British Police Program

This lushly produced and melancholy series was made by Zenith for Central Independent Television, to critical and popular acclaim, between 1987 and 1993. In Britain, the series gained audiences of up to fifteen million, and it has been widely exported, contributing internationally to the image of an England of dreaming spires, verdant countryside and serious acting. It was also one of the first programmes on British television to be commercially sponsored, in this case by the narratively appropriate "Beamish Stout", whose logo appeared on the later series. Originally based on detective novels by Colin Dexter featuring Chief Inspector Morse and Detective Sergeant Lewis, the series was developed to increasingly include Dexter's characters in new scripts by, among others, Julian Mitchell, Alma Cullen, Daniel Boyle and Peter Buckman. Of the twenty eight films broadcast, nine are based on Dexter stories, as is the "return by popular demand" Morse "special", The Way Through The Woods made in 1995 after the series was declared finished and transmitted in November.

Shot on film, in Oxford, the individual stories were broadcast in two hour prime time slots on British networked commercial television, contributing significantly to the reputation for quality garnered for independent television by series such as Brideshead Revisited (Granada) and The Jewel In the Crown. This reputation was enhanced by the increasing willingness of theatrical actors such as Janet Suzman, Sheila Gish and Sir John Gielgud to guest in the series. However the series also staked its claim to be "quality television" through continual high cultural reference, particularly the use of literary clues, musical settings and Barrington Pheloung's theme music. Thus the very first Morse, The Dead of Jericho (6 January 1987) investigates the murder of a woman with whom Morse (no forename ever) has become romantically involved through their shared membership of an amateur choir. The opening titles intercut shots of Oxford colleges to a sound track of the choir singing, while Morse plays a competing baroque work loudly on his car stereo. Morse spends some large part of the film trying to convince the skeptical Lewis that "Sophocles did it" after finding that the murdered woman has Oedipus Rex at her bedside and her putative son has damaged his eyes. He is, characteristically, wrong--but right in the end.

Almost symmetrically, but with the rather more splendid setting of an Oxford ceremony for the conferring of honorary degrees testifying to the success of the series, the final film, Twilight of the Gods, not only uses a Wagnerian title but weaves the opera through the investigation of an apparent assassination attempt on a Welsh diva. The significance of music in the series for both mise-en-scene and character--it is repeatedly shown to be Morse's most reliable pleasure apart from good beer--can be seen at its most potent in the regular use of orchestral and choral work as the soundtrack to a very characteristic Morse shot, the narratively redundant crane or pan over Oxford college buildings. This juxtaposition, like Morse's old and loved Jaguar, insists that although the programme may be about murder, it is murder of the highest quality. The plots, which frequently involve the very wealthy--and their lovely houses--tend to be driven by personal, rather than social factors. Morse's Oxford is full of familial and professional jealousies and passions rather than urban deprivation, unemployment and criminal sub-cultures.

Within these relatively reliable and familiar parameters of a certain kind of Englishness--perhaps most manifest in the way in which Inspector Morse despite skillful and repeated contemporary reference somehow seems to be set in the past, and is therefore cognate with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's Poirot and Miss Marple in a genre we might call "retro-expo" crime, rather than Between the Lines or The Bill--it is the casting of John Thaw as Morse which most significantly shapes the series. This has two main aspects apart from the continuing pleasures of Thaw's grumpy, economical--and in contrast to some of his guest co-stars--profoundly televisual performance. Firstly, John Thaw, despite a long television history, is best known in Britain as the foul-mouthed, insubordinate, unorthodox Inspector Regan of The Sweeney, a show first broadcast in the 1970s and regarded as excessively violent and particularly significant in eroding the representational divide between law enforcers and law-breakers (an erosion in which, for example, Don Siegel's film with Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry, was seen as particularly significant). That it should be Thaw who once again appears as "a good detective, but a bad policeman" in a series which eschews instinct and action for intuition and deduction offers a rich contrast for viewers familiar with The Sweeney. However it is the partnership between Thaw and Kevin Whately (originally a member of the radical 7.84 theatre group, and subsequently a lead in his own right as Dr. Jack Kerruish of Peak Practice) which drives the continuity of the series and offers pleasures to viewers who may not be at ease with Morse's high cultural world. For if Morse, the former Oxford student and doer of crosswords is the brilliant loner who is vulnerable to the charms of women of a certain age it is Lewis, happily married with children, who, like Dr. Watson, does much of the leg-work and deduction, while also nurturing his brilliant chief. But it is also Lewis, a happy man, who often fails to understand the cultural references ("So do we have an address for this Sophocles?"), who, in the most literal sense, brings Morse down to earth--to popular television.

-Charlotte Brunsdon


Inspector Morse


Chief Insp. Morse..................................... John Thaw Detective Sgt. Lewis........................... Kevin Whately Max .............................................Peter Woodthorpe Dr. Grayling Russell......................... Amanda Hilwood Chief Supt. Bell ..................................Norman Jones Chief Supt. Strange............................... James Grout Chief Supt. Holdsby.......................... Alun Armstrong

PRODUCERS Ted Childs, Kenny McBain, Chris Burt, David Lascelles, Deidre Keir

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 28 120-minute episodes

6 January 1987-20 January 1987
25 December 1987-22 March 1988
4 January 1989-25 January 1989
3 January 1990-24 January 1990
20 February 1991-27 March 1992
26 February 1992-15 April 1992
6 January 1993-20 January 1993


Sparks, Richard. "Inspector- Morse: The Last Enemy (Peter Buckman)." In, Brandt, George, editor. British Television Drama in the 1980s. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Thomas, Lyn. "In Love with Inspector Morse: Feminist Subculture and Quality Television." Feminist Review (London), Autumn 1995.


See also Miss Marple; Sherlock Holmes; Thaw, John