Thursday, May 2, 2013

Best Inspector Morse Episodes


Inspector Morse is paradoxically both the best of all of the popular British detective series and also the hardest to recommend to friends.

It is one of the hardest to recommend for quite a few reasons.  The outfits and hair styles are dated (and not charmingly so). The video and sound quality is poor by today's standards (if practically 4K compared to the Hickson Miss Marples).   The stories take their time to unfold.   So Foyle's War might instead be for those wanting something with gravitas and historic weight, and Midsomer Murders to those wanting something lighter.

Nonetheless Morse is, well, Morse.  Or more specifically, Morse is John Thaw.  Inspector Morse is no ensemble show (although the supporting regulars are serviceable and Lewis is as affable as ever).  Instead, Thaw turns in one wonderful performance after the next.  (He owns the role, unlike his far-too-smiley Kavanagh performances, which may in fact be more aligned with his off-screen personality.)

If there is a candidate for best supporting actor in the series, it would be Oxford itself.  The architecture and culture permeate every scene.  And the writing, in plots and characters. demands re-watching .  One also  appreciates the music and Morse's flat (so the combination of the two is near perfection.)

Here are some favorite episodes (or characters or scenes or...):
  • Last Seen Wearing - Morse's best line, "We ought to be able to arrest him for his taste",  after surveying a suspect's flat.  The headmaster gives a nearly-comedic dramatic performance (and in one scene in a very nice Irish Fisherman's sweater).
  • Last Bus to Woodstock - Oxford politics; pub murder; an old Volvo; and perhaps Morse's best withering glance.
  • Ghost in the Machine -  A supremely snobbish and delightful performance by Patricia Hodge;  a discussion of appropriateness of school ties worn as belts; and Morse's commentary on the distastefulness of social envy. This might be a good "first episode" to watch.
  • Deceived by Flight - Simply marvelous cricket scenes with equally marvelous cricket clothing.
  • Driven to Distraction - A love of the Mark 2; creepy; Morse on the edge.
  • Happy Families - Two dreadful grown sons (one of whom is played by Martin Clunes, Doc Martin)  with the most enviable knitwear.  And a moat. 
  • The Day of the Devil -  By far the creepiest of all, complete with church pipe organs, vicars and the underground of Oxford.
  • Twilight of the Gods -  Sir John Gielgud using Oxford England and Oxford Mississippi in the same sentence; and the always wonderful Robert Hardy.
  • Death Is Now My Neighbour - Richard Briers (Hector Naismith MacDonald from Monarch of the Glen), Roger Allam (who would later be in Endeavor), and Maggie Steed more than make up for Holley Chant's American accent. Oxford politics and the reveal of Morse's first name.
And my honorable mentions are:
  • The Last Enemy -  Good Guernsey in the opening scene; impressive Master's quarters; and bespoke clues.
  • The Infernal Serpent - Terrible topic but stars the wonderful Geoffrey Palmer  (Lionel from As Time Goes By).
  • The Sins of the Fathers - Morse solving a crime at a brewery. 

33 comments:

Greenfield said...

My Mom adoooooores Morse! She's always watching them over again on PBS. I enjoyed the ones I've seen, and will now go back and find the rest. Foyle's War I never could get into, and I like to think I have a good attention span.

Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brien? I will make the (unseemly!) boast of having worked my way deliciously through the entire series.

Bottom Paint Day!! :)

Bitsy said...

Oh, I do love Morse, and was sad to see him go. I also enjoy Lewis, who can have a biting wit of his own. Another series I would like to see again is the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes.

Anonymous said...

I wondered if you might share your thoughts on the Dead of Jericho.

What is your impression of it given that it was the first of the series?

Beth said...

The Morse series was and is the best PBS series ever.
The stories, John Thaw and the MUSIC -----what a wonderful combination.

NCJack said...

Never much got into Morse, but strangely am a big Lewis fan.

KCP said...

ITV has a show called Endeavour which is a spinoff of Inspector Morse. I do have to say it is fabulous and takes place during the sixties.

I would also suggest watching Whitechapel, which is also on ITV. It's a current, gritty drama that incorporates modern crimes with historical precedents. It stars the brilliant Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis. I don't think it will be on PBS, but if you live in the States, you can watch it online.

NEW Communications said...

Loved "Foyle's War" and was so sorry when it wrapped up. Morse and the Lewis followup are excellent. Thanks goodness there is still some good television out there!

Jim said...

One of my favorite series, although I have to say my all-time favorite is "Campion." Peter Davison as Campion and Brian Glover as Lugg were just great in that.

Anonymous said...

These episodes are mostly shot in St. Albans. The only true Oxford scenes are the outdoor shots of the Catte St. bridge, the Sheldonian etc.

