Bidding adieu to the great Inspector Morse (and the greatest ending to a TV show ever)

Near the end of the final episode of Inspector Morse, we find the great British detective sitting outside an Oxford pub with his faithful sidekick Lewis drinking a beer despite strict doctors orders.

His health failing, and two months out from a forced retirement, that will involve listening to Wagner, reading the classics and pursuing his newest hobby: birdwatching, Morse is feeling melancholy and regretful.

Trying to cheer him up, Lewis tells Morse to look out at the sun setting majestically like a Turner painting across green English fields behind them. Morse looks, pauses for a moment to think, and then recites, with a feeling of impending doom, the final stanza from his favourite poet AE Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright:

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
    Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
    Falls the remorseful day

The final three words of Housman’s marvelous poem, which seems to convey everything I love about the show (what other TV detective could recite melancholy poetry and not sound like a nonce?) is also the title of Morse’s final caper: a series of murders linked to the bludgeoning death of a wealthy socialite and nymphomaniac.

Not wanting to spoil it for those who have not watched it or are still making their way through the series, I won’t reveal the show’s final moments.

However, I can say, that I don’t think I have ever been more emotionally affected by the ending of a fictional television series. It left me in a state of profound and palpable melancholy, like I was saying good bye to an adored uncle, whom I would never see again.

Such was my dismay at reaching the end of the show, that I briefly thought about starting the series from the very beginning. Eventually my dark mood lifted, though I obsessively kept on reading and reciting the Houseman poem. (You can read it in full here).

Part of this melancholy I am certain had to do with John Thaw, the wonderful actor who played Morse, and who in his personality and manner was in many ways a mirror of Morse – a deep thinker, a lover of classical music, a decent man.

There is also the added tragedy that Thaw sadly died in 2002, just two years after the final episode aired. and only 60 at the time.

Soon after I watched the final episode of Inspector Morse, I listened to John Thaw being interviewed way back in 1990 on Desert Island Discs, the classic BBC radio program and podcast in which guests talk about their lives, whilst revealing their eight favourite pieces of music they would take with them if stranded on a desert island.

All of Thaw’s musical selections, apart from a song sung by his wife (the acclaimed actress Sheila Hancock) in the musical Annie, are classical or operatic works, a selection Morse himself would have no doubt enjoyed (though, no Wagner!).

Introducing Thaw and summarising his highly versatile career to that point, Desert Island Discs host Sue Lawley notes his two most memorable roles were playing the “troubled, but likeable” Morse and “rough, tough” Jack Regan in London police drama The Sweeney.

Given Thaw’s preference for a quiet life laced with classical music, Lawley suggests to him “there’s rather more of Morse in you than Regan?”

“Oh most certainly, yes,” Thaw agrees in his soft, purring voice.

Thaw says he got his love of classical music from his friend and fellow acting great, Tom Courtenay, whilst both were students at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London. Struggling with the part of Mephistopheles in a production of Faust, Courtney encouraged Thaw to listen to the 1st Symphony by Sibelius.

Casting aside his prejudices (“What a load of rubbish, I thought”) Thaw says he was “utterly transfixed”.

“It changed my life, [listening to Sibelius] that day.”

Thaw was 48 at the time of the interview, coincidentally the same age as I am now.

Thaw jokes that the crew who worked on Inspector Morse thought he was a lot older, and that’s certainly how I felt when I watched the white haired, often curmudgeonly great British detective work at solving the latest baffling murder.

“I was born old or looking old, ” says Thaw.

“I started to go grey during The Sweeney and then went totally white. It’s a hereditary thing.”

Asked what he considered his best professional work, Thaw says it has to be Morse.

“It’s a quality product, I acted pretty well and we get good scripts, yet it is also very popular with the public” he says

“All those things coming together would give me the most pleasure.”

I was extremely late to the joys of Thaw’s chief inspector Morse, who made his on-screen debut way back in 1987, driving around the narrow streets of Oxford in his classic red Jaguar Mark 2, and resembling my father somewhat in appearance.

