How widespread is addiction to TV crime series? I suffer from it mildly. Fingers hover on the record button. Not box-sets for Christmas though. Outbreaks of repeats step up the temptation in the pandemic.
You might view crime stories as modern morality tales. Good for you, exploring values. The ‘police procedural’ has certain conventions. You know what to expect: the corpse, the cars with flashing lights, much ducking under police tape, the morgue, the pathologist with the body under the sheet, the red-herring suspect, the fretting Chief Superintendent, the briefing, photos of suspects stuck on the white-board, the rule-breaker detective ‘taken off the case’, and the denouement in which he or she reveals the murderer. With permutations and side-plots, perseverance in adversity has its reward. Emperors are shown to have no clothes. Accolades are given for moral purpose and quality sleuthing. Wickedness is punished. Justice – usually – done. And for the viewer there’s the competition to spot the villain, to demonstrate judgement.
At one end of the dramatic spectrum are Agatha Christie’s immaculate Poirot and Captain Hastings putting the formula into formulaic: all gentility, faux Belgian accent, nice dresses, lovely old cars, posh houses, and the seaside hotels you didn’t go to as a child. At the other is bleak Nordic noir, dress casual, plenty of gore and gloom, wan faces, beards, stubble and angst, super-nasty serial killers, and everyone going about their business in appalling weather conditions. Noir must be written by authors with a grudge against Scandinavian Tourist Boards. In the middle of the spectrum is Morse, well-dressed, owner of a red 24-litre Jaguar Mark 2, one old flame but with currently unsatisfactory, tentative relationships with women, rude and grumpy, working in comfortable Oxford with an ever expanding list of grudges headed by dons, but adept at crossword puzzles, cussedness, complex plots and never buying his round.
In branding a drama series, the detective’s location has become increasingly important. Colin Dexter’s Morse is to Oxford as Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti is to Venice: both above the fray, yet good citizens fighting corruption in high places, and for Morse at high table. You need to watch German television, to meet Brunetti’s happy family and devoted wife , Paola (an English literature lecturer as was Donna Leon) and excellent cook – all a marked departure from the usual unhappy, hard-drinking, take-away- snatching, by death, choice or divorce, single detective. And Morse of the liquid lunches does occasionally goes free-range to Australia and Italy with ‘Robby’ Lewis his long-suffering dogsbody sergeant, the nearest Morse gets to a buddy. But what really sets Morse apart, and to a lesser extent Brunetti, is Culture. Morse is a cultured cop. The series starring John Thaw ran from 1987 to 2000, a time when there were few graduates in the police force. Brunetti simply soaks up the Venetian culture around him by osmosis, and revels in its food culture courtesy of Paola.
The relationship between Lewis and Morse carries the series. Lewis, played by Kevin Whately, methodical, even tempered, cricket-lover, respectful of the law and police regulations is a foil to Morse’s brilliant, intuitive and aggressive character. The dynamics of their relationship, hints of the UK’s North-South class divide, reflect cultural and educational difference, the key component of social difference. Whately’s Hexham accent nicely conveys Lewis’ lower-middle class origins in Newcastle. Morse jeers at him for reading the Daily Mirror. But we believe in them; they aren’t just class stereotypes.
Like George Orwell, Morse doesn’t feel comfortable fitting into the social rankings of the – changing – times. On the one hand, he has the Oxford College Masters and some dons who have weaponised their erudition – and are usually up to no good. On the other he has Lewis who is able and thorough but doesn’t know his Donazetti from his Dolcetto, enjoys is fish and chips, and is forever needing to absent himself from police duties to look after ‘my lad’. His boss, Freemason Chief Superintendent Strange is socially insecure, uses ‘matey’ a lot, approves of Lewis, and is somewhat in awe of the Oxford upper classes.
But this is ITV so in case the viewer hadn’t noticed these cultural differences, Morse is frequently seen playing classical music at home, or in ecstasy at concerts and operas. You can read a lot of emotions into John Thaw’s expressive face and the director doesn’t spare the close-ups. If a woman appears who combines singing talent with good looks we know Morse will fall in love, often failing to follow up kisses or notice that the latest Prima Donna has been lying to him. But he also detects fake landscape paintings, quotes from classical literature and fires back Bible references at sinister clergymen.
What makes Morse much more than the run-of-the-mill police procedural is precisely his lack of procedures. He seems to spend a lot of time at home thinking or drinking to get his brain fired up. And he drinks real ales in a pint mug rather than martinis shaken not stirred - even if he rarely pays for them. Nor does he, unlike Poirot, solve the mystery or reveal the criminal before a wealthy and dull audience of suspects in the inevitable set-piece ending. Part of the success of the series is that Morse encounters a wide array of interesting and plausible characters from a variety of backgrounds during his investigations. This is an England we recognise.
Morse reflects the changes in society underway a quarter century ago: Anglican women priests, progressive prison reforms, the sexual revolution. Like Orwell he is inconsistent, telling off a police cadet who is the Chief Superintendent’s pet for an illegal phone tap but letting Lewis walk away from one of his own dodgy searches of premises without a warrant. And like Orwell he responds to a certain type of social integrity and sides with the underdog. Morse displays a wider range of emotion than Orwell ‘s fictional characters. Anger, search for and fear of intimacy, cynicism and fervent truth-telling, loneliness, genuine compassion, meanness, admiration, and sadness. And throughout how you talk, what you read, what you drink, Culture and culture are the great signifiers of class.
Before you ask, Morse today would be ferociously Remain, Lewis tempted by Leave, and socially insecure Strange, an uncertain Brexiteer justifiably fearful of losing access to EU’s store of criminal data.
See TheArticle 17/12/20