Last Night's TV: Profiling – Colin Dexter, ITV3
Extreme fishing with Robson Green, FIVE
Morse's appeal is no longer a mystery
Tuesday 02 September 2008
This seems dangerously close to lèse-majesté, but I might as well admit that I never liked Inspector Morse. Hard though I tried, I could never quite believe in the characters, nor in the way that the Thames Valley was made to look more like the South Bronx. By the end of the final episode, 91 people had snuffed it in suspicious fashion.
I don't know what it was about the characters. It was certainly nothing to do with the quality of acting, or indeed the writing. Maybe it was just that John Thaw's performance as Jack Regan in The Sweeney loomed so large over my formative years that I was unable to swallow him as an altogether different kind of copper, albeit that Thaw himself, who once told me in an interview that the music of Schubert had the power to move him to tears, was a great deal more like the cerebral, sensitive Morse than the Flying Squad bully-boy Regan.
Whatever, last night's Profiling – Colin Dexter, the latest of ITV3's celebration of crime writers, reminded me what I have missed by never really buying into the Morse phenomenon. Other distinguished crime novelists queued up to pay tribute to Dexter, the Wagner-loving, A E Housman-quoting former classics master whose first book about the Wagner-loving, A E Housman-quoting detective, Last Bus to Woodstock, was published in 1975. A first edition is now worth about the same as the cost of a wedding reception in Oxford's Randolph hotel, which incidentally has a bar named after Morse, and it is the television adaptations to which he owes this abundant success. No fewer than 18 million people, almost a third of the nation, watched Morse himself snuff it in the final episode eight years ago and no crime writer – not P D James, not Ian Rankin, not even Ruth Rendell – has greater cause to give thanks for the invention of the cathode ray tube. In this enjoyable profile, Dexter was sensible and humble enough to admit as much, conceding that there were areas where telly got it right and he got it wrong, and that in the later books Morse became Thaw just as surely as, on TV, Thaw became Morse.
Dexter turns 78 this month, but looked in pretty fine fettle. It has struck me before that being a crime writer, effectively bumping people off for a living, seems to ensure tremendous longevity, and there was further evidence in the formidably switched-on form of 88-year-old P D James, who observed very sweetly but possibly with just a faint trace of acid that she liked the way in which Dexter had made Oxford the most dangerous city in the UK. On which subject, it emerged, perhaps significantly, that Morse's creator was educated in Cambridge.
Other contributors drew comparisons between the oddball Morse and his stolid sidekick, Lewis, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Like Holmes, Morse was "stultified emotionally," said Gyles Brandreth. But Dexter insisted that Morse was essentially modelled on himself, and although he was careful to disassociate himself from his alter ego's reluctance to buy a round of drinks, he cheerfully admitted the provenance of Morse's ability to think better with alcohol inside him. He found it much harder to write well without "having a bottle of something fairly strong, fairly handy". I warmed to him even more for saying that. In fact, I liked him so much that I'm going to give Morse another whirl, next time the repeats come round. Old prejudices can be killed off no less than the good people of Oxford.
Sticking with old prejudices, in the catalogue of TV icons for which I've never had much time, the actor Robson Green has always been right up there with Inspector Morse, and I don't especially like fishing, either, so it would be fair to say that I didn't turn to Extreme Fishing with Robson Green with a song in my heart. All things considered, then, it was surprisingly watchable, and would have been even more watchable had the extreme fishing not been accompanied by extreme background music.
Never mind. In this series, Green, a keen fly fisherman, does with fishing what Monty Don recently did with gardens, travelling the world and using the subject to shed some light on different cultures. He started in Costa Rica, with an American fisherman called Steve Starbuck – whose face was 90 per cent hair and only 10 per cent face – and together they caught a 20lb tuna, which excited Green a whole lot more than it did Starbuck.
By the end, his excitement at catching big fish, not to mention small fish and one or two medium-sized fish, was becoming tiresome. His perky bonhomie was like a gas ring turned up too high; it needed a little downward adjustment. But he did find a fish in a Costa Rican river that feasts on figs from the overhanging trees, and can be caught by using figs as bait, and I'm not sure even David Attenborough ever managed that.
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