I didn't intend to wait until the DVD release of Endeavour, the Morse prequel film that debuted on Masterpiece Mystery at the beginning of July -- but I'm glad I did. The DVD release clocks in at ninety-eight minutes, a good ten to fifteen minutes longer than the original PBS broadcast -- and restores essentially an entire actor's role, expanding on a major plot thread of the story. Oh PBS, we could've used this...
But missing scenes notwithstanding from the original broadcast, Endeavour ranks as one of the best television productions I've seen all year. I loved the original Masterpiece broadcast, and I adore it even more on disc -- this is excellent, wonderful, absorbing television -- a worthy successor/prequel to a British mystery television classic, the original Inspector Morse series that launched the career of his successor, the inimitable Lewis.
I've seen eighteen of the thirty-three Morse films that featured John Thaw as the rather cranky, ale- and opera-loving Chief Inspector who drives a signature red Jaguar and has the soul of a romantic, but is incredibly rubbish with women to his everlasting chagrin. In giving us a glimpse at a young Morse, a Detective Constable at the start of his illustrious career, Shaun Evans had a formidable shadow dogging his steps -- but the genius of this film, and his performance, is that it is suggestive of the later Morse while bringing a youthful perspective and energy to the role that we could only imagine with the older Morse.
Endeavour was produced as a potential pilot film for a new mystery series, and happily after the success of this film it has been commissioned for a full series of two-hour films, to be broadcast next year. The promise inherent in this pilot film is incredible and I am very much looking forward to seeing this team develop a young Morse's backstory. Here's the summary of this episode from the PBS website to start the discussion:
It's 1965, and a 15-year-old Oxford schoolgirl, last seen waiting alone in the rain at a bus stop on early Sunday morning, has disappeared and is presumed dead. The hunt for Mary Tremlett draws rookie Detective Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans), the conflicted young detective on the verge of resignation, back to the university he'd suddenly left only a few years before. Stuck between town and gown, he is patronized by his arrogant old rival, now ascending the ivory tower, and scorned by a DS contemptuous of the "college boy." Only the former opera diva Rosalind Stromming, wife of an Oxford tutor with a murky connection to the missing girl, can offer him solace as he tries to navigate a hostile supervisor, the ghosts of his past, and a mystery that deepens with another tragic death. Discredited and at a dead-end, the solitary and cerebral Endeavour drives his first Jaguar, drinks his first pint and, to the sublime strains of opera, fights for the truth as he forges the identity that will someday become Inspector Morse. Roger Allam stars as DI Fred Thursday and Abigail Thaw (Inspector Morse star John Thaw's daughter) makes a special cameo appearance in Endeavour.The episode opens with brief glimpses of the morning after what looks to have been a orgy at a well-to-do home, where Richard Lovell (Patrick Malahide) gambles while young girls in various states of undress wake up in the arms of much older men. Meanwhile an exhausted driver (later revealed to be a veterinarian returning from an emergency call), spots a young woman in a green-and-white chevron print dress standing in the early morning rain at a bus stop, looking very lost and confused through the misty rain. Meanwhile we get our first glimpse of Endeavour Morse, typing away at a resignation letter from the police force (it's a nice touch that even as a young man the "technology" of the typewriter seemed to try his patience) while listening to his favorite music -- opera. But before Morse can actually submit his letter, he's on a bus to Oxford with other constables called in to help with the missing persons case of Mary Tremlett (Rachael Heaton), a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl missing and presumed dead.
Danny Webb) is derisive of Morse's college past and sends him to interview Mary's family. Her father and sister, Sharon (Emma Stansfield), offer little in the way of possible leads -- but Sharon seems sure that her spoiled sister is merely pulling a prank. In a early glimpse of Morse's genius, he recognizes how unusual it is for a schoolgirl like Mary to possess first edition volumes of poetry and an extensive interest in crosswords -- but only filling out certain clues, a number and a location, always near Oxford. His unorthodox approach in investigating Mary's disappearance is temporarily sidelined when the body of Miles Percival (Harry Kershaw) is found by the river, an apparent suicide. Miles had been Mary's one-time boyfriend, and investigating his death leads Morse to the student's tutor, Dr. Rowan Stromming (Richard Lintern) and his beautiful wife Rosalind (Flora Montgomery), a former opera star whose recordings are among Morse's most treasured possessions. Rosalind's friendship offers Morse the promise of relief from the demons of his past, come to haunt him now that he's returned to Oxford. But the more he investigates Mary's disappearance and Miles's death, the more he learns of the seedy underbelly of Oxford's academia -- a corruption that promises to shake Morse's faith in his purpose and abilities to the core.
(Side note: The later revelation that Sharon is in fact Mary's mother, that played very familiarly though I can't for the life of me remember what other period drama I've seen that twist in...but twist it is, and in the best Morse and Lewis tradition, particularly when she takes a tire iron to Teddy. :P)
Prior to this film, the only other work of Shaun Evans's that I'd see was a brief appearance in The Virgin Queen and the film Princess Kaiulani. He had a lot to live up to, stepping into John Thaw's shoes as Morse, and in my view he more than exceeded my expectations. He skates that delicate line between suggesting the Morse to come while bringing his own energy and interpretation to the character. There's this old soul quality that he gives Morse -- he's a young man but an outsider, not interested in the typical past-times of his contemporaries, preferring to immerse himself in the heavenly strains of opera music, and longing for a true romantic connection, mourning his lost fiancee, rather than playing the field.
