Inspector Morse is one of Britain's most successful literary television adaptations. I first watched it while grieving for my father, and will always associate it with that timeby Jason Cowley / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Memories of Morse
I watched Inspector Morse for the first time shortly after my father died suddenly in January 1991. In those stunned, time-slowed days that followed his death, as visitors came and went from the house in mournful procession, I found myself at a loss as to what to do—I certainly had no desire to read or to work, and yet the days stretched before me, empty and long. It was then, one evening, that I chanced upon an episode of Inspector Morse, called “The Ghost in the Machine”; I guess I was intrigued as much by the Cartesian title as anything else. It featured a wintry Patricia Hodge as an unhappy big-house aristocrat who, assisted by her lover, an old Harrovian dropout, enacts a macabre revenge on the husband who has cruelly neglected her for many years. Lord Hanbury is impotent. He and his wife sleep in separate rooms and, when he is not scheming to become master of an Oxford college, he works in an attic room on erotic portraits of the family au pair. These naturally disgust his wife.
There was something about the atmosphere of the piece and the melancholy of the central character—the great Morse himself, as played by John Thaw—that fitted my mood; something sad and escapist about it all, like reading an AE Housman poem. From then, I watched Morse whenever I could and sought out the original novels by Colin Dexter (he published 13 in all, the first—Last Bus to Woodstock—in 1975).
The books are quite different from their television adaptations: more low-toned, less grandly languorous—rather conventional whodunits, in fact, in the classical English tradition of Agatha Christie, in which an intellectual puzzle is posed and, after a long parade of suspects and many wrong turns, resolution happily reached. There is little of the politics or social commentary in Dexter that you find in the detective fiction of PD James, and none of the misanthropy that is such a feature of the high-tech American crime fiction of Thomas Harris and James Ellroy.
There are also differences of detail between the novels and the adaptations. Morse’s partner Lewis is a middle-aged Welshman in the books rather than the naive and amiable Geordie portrayed by Kevin Wheatley, and Morse drives a battered old Lancia, not a maroon vintage Jaguar. What is largely the same, however, is the character of the chief inspector. In both the books and on television, Morse is an irascible loner, with a profound interest in classical music. He is a pedant about grammar and correct usage, a classicist and, like his creator, a master of crosswords. As a young man he left Oxford without a degree after falling disastrously in love, and subsequently never married. (There are echoes, again, of Housman’s doomed romantic struggles as an undergraduate and failure in his final exams.)
The character was inhabited so completely and convincingly by the late John Thaw that it is impossible now to read the novels without thinking of him in the lead role. “Luck plays a far greater part in life than most of us care to acknowledge, and we had the wonderful good fortune in having John Thaw play Morse,” Dexter told me. “As far as I’m concerned, no one else but John could have played him, or will play him. It will stay that way so long as the books remain in copyright, after which I would no longer care.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first episode of Morse, The Dead of Jericho, which was written by Anthony Minghella. In total, there were 33 two-hour films, spread across seven series and five special episodes. I don’t think there’s an episode that I have not seen, but I hope that I may be wrong—and nowadays whenever I think about the series I cannot separate it from the circumstances in which I watched that first episode. This leads me to wonder, had my mood been different back then, whether I would have found the whole thing quite as beguiling as I did.
ITV3 will be broadcasting an “Inspector Morse weekend” on 28th-29th April
Japan’s new literary star
When one thinks of Japanese literature, one thinks, for better or worse, of men: of the Nobel laureates Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe, and of those other writers also widely read in the west, Shusaku Endo, Yukio Mishima and, most recently, Haruki Murakami. But the most exciting young literary talent in Japan is, at present, a young woman—Nanae Aoyama. At 24, she has just won the Akutagawa prize, the country’s grandest literary award, for her second novel Hitori Biyori (“Being Alone”). It’s a short, realist novel about a young female worker, a “freeter” in the vernacular, who dreams her way through a series of routine temporary jobs while finding herself entangled in the usual muddle of relationships. “Freeter” is a neologism that has entered the Japanese language—derived, according to Aoyama, from a conjunction of “free” and the German word arbeiter, which means worker—and is used to describe any of the more than 2m young Japanese who either refuse to commit to or cannot find full-time employment. Aoyama wrote the novel, she told the Japan Times, “to help young women feel at ease with their lives.” Let’s hope Hitori Biyori is soon translated into English.