Inspector Morse was a long-running ITV drama series set in Oxford. Based on the detective novels written by acclaimed British author Colin Dexter, the title character in the television series was played by John Thaw, who starred in all 33 episodes from 1987 to 2000.
Morse was a senior officer of the Oxford-based Criminal Investigation Department, which was part of the Thames Valley police force. He investigated a multitude of serious crimes with his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis (played by Kevin Whately). Morse was portrayed as a rather grumpy lover of classical music, who lost patience quite often with the earnest but slow-witted Lewis. The intricacies of their working relationship and friendship formed a large part of the hit series.
Based on Dexter’s 13 crime novels, the first of which he wrote in 1975, Inspector Morse was a different type of crime drama from the typically gritty detective series of the 1970s and ’80s – such as Thaw’s earlier hit, The Sweeney, which ran from 1975 to 1978 on ITV. Some critics described Morse as a later example of the traditional gentleman detective, which was a favourite genre of British detective fiction in the 1930s and ’40s.
Despite his somewhat snobbish and sullen temperament, Morse was a popular hero. He drove a Jaguar car, enjoyed ale and read poetry and the classics. It was reported that Dexter loved Thaw’s performance as Morse so much that after the actor’s untimely death from cancer in 2002 at the age of just 60, the author wrote a clause into his will that effectively banned anyone else from playing the character.
In an interview in 2014, Dexter revealed he would “never” wish to repeat what Thaw had achieved as Inspector Morse. He was persuaded, however, to allow actor Shaun Evans, 34, to portray the character in the spin-off prequel series, Endeavour but only because he wouldn’t be competing with Thaw’s earlier work.
Following Dexter’s death in March 2017, it was reported that his family would enforce his wishes that no other actor was ever to play Inspector Morse. The author had been awarded the OBE in 2000 for services to literature.
In a humorous twist, Endeavour was eventually revealed to be Morse’s first name, which he seldom mentioned. He even joked that his first name was “Inspector” when asked. He was apparently named after HMS Endeavour – the vessel which explored the Pacific region in the 18th century – as his mother was a member of religious group the Quakers, who traditionally used ‘virtue names’, while his father admired Captain James Cook, the ship’s captain.
Set in Oxford, the many crimes – including a multitude of murders – committed over the series’ 13-year run were frequently related to the world of academia. They were often ‘highbrow’ and never run of the mill. To many, Oxford is associated with its world-famous university but for Inspector Morse fans, it appears to be the murder capital of the world, with the university playing a central role in the crime capers and being used as a location for filming on many occasions.
The popularity of the Inspector Morse series continues today, with guided tours of the filming locations being a long-running tourist attraction. Oxford University forms part of the tour and participants can hear fascinating facts about the academic institution and its various colleges.
The university’s Christ Church College was also used as a filming location for the prequel, Endeavour. With its historic quads, medieval cathedral, impressive great hall and world-class art gallery providing the backdrop for some of the plots, the parkland at Christ Church Meadow crossed by the Rivers Thames and Cherwell also played its part, with Morse and Lewis having sailed along the Cherwell in a canoe!
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