It’s the show that won’t die. Twenty months on from that “final” episode (as the credits rolled Robbie Lewis was retiring, James Hathaway was leaving the police force), both Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox are back for more Lewis. Why?
“It’s nigh on impossible to leave,” says Fox, “but it’s a good job. It’s strangely enjoyable and I’m not really very… well, what’s the word… driven. And as far as ITV is concerned, they didn’t want to kill it off because people watch it and they can sell advertising. So it sort of ambles back into existence.”
Whately admits Lewis is “a dinosaur of a show”, with some of the production team coming out of retirement specifically to make the series: “I think we have the oldest crew around. We’ve got five septuagenarians so, as a result, there is a unique atmosphere.”
But it seems his plans to do less this time around have been scuppered: “I thought that Lewis would now just be a consultant who occasionally pops in, but ITV didn’t like the idea of me not really being in it,” he explains. “Plus the police said that they don’t really have consultants as such. So I said I’d do two more, but I’ve ended up doing three, which I didn’t really want to do, but it’s been fine.”
If there’s a certain sense of reluctance coming from him, then it’s understandable. After all, he’s been playing Lewis on and off for nearly three decades, first with John Thaw in Inspector Morse and latterly in the long-running sequel, the new series of which finds Hathaway struggling with a senior role after returning to the force and Lewis drafted back to help his friend out.
“I don’t really understand why people like it,” says Fox. “I mean, I’m really grateful that they do, but I’ve never quite worked it out. But I think that if you’ve had a bad day, then there’s a soothing quality to Lewis. It’s quite a salve. There’s the lovely music, this beautiful city and these two men who are just gently walking around…”
Although if Whately’s original request had been granted, Hathaway wouldn’t have been part of the picture at all. “When this whole thing was being set up, I said I wanted a young female Muslim sidekick,” he explains. “I just thought it would be more interesting. These cop shows can be pretty samey and it was one variation that I didn’t think had been done. It still hasn’t, I don’t think. But they sort of pooh-poohed the idea, and I ended up with Laurence instead, which wasn’t quite the same!”
Not that they don’t have fun filming Lewis. “It’s completely different to how it was with John Thaw,” adds Whately. “I was in awe of John and still learning, but Laurence just rips the p*** out of me. We hit it off straight away and there’s absolutely no deference there at all. He’s not even vaguely shy and keeps us all laughing. John got me to share a caravan with him on the set, as he had always done with Dennis Waterman on The Sweeney. And I suggested the same thing for Laurence when we started Lewis, but the producer said, ‘No, no, no – you don’t want to share with him, he’ll drive you mad!’”
Viewers clearly took to the partnership, with up to six million tuning into the last series. But there were objections to ITV’s decision to split the leisurely, two-hour stories into two hour-long parts – a strategy that remains in place. So what effect do the actors think this has had on the drama?
“It’s much more plot-heavy than it ever used to be,” says Fox. “There seems to be much less character stuff and much more explanation. I always try to fight for a bit more character-based drama but these days less is left hanging in the air. But we live in a world of drama by committee, don’t we? So if you’ve got 25 people stirring the same cauldron, you’re going to end up with a lot of explanation.”
“We were actually talking about this last night with the executive producer,” adds Whately, “and we said we needed to get back to doing something a bit more reflective. When you split them in two, you have to do quite a lot of reiteration in the second half to remind people what’s gone on, which takes away from the idea of having two hours to develop the story and the characters. I’ve had complaints from people.”
But would the man who’s played Lewis for nearly 30 years come back for another series? “Yes,” he says, with a degree of amiable weariness. “I would probably do one more. But everything has a life span and I think it’s gone on long enough. There were 33 Inspector Morse stories and we’ve now done 30 Lewis. I suppose it’s a sentimental thing but I wouldn’t want to do more Lewis than we did Morse because I do still think of it as an offshoot.
“There’s the age thing as well –I’m older than John Thaw was when he died, bless him [Whately is 63; Thaw was 60 when he died in 2002]. It’s a long time to play one character, but sometimes it only feels like yesterday that we started. And then I catch an old Morse on ITV3. I’ve never thought I looked particularly like my son. He’s taller than me and blond. But when I see Lewis walk into a room with John Thaw, it’s like my son has just come onto the screen. That’s very strange indeed!”
Whately admits, “I initially thought Lewis was a terrible idea. The character had very much been Morse’s work donkey and sounding board. But I was persuaded to do it, thinking if it was a flop, at least ITV would stop asking me.
“But the pilot took off, so we got back on this moving train and we’ve never looked back.”
Lewis returns to ITV tonight at 9.00pm