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How Oxford's finest beats Prime Suspect to the punch
Radio might be the most intimate medium but TV is the most sociable; a convivial presence in every living room we’ve ever known, ready with gossip, information, comfort or distraction. In The Friend in the Corner we return to significant TV shows to find out what they did for us, and how they pulled it off.
The Friend in the Corner: Inspector Morse
Adapted from Colin Dexter’s novels, Inspector Morse was first shown in 1987 on ITV and ran, off and on, until 2000. National treasure John Thaw plays Chief Inspector Morse, a dyspeptic high-functioning alcoholic bachelor whose grumpiness disguises a passionate bromance with his junior, Sergeant Lewis, played by Kevin Whately. Together they stomp around Oxford trying to work out how it can be possible that the Classics Fellow from Madeup College has been stabbed with a ceremonial dagger stolen from the Ashmolean, again.
The Oxford setting of Inspector Morse - and this is university Oxford, not the Cowley Road Mini plant Oxford - is important: this is a show that places great weight on academic cleverness, tradition and privilege. You know that Morse is an intellectual because he likes classical music, poetry and paintings. (Lewis is Northern, and has no truck with such things.) Morse’s social life consists of opera and public lectures and Old Boys’ cricket matches, and yes he did go to Oxford, actually. Truly, this is the sophisticated high life.
Inspector Morse was never a great detective show, if we’re honest. Its real genius was its pitch-perfect depiction of late-’80s aspirational middle-class aesthetics. It’s basically Merchant Ivory with stereo speakers, a collection of period-specific bourgeois signifiers suspended in amber: linen suits, Laura Ashley curtains, Welsh dressers; tasteful landscapes and ebony-effect furniture stretching off into the distance.
It brilliantly cossetted the viewer’s ego, serving up an entirely predictable and frequently hokey detective format with a top-dressing of Wagner and crossword puzzles (and a surprisingly artful, spaced-out title sequence). Morse, helpfully and despite his plainly enormous brain, is not one of those savant detectives who knows the solution before the viewer; in fact he is usually several steps behind us. Sitting at home with M&S hummus and crudites and a Brentford Arts Centre membership card, murmuring ‘oh that’s Keats isn’t it?’, the viewer could feel pretty good about themselves.
Where did you watch it? In the television room (as it was always called) of my childhood home. Around the time that Morse first became appointment telly, my parents’ financial situation suddenly improved and our house in London, which had been furnished from local skips and charity shops, began to fill up with the accoutrements of tasteful boho affluence: a Saab (second hand, but glorious), an antique oak farmhouse table, a dinner service from Heals. I remember sitting at the fancy table eating a Hobnob (another new feature) off a fancy Heals side plate and thinking: well, this is different. That feeling - which was spreading across a booming south-east England at the time - is very strongly connected to my memories of watching Morse.
What sort of friend was it? Morse (the show, definitely not the character) is the friend you’d give your spare house keys to; the one you’d ring at 3am asking for a lift to A&E; the kind of person who knows where to find the little water jug that came with the iron. Dependable, predictable and very comforting.
Why did you watch it?
While writing this piece I watched the first few seasons of Prime Suspect, thinking it might make an interesting comparator as another high-profile TV detective show from the same period. And let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen: Prime Suspect is utter bobbins. Despite Helen Mirren, Lynda La Plante, directors including Tom Hooper and John Madden, and appearances from everyone from Peter Capaldi to Ralph Fiennes, it is a pompous, stupid, badly-written mess from start to finish. Most of my viewing time was spent shouting ‘HOW DID YOU GET TOM WILKINSON TO ACT THAT BADLY’. So when I say Morse is dependable, I mean that while it hasn’t held up brilliantly, it’s nowhere near as bad as Prime Suspect.
It’s interesting to think about why this is, and I think the answer lies in the respective series’ attitudes towards contemporary issues (or ‘ishoos’, as we used to say in the ‘80s). Morse’s commitment to late-’80s aesthetics might have been second to none, but the series was markedly uninterested in real-world politics, or indeed in the real world. There are no sideswipes at Thatcher or raging polemics about Hillsborough (as in Cracker, another totemic ‘80s detective show; but Cracker is a more complex beast and we will save it for another day).
Prime Suspect - which could have been just another mostly brainless but passable police-procedural-with-a-twist - is driven mad by the writers’ determination to be contemporary. The entire show is built around the struggle of being a woman in the workplace, and within that framework each series has a second newsy theme that is pursued to the point of lunacy. In the first series the theme is sex work, and every single copper is either involved in sex trade or is covering for the people who are. In the second series, our theme is racism and every single character is either spouting or enduring racist abuse. In the third series, which is centred around gay men (no lesbians, obviously), the entire in-house police squad has suddenly stopped being explicitly racist and become explicitly homophobic instead. Switchover day in the staff canteen must have been hell.
Not a single scene in Prime Suspect passes without a random character morphing into the walking, talking personification of something or other. One copper is given an ‘Actually, I AM gay, Dave’ speech that recalls nothing so much as the episode of ‘The Bureau’ in which Patrick Marber’s co-workers walk out in solidarity when he’s sacked for being gay (“I’m going. And I don’t even work here!”). Actually, that’s not fair. ‘The Bureau’ is much more acute than Prime Suspect and the acting is in a different league.
Morse, in contrast, remains just about watchable because of its total dislocation from anything that has ever actually happened, and its setting in a dreamy never-never land of cheerily submissive college porters, High Table dinners and art exhibitions. Lady-women professionals pop up being distracting and unnatural, but Morse takes them in his stride, other than occasionally trying to shag them much as a dog tries to shag a chair leg: good-naturedly and without any expectation of fulfilment. Thaw and Whately are given the space to actually act, and to develop their characters, without constantly being interrupted by the opinion pages of The Guardian.
Morse has nothing whatsoever to say about the tempora or the mores, thank god. It just pats you warmly on the back for knowing what the words mean. The only thing that is remotely realistic about Inspector Morse is the main character’s bad-tempered commitment to real ale, which will feel almost traumatically authentic to anyone who has ordered a white wine in a CAMRA pub.
Who were you in the show? Probably Barbara Flynn, who pops up as one of Morse’s romantic targets. I’m usually Barbara Flynn. (Although not Barbara Flynn in Cracker, confusingly; she’s far too much of a minx.)
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For period policing with a gun instead of a pint, check out our piece on the Frank Sinatra movie The Detective and its sequel, Die Hard: