For millions of Morse fans, it’s the ending they cannot bear to contemplate. The melancholy detective made famous by the late John Thaw has, of course, met his maker before, both in print and on screen. But having breathed new life into the character for prequel hit Endeavour, actor Shaun Evans is now the one person who could kill Morse off for ever.
“I know that the creator, Colin Dexter, has it in his will that no one else can play the part. Which is as it should be,” Evans reveals in his soft Liverpool accent. “It’s not something that can go on and on. I really don’t think it will.”
So for how long does he intend to go on? The new series of Endeavour continues to chart the Detective Constable’s early career with the Oxford police force during the mid-1960s, but can we expect to see Endeavour in the 70s? “Listen, never say never. It would be a great life for me, I suppose. But is it something you’d want, creatively? I’m not so sure.”
At the moment though, Evans appears fulfilled. He’s determined for his Morse to stand on his own two feet and not to do an impersonation of John Thaw, the man who first brought the character to life in 1987. Indeed, instead of turning to recordings of Thaw – for whom he says he has the greatest respect – Evans found inspiration from a different source: “I listened a lot to Michael Palin, who was from the north, went to Oxford and who was alive at that time. That’s how I imagine Morse’s voice to be.”
Famously, Thaw’s Morse was unlucky in love and prone to falling for either murder victims or femmes fatales. Evans’s creation is rather more lusty, a characterisation truer to the Morse of the books than the TV series.
Rather than consulting Inspector Morse DVD box sets for research, the actor decided to go back to Dexter’s novels, where the character is an altogether more lecherous figure who browses enthusiastically through porn magazines and enjoys the odd strip show.
“The more we can introduce of that, the better,” Evans reveals. “I’m always fighting to make that a reality, without him becoming this full-on seedy, depraved character, of course. What you don’t want is for it to be sanitised and pasteurised, which a lot of stuff is nowadays.”
Knowing all of this, what are we to then make of Endeavour’s love interest in series two: a nurse of Jamaican descent called Monica (Shvorne Marks), who becomes the object of his affections? No matter how hard Morse strives for a normal life, he’s always destined to be a solitary man who struggles to make emotional connections. So surely there can’t be any future in that relationship?
“It’s got to end in tears,” says Evans. “In the third episode, you see that Endeavour is too busy getting loved up. He ends up missing something vital, which costs someone their life. And that weighs heavily…”
Endeavour does seem a world away from the eternal summers of the TV Inspector Morse, where sunshine always framed Oxford’s dreaming spires and cases were cracked against a picturesque background of the Bridge of Sighs and the Bodleian.
For instance, in the opening episode to series two, a lead is pursued in the neon-lit streets of London’s Soho while Endeavour is, at one point, seen brooding under an umbrella as the rain pours down. “We’re using the seasons. And as it goes on, it gets darker. Winter comes – and I mean that in all aspects. Characters are getting shot and we’re losing the people who are close to us. But that’s life, man. It should be dark.”
It’s a sensibility that chimes with the spate of Scandinavian shows like The Killing and The Bridge that have changed the face of TV crime drama in recent years. And when you think about it, Morse has a lot in common with those Scandi sleuths: like Sarah Lund or Saga Noren, he’s pessimistic, slightly vulnerable and an outsider wherever he goes.
“There is an influence from the Scandinavian dramas,” says Evans. “Audiences want a certain darkness now and you have to pay attention to that. There’s no denying that this character is a bit of a loner and slightly out of joint with his time and place. That’s what I find endearing about him. And perhaps the audience does, too.”
Does he appeal to the misfit in all of us? “Well, loner heroes do appeal to that part of yourself that feels as though your genius hasn’t been recognised.”
Evans, 34, has carved out a niche playing off-kilter leads, be they on stage as Kurt Cobain opposite Danny Dyer’s Sid Vicious in the play Kurt and Sid or on the big screen alongside Benedict Cumberbatch as troubled ex-soldier Nick in Wreckers. In 2012, he also sent a shiver down the spines of TV viewers when he terrorised Rupert Penry-Jones in ITV’s The Last Weekend.
And although Endeavour Morse is easier to root for than some of Evans’s other roles, there is still that streak of sorrow. After all, this is a character who we know full well will eventually die a bachelor in his late 50s after keeling over from cardiac failure.
Fans hoping that more of Morse’s missing years are filled in should pray that writer Russell Lewis keeps finding fresh and ambitious ways of putting the copper through the emotional wringer. Because it’s this, you feel, that will encourage Evans to return for more episodes and keep Morse alive.
“It should be ambitious and aim high because as soon as that goes, we go. The world doesn’t need another detective series, so we have to do something different with it. If you’re going to do a show that has already had a long life, you have to grab it and do something new. So that’s what we attempted and I feel we’ve largely succeeded.”
See Endeavour Sunday 8:00pm, ITV