TV review: Endeavour and the cosy pleasures of the antique

Endeavour, Sun, ITV / Isaac Newton: The Last, Magician, Fri, BBC2
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The past can traumatize or tranquillize.

For the last three weeks, Peter Moffat’s The Village has been doing the former with an almost comical determination, thwarting any possibility of nostalgic wallow with an unbroken pageant of historical grimness.

Not all viewers are up to it on a Sunday night, but happily for them they now have an alternative – Endeavour, an Inspector Morse prequel that went down well enough when piloted to be back for a four-part series. And from the very opening shot – an elevated view of an Oxford street packed with every vintage vehicle available in a radius of a hundred miles – Endeavour is very happy to deliver the cosy pleasures of the antique.  It has rotary-dial telephones, ten-shilling notes, a Maria Callas LP on a Dansette portable and those engaging police cars with tingly bells instead of sirens. Even the crime is soothingly old-fashioned. Oxford may have a murder rate to equal that of inner-city Detroit (no wonder John Thaw’s Morse was so existentially weary), but they’re good clean killings – a young woman found without a mark on her;  a vicar shot while putting up the hymn numbers.

Morse is still a constable at this point, promoted above senior men by DI Fred Thursday, who has spotted that he’s a coming man, but now exposed to the unwelcome attention of a new boss, Chief Superintendent Bright, who is anything but. I think Russell Lewis enjoyed writing CS Bright, and Anthony Lesser certainly enjoyed playing him, as a man  not exactly comfortable with what the Sixties are doing to the done thing. Informed that a local GP might have been cottaging in the public lavatory in which he’s been found murdered, Bright jumped as if he’d been electrocuted:  “An immoral rendezvous! I should hope this case might be resolved without resorting to gross slurs against a man’s character.”

Actually, I think Russell Lewis enjoyed writing a lot of Endeavour. These two-hour scripts must have their stretches of creative drudgery, making sure that all the red herrings are kept in the air, but the plot hadn’t squeezed all the air out of this story. And it wasn’t only Lesser who got good lines. As Thursday, Roger Allam had his moments too. “Army gave us benzedrine in the desert,” he said when it was suggested that speed might have played a part in one of the deaths, “...meant to keep you alert.” “Did it work?” asked Morse. “Funnily enough, I found the German 88s managed that quite nicely on their own,” replied Thursday. Morse was given an aria of deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes, discerning from the threads of fabric caught in a bicycle’s cogs that its owner was probably an absent-cleric of modest means. And the vicar himself – a former cryptographer –  allowed Lewis to play some games with crosswords and codes that I think Colin Dexter would have thoroughly  approved of. If you didn’t get it, by the way, the solution to “Running over a dune is an effort” was a little nod to crime fiction’s most passionate cruciverbalist – “endeavour”.

In Isaac Newton: the Last Magician, Friday night’s dramatised documentary about the great scientist, the historical record wrote most of the dialogue. This made for several good lines but no good conversations, the cast of Renny Bartlett’s film being faced with the thankless task of injecting spontaneous feeling into fragmentary phrases that were only ever written to sit on a page – something the actors did with such vigour that their spaniel wigs positively quivered. As a way of animating history, I’m never entirely convinced by this, but Bartlett’s film had some lovely visual moments too, to illustrate Newton’s search for the truth. I’m still not sure whether his alchemical obsessions counted as a  deformation of his genius or a fruitless exercise of it, but the universal scope of that genius could be in no doubt.