BlueTrain said...

British TV is all my wife seems to watch anymore. I have to admit that if I allowed myself any time in front of the television, I would probably enjoy them, too. However, I have trouble understanding a lot of the dialogue. I had the same trouble in real life when visiting there summer before last, sometimes to my embarrassment.

Of all those police mysteries, I think I enjoy the one set in the Carribean, whatever the name of it is. Auf Jamaica in der Karibik?

Anonymous said...

Morse is wonderful! That white gray hair, that car... Also love Marple, Poirot (for the Art Deco interiors), and Foyle. Not overly fond of Lewis but think that Laurence Fox should have a show "Hathaway." Right now the only thing comparable is the Bletchley Circle. More TV like this, please!

Rachel said...

I really must watch Morse now, I love Lewis. Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders and the new Sherlock are my favorite shows. The adoration of the Mother Country must be the one thing we all here share, even if we can't agree on what to wear.

Sartre said...

Funny, but you left off two of my favorites, "Cherubim & Seraphim" (Morse's niece commits suicide) and "The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn" (a murder surrounding a very Oxonian version of the Educational Testing Service, where Colin Dexter used to work; also, best Morse episode title in my opinion).

Also, I would echo the comment above about Endeavor. It follows Morse's early years and is terrific. I will not spoil things by telling you what "Endeavor" refers to.

EdinburghGirl said...

I have just been fortunate to receive a complete set of Morse (a gift from my kittens for Mother's Day!) and I'm so looking forward to seeing them all again. I agree with your choices of favorite episodes but would add one more: Fat Chance. The depiction of the female characters is strong and complex. I missed Morse when it left the air but am now enjoying Lewis immensely.

Flo said...

This is one I need to add to my list of things to watch! I'm kind of mad at my local PBS station, they got us hooked on Doc Martin and then quit showing it! I guess I'm going to have to rent it or look for it online if I want to see the rest.

Muffy Aldrich said...

@Greenfield - I am not familiar with the Patrick O'Brien novels but thanks to you I am now.

@Anonymous 9:52 - I found it to be too dark and stilted for my taste, as some of the earliest tended to be.

@Sartre - I agree with you - both episodes were very good, and the "The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn" especially so, and compensated for the scratchy production values. And I always enjoy seeing the husband of Hyacinth Bucket in other roles. I also enjoyed Endeavour quite a bit. (And there was an appreciated reference to "The Endeavor Award" in the Lewis pilot episode.)

Anonymous said...

You are so right Muffie about Inspector Morse. It was a wonderful series with Oxford as a backdrop, the appropriate classical music for each episode, and Morse's ability to complete the "London Times" crossword puzzle in pen while simultaneously solve the crime. Continue to miss John Thaw although Lewis does a fine job as Inspector.

Emsworth said...

1. I miss Inspector Morse, and like Inspector Lewis, but for my money a star is born in Hathaway.

2. How fortunate we are that they TV series is actually better than the novels -- the very opposite of, for example, Monarch of the Glen (which is OK on TV, but the novel is just wonderful, the closest thing I have seen to Wodehouse himself).

Clarence Emsworth

Kingstonian said...

Ah Oxford ! Making one's way through the Blackbird Leys estate to get to Cowley and work.

Greenfield said...

Speaking of books, Muffy; all "Sociology Majors" who got something from _Albion's Seed_ will find a most enlightening update in Charles Murray's _Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010_. VERY germane topics indeed, and to those of you from outside New England, trying to parse what tribe you've fallen in with, WELL! I'd sure love to hear some discussion here about THIS tome; wicked good. I think I now have a handle on what has befallen us . . .

Ian from Downunder said...

Preaching to the converted here Muffy.
Have you seen any of the "Lewis" episodes? Lewis has a very different relationship with Sgt Hathaway that Morse had with Lewis but the series is very watchable none the less and as you pointed out, the city of Oxford still stars.
Every year at about October, I order calendars of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Boston and New England.

On another matter, I have a favour to ask. Please don't end your wonderful blog. Please!

Rachel said...

Greenfield...I found Coming Apart, interesting. I still hold that money is not an indicator of "class" but it does affect how one views the world. It can isolate you from the outside world which can be a blessing but can also be a curse. In order to have true empathy you must have a personal relationship with others. Those people with "Free Tibet" bumper stickers have probably never been to Appalachia and seen the dire conditions their own countrymen live in. Our suburbs have become velvet ghettos, keeping others not like us out, but at the same time keeping us locked in.

Greenfield said...

Rachel: I have recently run head-first into the fact that there are not only "Two Americas," but quite possibly 3 or 4. It's become clear from this book why politically, economically, idealogically, there is a vast disconnect.

