In our house we resist most drama on ITV, but not anything belonging to the Inspector Morse franchise, it seems. Whilst Lewis got so dull that even its two main characters resigned on screen, I do really like Endeavour, the 1960s-set prequel to Morse. It’s gloomy and dark, with grey (not black or – ahem - noir) often the predominant on-screen colour. Gramophones crackle and typewriters clatter behind the refrains of Barrington Pheloung’s theme. Morse listens to opera and solves crossword puzzles in his dingy bedsit rather than his opulent future Victorian mansion, and he doesn’t own a car yet, but everyone else drives ones just like the one that he will. Motorway service stations are just a business idea that require explanation. Not that I can quite picture Morse in any guise sitting in a Welcome Break.
Endeavour is all slightly dumbed down for an ITV audience of course, and the classical music is so mainstream even I have played or sung it – a Chopin Nocturne, Mozart and Brahms’ German Requiem. The Oxford colleges still have their stupid fictitious names - Pelham (an electricity substation in Hertfordshire), Lonsdale (a bad pub in West Jesmond). But there are a couple of clever nods to Morse fans. Author Colin Dexter continues to make cameos - spotted on a bench, a double decker bus and during the obligatory scene (there’s one in every Morse-related series) in the Pitt Rivers museum. Future Chief Superintendent Strange is a fellow Constable. But best of all, the local newspaper editor is called Dorothea Frazil. Frazil is a type of ice crystal, so using her initial, her name D(e)-Frazil means “Thaw”. As in John. And – ta-da! – this self-same newspaper editor is played by John Thaw’s daughter Abigail. I didn’t work any of that out myself, incidentally. A Guardian television reviewer, embarrassed because he had thought Abigail Thaw was actually playing the murderer in a previous episode, took great pains to point it out.
So Morse as a young cop is already an intellectual, and quiet and moody. At the end of series one, he acquires his character’s famous future limp when he is shot. But as I can’t remember the plot of episodes from one week to the next, don’t expect me to tell you by whom. But he was still very traumatised about it all at the start of this series. He is in the pub a lot more for one thing. He has fallen for his next-door neighbour, a nurse, but we know (having seen the future) that the romance must be doomed. And he ends this series in prison, but in Oxford that's OK, since the prison is part of the Malmaison hotel chain.
Morse’s boss, DI Fred Thursday, is played by the great Roger Allam, who I once saw play Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn’s Democracy at the National Theatre, and who I now regularly hear narrating Sarah And Duck on CBeebies. Fred Thursday seems like a boring pipe-smoking middle-aged man in the height of Oxford suburbia, with two teenage kids and a different sandwich filling for each day of the week. However, it transpires that something terrible happened to him during the war in Italy, and something even more terrible happened to him at the end of the series finale on Sunday, when it was his turn to get shot.
I would say that Endeavour, by being grey rather than noir, doesn’t have anything remotely like the nail-biting edge of BBC4’s Danish imports, although the final episode of this series gave it a good go. The ghost story episode in the girls’ boarding school was unconvincing because you knew it would have a boring Enid Blyton type explanation. And the department store (Burridge’s) that was the centre of the action in episode three seemed to have been modelled on Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served?, with its stockinged mannequin legs, wooden panelling, blonde bimbos, dirty brown caretaker overalls and lewd conversation between the staff. The characters wearing poppies rather than Captain Peacock’s red carnations in their button holes was the only discernible difference. But Endeavour deserves respect, and he genereally gets it from his public at large, whereas anyone that Lewis interviewed was invariably rude and brushed him off as quickly as possible.
I started going to Oxford in the early 1990s, when some of my school friends went off to university there and I went down (or should that be up?) to visit them. I myself had rejected Oxbridge (rather than Oxbridge rejecting me). Their languages degrees distinctly lacked the “modern” moniker and had syllabuses (syllabi?) devised sometime not long after Noah left the ark. I got the grades but know I couldn’t have handled the stuffy academic pressure, or the public school tossers who went there. But one friend was at St Hugh’s, one of the more down-to-earth colleges, located a little out of town in a beautiful rambling Edwardian garden not far from the Cherwell punts. And I always felt very at home staying there. I was even there on my 21st birthday, for which my friend not only very kindly vacated her room for me and my boyfriend to sleep in (she did have a boyfriend of her own to crash with), but also turned up on the doorstep first thing the next morning armed with a bottle of bubbly for our breakfast. Ah, these Oxford types know how to party.
The out-of-town more modern colleges never seem to feature on Morse, however, although the Cherwell boathouses sometimes do. The same few traditional colleges appear over and over again, presumably the ones with quadrangles permanently set up for film crews wishing to throw corpses off the roof. The Sheldonian Theatre and Bodlean library are also familiar backdrops.
But I am ashamed to admit that the places I recognise most in Endeavour, Lewis and Morse are the public houses. Fast-forwarding a few years to a time when I was salaried, single and living in London, I was introduced to most of the more famous Oxford beer taverns in the course of a single weekend, when I went to stay with an American friend of a friend who was doing an MPhil at one of the graduate colleges. Delighted to have a fellow real ale lover to entertain for a couple of days, she immediately marched me across the meadows upriver to the Trout at Wolvercote for lunch, and once we had staggered (it was a very big lunch) back into town, took me on to the Eagle and Child and the Turf before ending up at a true hidden gem, the Old Bookbinders by the canal in Jericho. Here the beer flowed straight from the barrel and they did a special tasting tray so you could try up to six different ales at a time.
|Thanks to my lovely cousin for supplying these photos|
A couple of years after this, I began to find myself in Oxford more regularly. In trying to get himself a job nearer to me in London, my boyfriend (a different and better one, now my husband) had ended up working for Swindon Borough Council. He had been in Carlisle before, so pretty much anywhere in the country would have been nearer to London. So it was a bit of a shame, really, that he ended up in Swindon. I will be careful what I say here, since I know that at least one of my friends is Swindon born and bred, but, well, as a 1960s new town it’s not the nicest place in the country. But it does have a good designer outlet shopping mall and a Magic Roundabout. My boyfriend was frantically writing up his PhD at the time, so it was probably good that Swindon didn’t offer too much in the way of distraction. Often when I was visiting, we would not spend very much time in Swindon at all, but instead head out for the day to Bath, Avebury, the Cotswolds or Oxford.
And when the PhD writing reached its peak and my boyfriend could no longer spare full weekends for me, we would meet just for the day in Oxford, with me hopping on the coach from London Victoria. It worked out very well. There was a lot of drinking – often in the aforementioned ale houses, and often before lunch. Sometimes we would buy a picnic of bread and cheese from the indoor covered market and take it to the river, University Parks or botanical gardens to be washed down with a bottle of wine. One evening we did stay over, and ended our dinner with a nightcap of a chocolate cocktail which was so delicious I can still taste it today. We went for long walks and watched a lot of matinees at the Phoenix Cinema. Happy, naughty days. And no one, as far as I am aware, got murdered.