Inspector Morse has been named the greatest British crime drama of all time in a poll conducted by Radio Times, nearly two decades after it finished its original run on ITV. The Oxford-based whodunnit – which starred John Thaw and Kevin Whately – came to an end in 2000, but is still remembered fondly by readers, who placed it above such current hits as Line of Duty and Happy Valley.
Speaking about the lasting appeal of the curmudgeonly Morse, Whately – who played sidekick Sergeant Lewis – says in the new issue of RT: “What viewers love is the fact that Morse isn’t your usual hero. He’s lonely, boozy, angry, but very bright. And he’s a match for all those supercilious Oxford brains.”
Morse’s appeal is further evidenced in the poll, with prequel series Endeavour taking fourth place and spin-off Lewis ending up in 12th position. John Thaw’s daughter Abigail, who is currently filming the sixth series of Endeavour, commented to Radio Times.com:
“When my dad was here in Oxford shooting Inspector Morse, he could never have imagined that the character would still be so popular 30 years later. In fact, even at the time, I don’t think he realised it had grabbed people in the way it did – he was just getting on with the job.
“What he was very aware of, though, was that it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill formula. There was concern in those early days and everyone was curious to see whether it would take off. The plots are often so complex that you almost need a degree to untangle them. And there were fewer ad breaks in those days, so it was a big demand on the viewer to keep them interested for two hours.”
Inspector Morse debuted in January 1987 with three 120-minute adaptations of Colin Dexter’s original novels and was an instant success for ITV, its ratings reaching a peak of 18 million during the mid-90s and worldwide figures now estimated at one billion across 200 countries.
But its format was a risk for the broadcaster, with audiences of the day used to police dramas that rarely exceeded an hour-long slot. Speaking about the pre-production pressures faced by the Morse team, Whately said: “We were all nervous. A lot of people’s careers were riding on it. Ted Childs, who was the executive producer, was told, ‘You’d better get this right. But the first script was by Anthony Minghella [who went on to adapt The English Patient for the big screen] and it was a real humdinger.
“And we were also lucky in that the British film industry had just collapsed for the umpteenth time, so we got a lot of top technicians on board. It was all shot on film and we effectively made them like movies.”
The Radio Times poll, which received over 10,000 votes, asked readers to choose their favourite British TV crime of all time from a list of 50 programmes that spanned the last seven decades.
As well as Dexter’s creation, Agatha Christie’s most famous characters also featured in the top 10, with Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple at seven and David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot at eight. Crime writer Ann Cleeves also proved herself to be hugely popular, with Vera (sixth) and Shetland (nine) both getting a high ranking.
The top 20 Greatest British Crime Dramas ran as follows:
Inspector Morse (1987-2000)
Foyle’s War (2002-15)
Line of Duty (2012-)
Happy Valley (2014-)
Miss Marple (1984-1992)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013)
A Touch of Frost (1992-2010)
Midsomer Murders (1997-)
Prime Suspect (1991-2006)
New Tricks (2003-2015)
Inspector George Gently (2006-17)
Life on Mars (2006-7)
Scott & Bailey (2011-16)
THE ESSENTIAL INSPECTOR MORSE
For anyone looking to acquaint themselves with Morse’s best cases, they would be wise to seek out the following memorable episodes:
Masonic Mysteries (1990) – Morse is targeted by a psychopathic adversary, who puts him through deadly trials linked to the libretto of The Magic Flute. The DCI is shown at his most vulnerable and tortured in an episode helmed by future Trainspotting director Danny Boyle.
Promised Land (1991) – The DCI and his Sergeant are well out of their comfort zone when they trail a supergrass to Australia. The final shot of Morse looking lonely on the steps of the Sydney Opera House as Barrington Pheloung’s theme starts to play is incredibly poignant.
Dead on Time (1992) – The backstory of Morse was kept deliberately vague by writer Colin Dexter, but here we find out more about his first love at university and why the relationship soured. Inevitably, tragedy lies in store after Morse is reunited with the enigmatic Susan Fallon.
Driven to Distraction (1990) – Writer Anthony Minghella ratchets up the tension as a killer starts to target young women around the city of Oxford. The sight of Morse fighting for his life against a knife-wielding murderer while driving at speed lingers long in the memory.
The Remorseful Day (2000) – An ill Morse investigates his last case but – as we all know – he wasn’t destined to see it through to its end. A nation weeps as Lewis goes to see the body of his boss in the mortuary, kisses his forehead and says, “Goodbye, sir”.