There's a wonderful moment when the young Morse heads to the Oxford paper to investigate the true identity of the crossword-setter known only as "Oz." There he meets Dorothea Frazil, played by none other than John Thaw's daughter Abigail. She gives him this rather quizzical expression -- "Have we met?" He answers no, and she responds "perhaps in another life." On one level it plays as nothing more than a quick rejoinder, but knowing that Abigail is the daughter of the original Morse lends the scene a real sense of poignancy. This film has a wonderful sense of continuity with the Morse and Lewis films thanks to the Oxford setting, but having Abigail Thaw give Shaun Evans's portrayal of her father's most famous role her blessing -- I thought it was a lovely touch.
The mentor/mentee relationship is a staple of this type of mystery series -- Morse and Lewis, then Lewis and Hathaway -- but the question has always remained, from whom did Morse learn his craft? This film answers that question by introducing Detective Inspector Fred Thursday, a legend in the department who sees in Morse a principled, kindred spirit with whose help he might finally be able to clean out the corrupt elements in the department. When I first watched this film, I couldn't figure out why Richard Allam as Thursday was so familiar since his filmography is basically unknown to me. And then halfway through it hit me -- as a new fan of the radio series Cabin Pressure, I was recognizing Allam's voice since he plays the "sky god," First Officer Douglas Richardson. It was such a treat to see him on-screen! I'm really looking forward to how subsequent films develop Thursday's working relationship with Morse. I've got to say I love Thursday's quiet authority and no-nonsense attitude -- and the moment when he sends Morse out of the room so he can deck the smarmy garage owner Teddy Samuels (Charlie Creed-Miles)? Priceless.
The amoral Stromming is played by Richard Lintern, a veteran of Inspector Lewis and Poirot, and later this year he'll appear in The Spies of Warsaw on BBC America. As his on-screen wife and the object of Morse's adoration, Flora Montgomery looked extraordinarily familiar -- but I've only seen her in an old Poirot episode. Go figure. Irregardless, I loved how her character arc unfolded in this film -- she embodies class and refinement, and to see that come unraveled -- to see that through Morse's eyes is absolutely heartbreaking. I thought the final scenes of the film, alternating scenes of Rosalind's final performance with her arrest and suicide, was extraordinarily well done. It was drama at its finest, and in the context of the Morse and Lewis films, one of the best climaxes of all three series in my view.
Morse's nemesis, the corrupt DS Lott, is played by Danny Webb, a familiar face fans of British drama. Earlier this year he was seen in Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, playing DI Carter, and in addition to that role he's played the oft-times villainous Dennis Tucker in Land Girls. Additional recent appearances include Miss Marple, Inspector Lynley, Doctor Who, and Lark Rise to Candleford. One of this film's best moments is when Lott dismisses Morse's crossword puzzle theory regarding Mary's disappearance, only to have another officer immediately show up proving Morse's instincts and his theory to be spot-on correct. It was a priceless comeuppance. :)
This film introduces the man who will become one of Morse's closest friends -- Dr. Max DeBryn, the pathologist, played here by James Bradshaw (and in the original series by Peter Woodthorpe). Bradshaw not only bears an almost eerie resemblance to his later-series counterpart, but his introduction to Morse is hilariously unforgettable. We're introduced to Morse's legendary squeamishness (he even passes out during an autopsy!) and the pair's trademark, snarky banter. Absolutely loved it. Bradshaw should be a familiar face to Primeval fans -- he played Connor's friend Duncan.
The DVD version of this film expands on the role of the politician Richard Lovell hosting parties that feature the underage girls procured for him by Teddy Samuels. Actor Patrick Malahide is another familiar face, first coming to my notice in Middlemarch where he played the repressed Rev. Edward Casaubon. He's also appeared in Poirot, and most recently in the Masterpiece remake of The 39 Steps. The initial broadcast of Endeavour omitted the plot line that revealed Lovell was being followed by a government "fixer" named Dempsey, played by John Light -- perhaps most familiar as the unlucky-in-love Henry Lennox in North & South. I love the "scope" that the Dempsey role gave to this film, suggesting that this is only the first time of many that Morse's tenacity will threaten those with powerful agendas. The moment when Dempsey blackmails Lovell into resigning -- oh it is well-played.
Endeavour is a thoroughly enjoyable, absorbing film -- a huge treat if you're a fan of Morse like me, or a fine introduction to the character and his world if you're a new fan. :) These three series of films -- they are quite the accomplishment, not only for memorable characters and each program's longevity, but for the remarkable accomplishment of a wonderful sense of continuity that connects each sleuth. This is now a decades' long document of life at Oxford, in a manner of speaking, and while the clothing and cars may change the need for brilliant investigators remains the same.
Speaking of "set dressing," I love the fact that we can look forward to additional period-set mystery films. The clothes, furniture, and set pieces are all wonderfully detailed...this film is a visual work of art. And I love the fact that long-time Morse and Lewis composer Barrington Pheloung provided the score introducing Morse as a young man. I've watched this film three times now, and each viewing has revealed new details, new nuances of character, new revelations to savor. With a script by Lewis veteran Russell Lewis and a lush, almost cinematic quality to the filmmaking, Endeavour is a gem of a viewing experience. I cannot wait to see what fresh revelations about the enigmatic Morse's past are revealed in subsequent films -- the possibilities are endless! This film has introduced Morse's legendary passion for opera, his first pint, and the beginning of his love affair with that red Jaguar...I cannot wait to see where this character takes us next! Very, very well done.
*This is my 1,000th published post, can you believe it?!