I bought the first couple of seasons on DVD, but as they were pricey, ended up watching the majority of the 33 feature-length episodes (based on the books by Colin Dexter) on YouTube over the last 3-4 years.

It has been a very private pleasure: my wife finds the show slow and boring and Morse annoying in his old fashioned habits and so I have watched the entire series on my own.

The final episode, The Remorseful Day, was released on November 15, 2000, and watched by 12 million Britons. Around the world over a billion people have enjoyed Morse cerebral brilliance, penchant for classical music and cryptic crosswords and for sharing his astute insights into criminal behaviour over a pint or two of good English ale.

Because each episode is feature-movie length – about 90 minutes – they allow for the story to unfold slowly, for the parade of suspects and motives to be investigated by Morse and Lewis, whilst providing scope for a couple of obligatory trips to the pub.

 “Think? That’s why I want [another drink] – to think. I don’t drink for pleasure!” is Morse’s annoyed reaction to Lewis’s suggestion in the final episode that maybe another beer is not a good idea.

For me, part of Morse’s charm is his complex and paradoxical character: easily angered, often short-tempered and with zero tolerance for fools, he is also by equal measure kind, compassionate, patient and sensitive.

A seemingly confirmed bachelor set in his ways, Morse is nonetheless always on the lookout for romance, and tends to find it in troubled and doomed relationships.

His tempestuous relationship with Lewis, a working class Geordie copper trying to climb up the detective ladder, is another delight of the show. (Kevin Whately starred in a successful spin-off of Inspector Morse called Inspector Lewis which ran for nine seasons).

Detective Sergeant Lewis: Still, at least we can make one arrest.

Chief Inspector Morse: Who’s that?

Detective Sergeant Lewis: This Sophocles chap.

Chief Inspector Morse: Lewis, Sophocles died two and a half thousand years ago.

Often annoyed at Lewis’s ignorance of history, the classics, art and philosophy and unsympathetic to Lewis’s desire to manage his family life at home, Morse nonetheless becomes a kind of father figure to Lewis, educating him in the wiles of human nature and taking obvious pleasure when Lewis surprises him with an educated answer or brilliant idea.

“Well done Lewis,” Morse says on many an occasion.

As the show progresses, their relationship evolves significantly to an extent that it is Lewis, who becomes Morse’s educator, especially in the ways of modern technology, whilst remaining steadfastly his loyal confidant and defender.

Died too soon: John Thaw, a monstrous talent

Of course there is also the writing – Colin Dexter’s classic crime novels, full of false leads, red herring, and of course Morse (based on Dexter’s own tastes) are brilliantly translated to the small screen by many talented screenwriters including by people like Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr Ripley, The English Patient) Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) who would all go on to become award-winning Hollywood movie directors.

Also key to the pleasure of Inspector Morse is the location: the university town of Oxford with its glorious medieval buildings, hallowed halls, alcoves and passageways, where Morse must often venture inside to interview suspects, as well as his frequent trips out to grand country estates and manor houses.

(Funnily enough, one of my favourite episodes, The Promised Land, is mostly set in Australia, as Morse and Lewis journey Down Under to locate a police informant).

Each episode is intriguing beyond just the excellent whodunnit aspect (it is almost impossible to pick the murderer), focusing in on the very human flaws of those caught up in treachery and tragedy. In this regard, Morse, who has keen sense of morality, is frequently appalled by the greed, pain and misery he uncovers. Despite his intuition, Morse professes genuine bewilderment at the actions of those he apprehends.

Morse: I’m old and unmarried, and I don’t understand human nature. What does it matter?

Lewis: How old are you?

Morse: I forget, Robbie.

Watching all 33 episodes of Inspector Morse has been a personal, almost secret pleasure of mine, often enjoyed with a glass or two of wine, whilst the family slept.

There have been some terrific endings to TV series – some of the best being Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Better Call Saul and some terrible ones – Killing Eve come most strongly to mind.

But none have concluded a story better than the final adventure of Inspector Morse. No finale has been more fitting to the greatest detective of them all.

RIP Morse and John Thaw


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