The Dead of Jericho, pulled in nearly 14 million viewers. In fact, there was something about Inspector Morse that means the character lives on to this day.

“First, and foremost and always, it’s John Thaw’s performance. ‘National treasure’ is a term that’s thrown around all too often, but in his case… Also, he was a fine actor,” says Russell Lewis, who wrote episodes of both Inspector Morse and Lewis and is the creator and sole writer of Endeavour. “The other key ingredient was the interplay between John and Kevin Whateley.”

Colin Dexter, who wrote the novels on which Inspector Morse was based, once described Morse as “melancholy, sensitive, vulnerable, independent, ungracious and mean-pocketed”. The TV audience nonetheless adored him: when the on-screen Morse died of a heart attack in 2000’s final episode, The Remorseful Day, nearly 14 million viewers once again tuned in.

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Abigail Thaw as Dorothea Frazil in Endeavour

“Going to work on Endeavour doesn’t feel like a homage to my father,” says Abigail, “but it does give me a jolt every now and then – it happens, funnily enough, when I’m in Oxford, where I think about him a lot more. I’m tired after a few days’ filming and think, ‘Blimey, he did this for months.’ I never realised when I used to go round to see him for Sunday lunch and a gossip.”

Abigail’s inclusion in the cast is far from the only nod to the original Inspector Morse. There’s her character’s name, Dorothea Frazil. The dictionary definition of “frazil” is a kind of slushy ice – so “D Frazil” could be read as “de-ice” – which, you guessed it, brings us back to “Thaw”. Is this intentional? “Of course,” says Abigail. “Russell’s full of them, clever little things, little codes – all the crossword lovers will be satisfied.” Sunday’s episode guest-stars James Laurenson, who was also in the first episode of Inspector Morse, and Sheila Hancock, John Thaw’s widow, guest-stars later in the series.

The only person missing from this new run is Colin Dexter himself, who used to have a brief cameo in every episode – but who’s now 86 years old. “I think he’s allowed, after 30-odd years, to take tea in the pavilion,” smiles Russell Lewis. “We haven’t got him in the flesh this year. But there’s a big part of the fandom that likes to spot Colin – like spotting Hitchcock.” Then Lewis adds, mysteriously: “He’ll be there in spirit, not in flesh. He’ll be that little bit harder to find than usual.”

In the dramatic finale of series three, Endeavour was safely rescued from a bank raid – along with Joan (Sara Vickers), the daughter of Endeavour’s boss, DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam). But Joan, traumatised, then fled Oxford. Fred was bereft – and Endeavour, still unable to voice his crush on her, was heartbroken. “We pick him up two weeks after we left off, which is a brilliant move from Russ, because that’s still quite recent,” says Shaun Evans, who plays Endeavour. “Thursday’s daughter’s left, and that creates a bit of tension between Endeavour and Thursday, which then plays out across the whole series. 

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Roger Allam and Shaun Evans in Endeavour

For fans of the original Inspector Morse, these romantic and professional knocks to the young Endeavour help to shape the irascible, middle-aged loner they once loved. Indeed, audiences loved John Thaw so much that it could easily have daunted Evans when he first started to play Endeavour. So did Evans feel like Endeavour was his show right from the get-go?

“Yeah, of course man, bloody hell,” says Evans. “Of course I felt like it was mine.”

You didn’t have any..? “Why would I?”

Well, just because another actor had played the part before. “But they hadn’t, had they? They’d played a version of it, 20 years older. They hadn’t played the script that I had in front of me. No one else had played that. My intention with this was of course to please the audience that already existed – but it was also to get an audience of my generation to watch it. To watch my work, to watch our work. It wasn’t about a nostalgia fest.”

Evans chose not to watch the old Inspector Morse before he started filming. “Only because I wanted to approach it from a brand-new point of view,” he says. The current round of those scripts is set in 1967. If Endeavour is recommissioned by ITV, it will move on to 1968 – and, mathematically speaking, it could one day reach 1987, with Endeavour finally morphing into that original Morse.

When Abigail Thaw looks forward to a potential Endeavour set in 1987, she smiles – it clearly conjures up a new mental picture that jostles with a very fond, 30-year-old memory. “As long as people want it, and as long as the stories are good, and as long as Shaun keeps fresh-faced, why not?” she says, with a chuckle. “He’s going to have to get some white hair and some padding, isn’t he?”

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Endeavour returns on Sunday at 8pm on ITV