On 10 May Alastair Lack explored the characters of Inspector Morse and his colleague Sergeant Lewis, as depicted in Colin Dexter’s books and three television series.
On holiday in Wales in the early 1970s, reading a poor detective novel, Colin Dexter exclaimed that he could do better. ‘Why don’t you?’ his wife replied. The result was Last Bus to Woodstock, published in 1975 to immediate success, and followed by 12 further Morse novels.
Colin Dexter’s favourite poet was A E Housman. Morse’s early life recalls Housman’s: unhappy in love at Oxford, dropping out without a degree, and initially taking an unsuitable job. Morse becomes a brilliant but wayward detective, still unhappy in love, devoted to opera and real ale. Lewis is the perfect foil: stolid, happily married, and almost always paying for the ale.
The novels make the most of their settings in and near Oxford, for example including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s appearance in Dr Faustus at the Playhouse in 1966, as well as pubs in and around Oxford.
From 1987 to 2000 Morse and Lewis appeared in the famous and popular television series based on the novels, and then in further episodes written by gifted scriptwriters. Colin Dexter wanted to cast John Thaw as Morse – an inspired choice – and Kevin Whately was perfectly cast as Lewis. The scripts used Morse and Lewis’s sessions in famous Oxford pubs to recapitulate – for viewers’ benefit – the complex story so far, and to explain their next steps.
After a long day of arduous filming, Thaw in particular disliked being recognized in Oxford pubs, and preferred the relative seclusion of the Randolph Hotel, in what was later named the Morse Bar.
It is estimated that almost 19 million people watched the episode Twilight of the Gods in 1993. The cast included John Gielgud, as Chancellor of the University.
In 1999 Colin Dexter published what he firmly declared to be the last Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, in which Morse dies of a heart attack. This was televised in 2000, and was the 33rd episode. Thaw himself died in 2002. Whately went on to star in a new series, Lewis (without Morse) which also ran for 33 episodes. From 2012 a young Morse has appeared in a third series, Endeavour.
Answering the many questions after his talk, Alastair Lack confirmed that Colin Dexter had often appeared in Morse in cameo roles, including, most unusually, a speaking part as the Bishop of Oxford; and that Morse was often seen parking his famous Jaguar car outside Brasenose College but then, in the next shot, appearing in a different college.