Forget whodunnit – the question at Radio Times for the past month has been who-won-it? Yes, four weeks ago we asked you to choose your favourite crime drama from a shortlist of 50 of the finest examples of a television genre especially loved by Brits.
Now the votes have been counted, and we can reveal that the winner is Inspector Morse. Here, Kevin Whately (who played Lewis opposite John Thaw’s Morse) speaks to Radio Times, and recalls the first time he heard of Morse…
Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis will be forever linked with Oxford, but the seeds of TV’s best-loved detective partnership were sown many miles away from those dreaming spires.
“I was lambing on my brother-in-law’s farm in the Borders when my agent got in touch,” recalls Kevin Whately. “She said, ‘Are you near a library? Can you find a book called Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter. Have a read. ITV are casting for this new series with John Thaw.’”
So off Whately went, driving to Newcastle library, where he found a copy of Dexter’s first Morse novel, only to get a surprise when he read it. “The character they wanted me to play was this 60-year-old character of Lewis. I was only 35.”
What he didn’t know was that the show’s bosses planned to increase the age gap between Morse and Lewis to give Thaw a younger side – kick. But the chance to star alongside one of TV’s biggest talents was still enough of an incentive for Whately to leave pregnant ewes behind for a script read-through. “I’d never seen The Sweeney because I’d been in rep while it was on. But I knew John was a big star. And as soon as I read with him, it became obvious that Inspector Morse was a much bigger deal than anything I’d had in my life before. It had a large budget and was in this two-hour slot – a big risk for ITV.”
Police dramas in the mid-80s never exceeded 60 minutes, so there must have been concerns that this cerebral series with its crossword clues, real ale and opera rather than car chases and fight scenes, wouldn’t hold viewers’ attention?
“We were all nervous,” Whately admits. “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 sheen and polish of Inspector Morse may have been unique for TV in 1987, but it would have counted for nought had it not been for the instant chemistry between Thaw and Whately, who created in Morse and Lewis the perfect detective duo: the cultured, sneering (but secretly lonely and vulnerable) DCI and his married, everyman DS. But how easy was it for Whately to build a bond with his co-star?
“John was a very shy man, as I was. So it took a long time to get his trust. We ended up sharing a caravan on set and there were downsides to that because John smoked 80 fags a day. But it meant that this lovely relationship could gradually evolve. I adored John – he was a fantastic raconteur and a great leader. He could lead a cast and crew like nobody I’d ever seen before.
“And he taught me so much. I’d just come off Auf Wiedersehen Pet and we’d all been so ill-disciplined and inexperienced on that show. So John instilled discipline in me. First, he made sure I wasn’t standing in his light, which was my main crime! But he was fabulous to work with. He had this terrific vocal attack, but also a great stillness and an ability to look intelligent on camera, which is one of the hardest things for an actor. I’ve never been able to master it.”
Whately does himself a disservice – some of the series’ most memorable moments come when Lewis butts heads with his often blinkered boss. “As time went on, Morse and Lewis did start to have barneys on camera. John Madden [the director who went on to helm Shakespeare in Love] always argued for more grit between the two. By this time, John [Thaw] and I were pals, so I was used to how ferocious those glares of Morse’s could be. But it would often intimidate new actors to be on the receiving end of one of Morse’s interrogations. You had to up your game to go toe-to-toe with him.”
Audiences, however, loved Morse’s irascibility, with ratings reaching a peak of 18 million during the mid-90s and worldwide figures estimated by ITV at one billion across 200 countries. And more than 30 years on from the first episode, those characters have lived on: first in the spinoff Lewis and now in the prequel hit Endeavour.
“It’s astonishing,” adds Whately. “But I think 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 these supercilious Oxford brains. To be honest, I was surprised by Lewis’s success because I always thought of him as a sounding board for Morse. I didn’t think it was a good idea to spin him off at all, but I was persuaded to do it and it took off. I like Endeavour a lot because it’s hung on actual historical events as it goes through the 60s. And they’ve upped their budgets since we finished on Lewis, so the episodes look really good.
“It’s amazing. Colin Dexter created a whole industry with Inspector Morse.”
From the earliest cosy whodunnits to forensic thrillers, and from tough police procedurals to period pieces, the nation has long had a weakness for amateur sleuths and hard-boiled detectives, criminal psychologists and good, honest bobbies, with the odd priest, monk and magician thrown in along the way, all united in their determination to rid these islands of crime. Read on for the full Top 50 list of Britain’s favourite crime dramas…
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news