Jack Kibble-White on Inspector Morse and long-form crime dramas

First published March 2003

In my previous article, And the Beat Goes On, I looked at the ways in which British television police ensemble dramas have come to focus increasingly on the relationships of their main characters in preference to pursuing traditional crime drama narratives. Given that soap operas remain the most popular form of fiction on television, it should not surprise us that their influence should be felt in other forms of ensemble drama, and the concessions made by series such as The Bill and Merseybeat to character based narratives, unfolding over multiple episodes are an inevitable evolution if either series wishes to retain a large audience.

Yet all this time, the conventional crime drama has been able to attract large audiences. The last 15 years or so has seen a proliferation of drama series that have garnered high ratings whilst abiding rigidly to the rules of the crime genre. While proving that television audiences hunger for more than just soap operas, an examination of the representation of the crime genre on television reveals that it’s comparative success has been brought about by more than simply a close adherence to a particular dramatic model.

In much the same way as Thames Television’s The Bill overshadows almost all other recent British police ensemble dramas, Central Television’s Inspector Morse (1987 – 2000) has become a seminal piece of work, informing almost every single crime drama created for British television ever since. First broadcast in 1987, Inspector Morse grew out of Central Television’s controller of drama Ted Childs’ desire to create a “whodunit” series similar in quality to the BBC’s Miss Marple (1984 – 92). Inspector Morse was the vehicle by which he chose to achieve this. The series’ picturesque settings and reliance upon intellectualism instead of brute force would mark a return to an old fashioned, pre-Sweeney (1974 – 78) representation of the crime genre on television. Yet, far from being a retrograde step, Inspector Morse – in the words of critic Mark Lawson “changed the face of mainstream drama”.

Based on the novels of ex-crossword champion Colin Dexter, Morse’s transition from the printed page to television was far from comfortable. “The length, pace and tone of Inspector Morse were initially rejected by executives as a ridiculous imposition on the patience of viewers” recalls Lawson. Having made the decision to produce a television series that would be the intellectual equal of anything the BBC might produce, Ted Childs was unwilling to compromise. As such, Inspector Morse was not afraid to include ongoing visual or sonic motifs that would compliment or indeed inform the drama’s whodunit plots. The central character himself (played by the well loved John Thaw) would embrace many of these aspects, and ensure that much of the dialogue bristled with references to opera or Greek tragedy.

Of all of Inspector Morse‘s innovations, the decision to screen episodes in two-hour stints seemed the most audacious, and is now almost emblematic of the series’ aspirations. Inspector Morse attracted and sustained a large audience from its very first episode because it offered viewers an opportunity to immerse themselves in a story for a good couple of hours. Television is often derided for requiring minimal effort on the part of the viewer. Yet Inspector Morse, by the duration of its episodes alone, asked that the audience make the kind of commitment to a drama usually reserved for the broadcast of a feature film. Watching Inspector Morse though is nothing like the visceral experience of viewing a movie. In fact it seems more akin to settling down with a good paperback.

Not that Inspector Morse wanted to make the viewing experience an arduous business. On the contrary, the whodunit, is in many respects the most seductive and engaging genre of all. In essence, all dramas function by posing and resolving a question, be it “will Sharon Watts and Phil Mitchell get back together again?” or “will Duffy save the life of a sick patient?” Yet the whodunit makes its dramatic question absolutely explicit, and the quest to find the answer the all-consuming task of the dramatic hero. Furthermore, the audience is provided with an opportunity to actively participate in the piecing together of the puzzle in a manner that is not possible with most other genres. The satisfaction felt by the viewer upon beating the on-screen detective to the solution should not be undervalued as a source of entertainment.

Inspector Morse heightens the intensity of the audience’s participation by providing non-diegetic clues (such as the framing of particular shots or the choice of incidental music) that add to the complexity of the puzzle or provide additional clues, without impairing the narrative flow. Of course, such abstract storytelling devices inevitably flatter the audience, and herein lies much of Inspector Morse‘s appeal – it is intent upon making the viewer feel intelligent, using classical allusions and literary references in order to imbue the series with a veneer of intellectualism.

