Meet Endeavour writer Russell Lewis: a real man of mystery

Detective Endeavour Morse has secrets – but not nearly as many as the man who writes him

Endeavour (ITV, EH)

I am due to be met off the train at Oxford by Russell Lewis, the man who devised ITV’s Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour and who has single-handedly written every one of the 17 two-hour episodes since its 2012 launch, plus six in the new, fifth series.

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Lewis mischievously uses an image of Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange as his Twitter avatar, so in order to identify him at the station, I searched for him on Google Images. There are no photos of him in the public domain, except the screen-grab I finally track down on a site called Movie Dude where, unhelpfully, he’s playing a character who’s seven years old.

Thankfully, he recognises me and sidles up on the concourse using a greeting familiar to fans of From Russia with Love: “Excuse me, can I borrow a match?” I expected a tweedy Oxford-don type with leather elbow patches, but Lewis looks more like a hill-walking A&R man, a gravel-voiced 54-year-old in a North Face waterproof with the hairstyle of a young Ted Bovis.

He leads me to the famous, neo-gothic Randolph Hotel and a pint of “Oxford Blue” in the Morse Bar. Actually, we have coffee, observed by framed photos of detective inspectors Lewis and Hathaway, Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter (who died last March just as filming on Endeavour’s fifth series began) and Morse himself in a hospital bed in a 1998 episode.

The non-fictional Lewis and I will spend the next two days on Endeavour’s set being queried or moved on by actual security guards as – to an extent by his own design – very few people on the crew know that this is the chap who writes it.

Lewis speaks in the clipped aphorisms he gives to Roger Allam’s character, DI Thursday, as if he too came of age during the war (“Got to play the ball where it lies… Revenge is a dish best served cold”). He’s garrulous, generous company and a happily married non-drinking father of one who seems to run on coffee and cigarettes. We settle down in the Randolph’s private lounge to discuss how he got where he is today, and he reveals it’s his first weekend off in seven months.

For Lewis, Endeavour is less a detective show, more a way of life, at least for two-thirds of a year. They have tried out other writers, as per Morse and Lewis, but it didn’t work “because we’d already set up an idiosyncratic template, and I have real trouble overwriting other people,” explains Lewis, by which he means re-writing. “We’re doing volume in British TV drama now [this series comprises six films, instead of four], which follows the American model. I’ve overwritten in the past, but nine times out of ten you’re not doing a polish, you’re going back to basics, squaring a circle not of your own devising.”

Lewis works seven days a week during production and sometimes writes for 48 hours straight “without seeing the pillow. But the mail must get through! When you’ve been on a real one- or two-nighter, you read it back and you can’t remember having written it. And often, that’s some of the best stuff, because you’re so fried, the barriers come down.” I mention these sessions to Endeavour himself, Shaun Evans, who remarks, paternally, “I think he should look after himself a bit better.”

Shaun Evans, Endeavour (ITV, EH)
Shaun Evans, Endeavour (ITV)

Lewis was born in 1963 in Battersea, south London, raised and formally adopted by his maternal grandmother and her second husband, who provided his surname. He speaks of “a certain lived experience of dark secrets and unhappy families that has stood me in good stead when it comes to Endeavour”. Protective of “the sensitivities of all concerned who are still alive”, he describes his background as “potentially still a bit of an emotional minefield”.

He attended “an academically wonky stage school” between age four and 16, which is why there’s a photo of him on an obscure website: he landed a part in the 1972 period biopic Young Winston, directed by Richard Attenborough, playing the even younger Winston.

“Dickie was very sweet, [co-star] Anne Bancroft was lovely. Robert Shaw was my dad – there’s a title for the autobiography!” He was too young to see the other stuff he was in (Sunday Bloody Sunday; I, Claudius) and gave acting up in his 20s to play in rock bands, living off the dole once he’d burned through the money in his child-star trust fund (“Fender Rhodes don’t come cheap”). He and some fellow drama-school grads moved into fringe theatre and some good reviews meant an agent could get him “through the door” at The Bill, where he wrote “22-minute playlets”. This led to script commissions for Taggart, Between the Lines, Sharpe, Cadfael then Inspector Morse, in 1995.

Why does he work so hard to maintain his anonymity? “It enables one to slip through the cracks,” he reasons. “Infinitely harder to observe if one is being observed. Moscow Rules.” That’s a Cold War reference. With Lewis, you’re never far away from a footnote or an elliptical cultural nod. For me, these are what make Endeavour such a head-spinning joy. It was during the third series, an episode called Prey, where a night-time scene of Oxford hippies drinking, toking and strumming acoustic guitars around a campfire in the woods gave me a Jaws flashback, confirmed when pathologist Max DeBryn notes “portions of denuded bone remaining” on a severed arm, a direct quote from the shark film. That same series playfully referenced Night of the Demon, The Great Gatsby, Dog Day Afternoon and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Shaun Evans, Endeavour (ITV, EH)
Shaun Evans, Endeavour (ITV)

I call this metatextuality; Lewis prefers “grace notes and finials”, tracing them back to the “mischievous quotations and chapter headings” in Dexter’s novels. You’ll remember, too, that composer Barrington Pheloung used the dots and dashes of Morse code in his theme tune. “It’s there if you want it,” Lewis says. “But we won’t be docking any points if you don’t.”

It’s Day 13 on “Film 6”, and the first scenes I witness involve DI Thursday, looking in the window of a jeweller’s on Turl Street. Although rubbernecking tourists throng the location shoots from behind lines policed by location marshals, true fans with long lenses abide by an unspoken pact not to publish spoilers.

Unlike the low-profile Lewis, 37-year-old Shaun Evans is instantly recognisable with his strawberry blond hair, hypnotic blue eyes, slight frame and freckles. I first notice him in a stylish Kangol cap hovering behind director Gordon Anderson as the same shot is set, shot, re-set and shot again, so I say hello. He’s not required for the rest of the day as an actor, but he’s here in his new role of associate producer. “I like to make the most of the opportunity,” he tells me in his soft Liverpudlian twang. “Part of the joy of the show is having so many top-end directors. There’s a lot to be gained from them.”

Lewis confirms that Evans is a “team man, and plays a very straight bat. He doesn’t care for flannel.” It’s admirable for an actor of his stature and popularity to come with zero airs and graces – when he calls you “my friend,” it doesn’t feel false. (He’s also recently expanded his portfolio into directing, helming his first episode of Casualty last year during Endeavour downtime, and his second and third at the start of this year for a late-summer transmission.)

Somewhat self-consciously, I later find myself invited to the cast-and-crew wrap party in a lounge at the Holiday Inn, thrown the night before the final day of shooting, as the crew tend to disperse as soon as the final “Cut!” is yelled. The morning after, on a sun-dappled shoot in the grounds of Christ Church, there are bleary-eyed rumours that last night’s free bar bill tipped £3,000. If so, it was worth every penny after another even more demanding endeavour.

“It’s great to have the opportunity to hang out, have a few drinks, let your hair down and have a dance,” says Evans. “It’s a good way of letting everyone know how much they’re appreciated.” Meanwhile, Russell Lewis is trying to convince a car park attendant that he’s allowed to park there as he’s the chap who writes Endeavour.

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Endeavour series five airs on PBS Masterpiece on Sundays, 9/8c