These are for many people uncomfortable truths. The myth of American equality of access and means is so greatly ingrained that terms like cognitive "sorting" of the population make a lot of skins crawl. Like the author of _Coming Apart_, I don't think it's going to change--I actually think it's representative of most of history. Think England or France, let alone feudal Japan. . .

I confess I don't feel "deprived of mainstream culture" by opting not to consume a great deal of product, cultural and sartorial, that I consider dreck or adopting attitudes I consider backward. What CAN we do? ;)

Rachel said...

Greenfield... I have enjoyed talking to you as much as anyone here at TDP, how sad to think we might not have Muffy around.
I still need to finish Coming Apart, but I am sure it will be a book I won't be able to put down. Thank heavens school is almost out and I can get to my stack of must read books, of course you must give me more book titles since I can never have enough.

JSprouse said...

Rachel & Greenfield-
A rumored conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway: Scott- "the rich are not like us....
Ernest- No, they have more money. There is a "cast" system in the USA, and we are part of it.
Favorite BBC PBS series: "As Time Goes By". I have enjoyed the various detective series' too. From a sentimental old Preppy.

Greenfield said...

Rachel & JSprouse:

I brought this up here, as we have all just admitted yet again to pretty much confining our TV habits to PBS and English offerings on DVD. I hear of more and more friends every day doing the same and cancelling cable or dish.

In contrast, according to Mr. Murray's book (and he backs up everything he says with lots of numbers), "mainstream" America is still watching AT LEAST 24 hours a week of lowest-common-denominator commercial television. Which means most of what they get is glorification of transgressive, boorish or suggestive behavior and absolutely sickening gun violence.
This is affecting materially how Americans actually live their lives.

Murray believes there are far more important factors than income at work here, and dissects the reasons money is not synonymous with class, and vice-versa.

I don't agree with all of his conclusions necessarily, but his unblinking look at the changes to American society from 1963 to 2010 are extremely thought provoking and speak to a great many the major button-pushing topics that frequently come up here.

In fact, after reading _Coming Apart_ I wonder if Lisa Birnbach in writing "True Prep" either totally confused or, more likely, knowingly attempted to redefine "preppies" inclusive of what Murray refers to as the Cognitive Upper Class--CEO's, tech-whizzes, attorneys and doctors, professors, the major thought leaders in government and media as well as successful creative types. He identifies them as the highest tier of what David Brooks called "BoBos."

As many here have stated before they are NOT the same thing as traditional Preppies at ALL.

WrySmile said...

Muffy you realize as Lewis became Inspector after Morse and after trial and tribulation as well, so too must someone become the new 'arbiter of prep' when you give it up. Just saying.

Rachel said...

Twenty-hours of TV, oh Lord. The "Electric Babysitter" seems to be the one raising the kiddos today. My family all watched KET and the Nightly News together, none of this kids in their rooms watching a show on their own TV business.

I guess this is what happens when the "Me Generation" starts raising kids. Just dress the kiddos up in cute expensive clothes and sit their little butts in front of the TV until it's time to show them off to the neighbors.

Sarah Faragher said...

I must put an oar in briefly and agree with Greenfield that the Patrick O'Brian novels are superb. I've read the series several times (and this was when we still had a tv in the house, which is no longer the case). A general rule: less screen time = more time to read great books. We do watch some shows/films on our laptops from time to time, and yes, they are mostly British...

Sartre said...

Muffy, I watched Deceived by Flight this weekend. Did you know (or do you remember) that the main actress, Sharon Maughan, gained a cult following for those Taster's Choice commercials in the early 1990s?

I agree that the Patrick O'Brian books are wonderful but they can be somewhat tough going. Even for someone with your able seamanship I'd recommend keeping a copy of A Sea of Words close at hand.

Andrea said...

It's very interesting to look back and see not only who acted in those old episodes of Morse. But who directed them. At least two who directed episodes have gone on to direct Oscar winning films, Danny Boyle and John Madden. I must go back through some more and see who else I can find!

Monica the Garden Faerie said...

OMG, yes! Monarch of the Glen is where I recognized Richard Briers from!! I knew I knew him from the 70s show The Good Life**, but his older, Morse self seemed familiar and I couldn't place it. I love Lewis and have been watching all the old Morses. I actually find them quite modern, despite the huge computers and whatnot. Dialog not as good as Lewis and Hathaway, but I do like Morse a lot.
**Highly, highly recommend. Also, Rosemary & Thyme (starring Felicity Kendall of the Good Life many years later) is amusing if you like gardening and mysteries.

Mark said...

The thing to focus in on Morse is not the dated haircuts or the production values but the characterisation and the depth of emotion. I'm sorry, but compare any Lewis episode with Cherubim and Seraphim and you should see my point.