In many respects, Inspector Morse utilises a similar narrative trick as the long running American detective series Columbo (1972 – 95). “Some time ago I was in conversation with a television producer acquaintance of mine” recalls OTT’s Chris Diamond “when I remarked upon the remarkable success of Columbo. I thought it unusual that a show of such intricate plotting, and an hour or so in length could have been such a success in the US. He responded by telling of the craftiness of the show’s structure. In Columbo, the audience is shown at the very outset who the murderer is and how they accomplished their crime, so the only man in the dark is the crumpled lieutenant himself. What the audience is waiting for is the dénouement when Columbo confronts the murderer with the piece of evidence that brings him, or her, to justice.”

Inspector Morse might not reveal the identity of the murderer at the beginning of the episode, but by explicitly trading on classical stories (such as Oedipus Rex in the “The Dead of Jericho” broadcast 6 January 1987), the viewer is able to follow the thread of the investigation without having to understand each twist in the plot. Simply by having a general understanding of the relevant narrative being invoked one is able to keep apace with the on screen developments even when failing to keep up with specific plot developments.

Inspector Morse quickly established itself as a prestige television series, flattering audiences with visual extravagance and intelligent writing (Ted Childs had been keen to attract quality scriptwriters and was able to secure the likes of Julian Mitchell and Anthony Minghella). Furthermore, by consistently attracting impressive audiences right until the final story “The Remorseful Day” in 2000, Inspector Morse proved beyond any doubt that a significant appetite existed in the British viewer for timeless, intellectually driven criminal mysteries. As we shall see, many of the series that followed in Morse‘s wake would similarly eschew car chases, violence and (perhaps more significantly) exploration of contemporary social issues, in an attempt to recreate Inspector Morse‘s ability to captivate audiences by focussing purely on the riddles, clues and deceptions intrinsic to a classic whodunit.

Whereas, Inspector Morse portrayed crime rather like a crossword puzzle, Prime Suspect (1991 – 97) and Cracker (1993 – 96) used the crime story narrative as a mechanism to explore less prosaic matters. Cracker in particular blurred genre distinctions being in turns an examination of contemporary social issues, a dyed in the wool crime series and a platform for emotional exploration. Originally envisaged by Producer Gub Neal as a modern day Sherlock Holmes (in which the sleuth would employ modern day analytical techniques to solve crimes), Cracker can perhaps best be described as not a whodunit, but a “whydunit”.

“The best stories are those where the killer have such a good reason to kill that even if the viewers can’t condone their behaviour, they can at least understand them and care about them” observed series creator Jimmy McGovern. Inspector Morse had demonstrated that viewers were willing to follow complicated storylines, and to the minds of many involved in Cracker it seemed to follow that such a hitherto unrecognised maturity in viewer tastes should extend not just to narrative complexity but difficult social issues too.

“We realized there was a huge hunger for intelligent drama,” explained lead actor Robbie Coltrane “and we were all committed to making something a bit different. We all need a dose of feel-good escapism like The Darling Buds of May from time to time, but we felt that too many TV programmes patronise their audience … In Cracker the interest isn’t who, because the viewer already knows, but why and it makes people think about their own prejudices and fears. We all have some experience of sexism, racism, homophobia and religious persecution; we all have fears about loved ones dying, and so why should they not be challenged and explored on prime time TV?”

The emotional scope of Cracker far exceeded that usually addressed within crime drama, yet Jimmy McGovern (who not only created the series but wrote six out of the 10 stories) was able to marry traditional episodic dramatic structure, high drama and an ear for authentic dialogue within the confines of one serial. McGovern’s skill was not only to weave engaging, original stories whilst adhering to the dramatic convention of the genre, but to allow his characters a degree of free will and therefore believability that cannot usually be afforded within a type of drama that relies so heavily on the on the repercussions of an initial crime to totally dictate character behaviour.

This honesty of characterisation allowed McGovern to create theatrical crescendos without betraying his contrivances. The second series ended with a suspect in a criminal investigation threatening Fitz’s wife (Barbara Flynn) whilst colleague and mistress Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville) simultaneously pulled a gun on her rapist and workmate Jimmy Beck (Lorcan Cranitch). Over the top and sensationalist surely, yet somehow it worked, and didn’t seem derivative of the genre either. Cracker‘s most significant contribution to the development of the crime drama genre on British television is its ability to meet all of the requirements of one of the most satisfying forms of drama, yet still break free from its narrative restrictions too.

