Sunday, June 2, 2019

Inspector Morse: The Remorseful Day

John Thaw as Morse.
This review contains spoilers!

When it debuted on the PBS anthology series Mystery! in 1987, Inspector Morse offered something different for American audiences: a grumpy, cynical detective who investigated homicides in contemporary Oxford, England. Morse was only the second "present-day" detective featured on Mystery! (preceded only by Dalgleish). Based on Colin Dexter's novels, the British-made Inspector Morse TV series consisted of 33 episodes produced between 1987 and 2000.

Morse (John Thaw) is a highly-intelligent, middle-aged bachelor who shares few interests with his colleagues. While they're passionate about soccer, he prefers opera, literature, crossword puzzles, and zipping around in his red Jaguar Mark 2. Granted, he does like his beer...but only the good stuff. Morse isn't above flirting with the opposite sex (including suspects), but he doesn't have much luck with enduring relationships.

Kevin Whately as Lewis.
His partner, Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately), is his antithesis--public school-educated, a family man, and interested in sports. (In one episode, Morse has Lewis go undercover as a cricket team player.) Yet, while they share few common interests, the duo respect and remain loyal to each other--even when Morse belittles Lewis for not knowing the name of a Wagner opera.

The series' last episode The Remorseful Day (2000) finds Morse on the verge of retirement as he copes with ulcers and an ailing heart. Lewis has graduated from "Inspector School" and is awaiting a vacancy so he can be promoted. Chief Superintendent Strange assigns Lewis to tail a recently-paroled burglar who may know something about an unsolved murder case from the previous year.

Morse, who turns out to have a personal interest in the case, starts his own investigation--much to Lewis's dismay. However, the two detectives team up when the former burglar and a taxi driver, also connected to the murder, are found dead.

Lewis and Morse watching birds.
The Remorseful Day is a typically complex Morse mystery, but it also has grander ambitions. It serves as the final curtain call for a memorable TV detective. It's apparent early in the episode that Morse is ill-prepared for retirement. He tries his hand at bird-watching only to discover that Lewis knows more about the featured creatures than he does. (That said, his limited ornithological knowledge helps solve the murder case!)

Morse doesn't realize the identity of the killer until moments before he crumples to the ground from a heart attack. By the time Lewis arrests the murderer at the airport, Morse is already dead. His final words are not spoken to his partner, but to his sometime-nemesis Superintendent Strange: "Thank Lewis for me."

Morse and his beloved Jaguar.
Inspector Morse doesn't rank among my favorite British detective shows. Actually, I much prefer the spin-offs Inspector Lewis and Endeavor. But it was an influential series with superb performances from John Thaw and Kevin Whately. The former's nuanced acting subtly reveals a romantic buried behind Morse's grumpy, bitter façade. His relationship with Lewis is what makes the show work. Morse may criticize Lewis for his lack of culture, but the two detectives bring out the best in each other.

The Remorseful Day is a fitting goodbye--and one made with the show's fans in mind. Author Colin Dexter, who made cameos in almost all the episodes, can be glimpsed as a wheelchair-bound tourist. Barrington Pheloung, who composed the memorable music (also used for Endeavor), appears as a church choir conductor.

Here's the bird-watching scene referenced earlier, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:


  1. I will have to give this show a watch. I've heard of it, but have not seen an episode.

  2. Lewis may be 'public-school educated' in an American sense, but not in a British sense. British public schools, such as Eton and Harrow, charge high fees and normally only the very rich can afford to send their children (still mainly sons) to them, although there are a few scholarships and grants for bright youngsters. Wikipedia expresses it thus: 'The 'public' name refers to the schools' origins as schools open to any public citizen who could afford to pay the fees; they are not funded from public taxes.' The last part is not entirely true as they do receive some indirect funding through their long-established charitable status. We would probably describe Lewis as 'state-school educated'.

    As for Morse's rather dismal record with women, if in any episode he showed the slightest sign of having feelings for a woman, that was a guarantee that she was involved with the crime somehow.

  3. Your review of the finale to one of the great detectives is marvelous. The spin-offs were unexpected for me; a great pleasure. The cumulative effect of all of those episodes of those Inspector Morse episodes made me believe that I truly knew these characters. All praise to Thaw and Whately.

    1. Just started watching John Thaw in KAVANAGH, Q.C. and am enjoying that show, too.

  4. I am enjoying Endeavor these days. The making of Morse as a young detective is fascinating and Shaun Evans does a fine job in the role. Another Brit detective series I'm fond of is Inspector George Gently with Martin Shaw. It takes place from the early '60s - 1970. Was NOT happy with the ending, though. Have you seen it?

    1. Love ENDEAVOR and GEORGE GENTLY. The complex relationship between Gently and Bacchus really elevates that show. The final episode was not surprising, but I was still bummed.

  5. Like Eve, I am also a fan of Endeavor. I also liked Inspector Lewis and George Gently. I seem to have quite a fancy for British inspectors!

  6. Colin Dexter was asked why he had "killed off" Morse. He replied that he had done no such thing, Morse had died of natural causes. The series were filmed in and around Oxford and except for a fictitious Oxford college or two all of the places can be visited. Some can be drunk in.

  7. There are so many fascinating details around these “Morse” shows. An invisible thread runs through them. John Thaw’s own daughter is one of the actors in Endeavor. I believe Barrington Pheloung wrote the themes for all of them. In Inspector Morse’s music, embedded within is discernible Morse code spelling out MORSE. There would be no Inspector Lewis or Endeavor without Morse - and John Thaw. The shows and the actors are exceptional.