It’s telling that, unlike Inspector Morse, few series have attempted a recreation of the Cracker mould. The series itself was remade for an American audience, and whilst the re-named ABC series Fitz (1997 – 98) gave some indication that the programme’s central format could sustain reproduction, its failure to secure a sizeable audience suggested that Cracker without Jimmy McGovern or Robbie Coltrane was not really a viable proposition (although scheduling the first series against Seinfeld can’t have helped too much either).

Anglia Television’s Touching Evil (1997 – 99) is often cited as being strongly influenced by Cracker. Both programmes share a brooding, often gothic atmosphere, yet there is little else similar between the two. Perhaps the connection has more to do with the fact that Touching Evil creator Paul Abbot contributed two episodes to the final series of Cracker as well as penning the concluding Cracker story, the one-off special “White Ghost”. Regardless, Touching Evil was able to acquit itself quite admirably over the course of its three series (it was the 14th most popular drama in 1997).

Whilst the first “post-Morse” crime drama might have been transmitted as early as 1987 (TVS’ The Wexford Mysteries), A Touch of Frost (1992 – present) remains the most significant in terms of longevity and success. Produced by Yorkshire television, the lineage between Frost and Morse is indicative of how genre dramas can be analysed and refined to bring renewed or even increased success to the next iteration.

So is it just a case of sticking to a formula? Mark Lawson doesn’t think so: “This programme DNA, though” as Lawson puts it, “generally only lasts for a couple of generations of schedules before being replaced by stronger new seeds”. His implication that such programme making always has to abide by the law of diminishing returns is somewhat disproven, however, by the sustained success of A Touch of Frost. On the surface, the series appears an identi-kit version of Inspector Morse. Like the Central Television Production, A Touch of Frost consists of conventional whodunit mysteries initially adapted from the novels of RD Wingfield, played out in a largely rural environment over the course of a leisurely two-hour episode. Like Inspector Morse, episodes of A Touch of Frost were broadcast sparingly (thus imbuing each with an element of “specialness”) and were usually penned by prestigious writers of the calibre of Malcolm Bradbury.

The episodes in the main were less challenging than Inspector Morse, rejecting intertextual references and non-diegetic clues in favour of straightforward storytelling. Whereas Morse was shown to be a lover of the High Arts, Frost (played by David Jason – arguably the only actor on British television more beloved of the viewer than Thaw) was resolutely down to earth, often espousing a kind of “no nonsense” philosophy that one presumes the programme makers thought would find an echo of recognition and agreement in the average viewer. Inspector Morse had already proven that viewers were willing to commit to long-form dramas, and so A Touch of Frost did not need to flatter, or convince of its intrinsic intellectual worth to sustain an audience. To draw upon the analogy used earlier, viewing A Touch of Frost was as equally immersive an experience as watching Inspector Morse, but whereas the former retained some literary pretensions, A Touch of Frost sought to be nothing more than a good “page-turner”.

The BBC’s Dalziel and Pascoe (1996 – present) has similarly benefited from the success of Inspector Morse. It is difficult to believe though that this series (once again adaptations from crime novels – this time by Reginald Hill) began life on ITV with comedians Hale and Pace in the lead roles. The 1994 production of Hill’s “A Pinch of Snuff” failed to attract either a significant audience, or critical acclaim. “At the time it seemed much more disastrous than it turned out to be,” recalls Reginald Hill, “because the BBC were waiting in the wings to pick it up. Hale and Pace wanted to try their hands at more dramatic roles, as a lot of comedians had successfully done at the time. I just wish they’d tried it with someone else’s books.” Evidently, whilst viewers had been able to accept both Robbie Coltrane and David Jason in serious roles, Hale and Pace (whose comedy contained none of the edginess of Coltrane or the characterisations of Jason) were a bridge too far.

The BBC, perhaps becoming envious that quality crime drama was becoming more and more closely associated with ITV, ensured that their Dalziel and Pascoe adhered closely to the “Morse” template. “It is an outstanding programme, with an outstanding cast and the technical production is excellent,” asserted Cameron Borland when he reviewed the series for OTT. “The photography is outstanding in certain episodes (‘An April Shroud’ and ‘On Beulah Height’ spring to mind) and the narrative is always taut and well handled. This is a gem of a show and ranks amongst the finest detective shows shown on television.” Arguably based on more complex source material than either Inspector Morse, or A Touch of Frost, Dalziel and Pascoe still found eventual television success by adhering to long episodes, rural backdrops, timeless characters, and by once again largely eschewing contemporary issues in favour of recounting a “pure” whodunit. That the first three episodes could boast the dazzling writing talent of Alan Plater and Malcolm Bradbury, indicates that from day one, the BBC were determined to produce a quality production. Resultantly Dalziel and Pascoe has again performed consistently well in terms of ratings.

Beyond the programmes mentioned, there have been a number of other productions that can be traced back to the format derived by Inspector Morse. Productions such as the BBC’s Silent Witness (1996 – 2001) and Scottish Television’s McCallum (1995 – 98) attempted to explore the notion of creating crime dramas depicting the use of modern day analytical techniques (as explored in Cracker), exchanging psychological methodology for pathology in the process, but in the main, shared little in common with the McGovern drama. Both series performed acceptably without either ever reaching the peaks of Morse or Frost and can be seen as genre misfits within the lineage we are tracing.

Of course, Scottish Television has been producing its own series, Taggart (1983 – present), for almost 20 years. Undeniably part of Taggart‘s ongoing appeal has been its ability to adapt to suit the television environment around it. Scottish Television has recently announced that the next series will revert from two-hour episodes to 60 minutes, the result of a period of intense “reinvigoration” for the programme; perhaps signifying that the production team believe the days of the long-form crime drama are finally drawing to a close.

At the end of 2002 the BBC were broadcasting the second series of Waking the Dead (2001 – present) and a second outing of Messiah (2001 – present). Both series represent a shift in programme makers’ attitude towards crime drama, relying instead on popular movies (Seven and Silence of the Lambs, respectively) for inspiration rather than previous television series. This change is significant representing a shift away from the whodunit in favour of embracing the crime thriller. Waking The Dead performed well over the course of its second series, attracting up to 7.3 million viewers (which is just 200,000 behind the Corporation’s ratings stalwart Holby City), whereas a repeat of Messiah earlier in the year attracted a creditable 4.3 million viewers.

ITV meanwhile held true to their Morse roots and enjoyed some success with Midsomer Murders (1997 – present). Avowedly formulaic, Midsomer Murders is in many ways the epitome of the evolutionary process we described earlier. It’s “very ‘My Mum’” as Guardian critic Gareth McLean puts it, in other words, unchallenging, but pleasant enough to watch. None of the literary aspirations of Inspector Morse remain. Instead the attempt to broaden the appeal of the Morse formula that we recognised within A Touch of Frost has been pushed even further here.

Broadcast on a Sunday evening, Midsomer Murders has sought to align itself not just with the lineage dating back to Inspector Morse, but also with those series most closely associated with ITV’s Sunday night line-up. As such there is more than a little of Heartbeat (1992 – present) about the residents of the fictional Midsomer. The inclusion of John Nettles, previously associated with the BBC’s highly successful and picturesque detective series Bergerac (1981 – 91), provides yet another element, drawing in fans of that earlier series. Invoking the ghosts of some of television’s most successful programmes seems to be a winning formula for Midsomer Murders, with up to 8.5 million viewers tuning in to watch the most recent series.

“There are very few shows which make a permanent impact on the television gene pool, their characteristics visible elsewhere for decades” claims Lawson. Inspector Morse is undoubtedly one of those shows. Whilst the BBC might look increasingly to the cinema for inspiration, it is evident that whodunits will continue to proliferate on British television whilst the public appetite remains high. Perhaps what we are seeing now is the beginnings of a sea change in which other forms of crime drama (the thriller, the heist etc) will grow in dominance. However, if past trends are anything to go by, British crime drama will fail to significantly evolve until such time the audience grows weary of the current programmes. Only then might a series as trailblazing as Inspector Morse emerge and set the genre off on a new – and unexpected – course.