I'm sitting with Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse novels, in the quadrangle of Wadham College, Oxford. A spin-off from the Inspector Morse television series, Lewis, is being filmed in and around the quad, and while an elaborate crane shot is being set up (those views of the dreaming spires come at the expense of much blood, sweat and tears), Dexter is explaining to me the art of cryptic crosswords. It's an enthusiasm he shares, of course, with his most famous creation. "My favourite clue of all time is 'shot with craft on course'... nine letters," he says, briskly didactic like the classics teacher he once was. "Now, 'shot' could be a gun or a film, and 'craft', well, that could be a vessel or a skill..."
Dexter hasn't come down here to Wadham just to shoot the breeze with a journalist. He is very much involved with this new spin-off project, and visits the set every day while they're filming in Oxford. The crew know him well, and there's much joshing with the author, although Dexter has a more serious role in the Morse television franchise than just another of his famous Hitchcock-style walk-on parts. He still owns the copyright to his novels and was fully consulted about the television rebirth of his subsidiary character, who is again played by Kevin Whately.
"I made three provisions about the new series," says Dexter. "Kevin had to play Lewis, it had to be set in Oxford, and I had to have the same role as before, seeing directors and producers." He was also adamant that nobody else but John Thaw, who died in 2002, could play Morse. "John was Morse and that's it," he says. "He's not James Bond."
The first Morse film, The Dead of Jericho, went out almost exactly 19 years ago, in January 1987, and the series was an instant, worldwide success. These were classic English murder mysteries, the sun (and the sun is nearly always shining in a Morse yarn) illuminating the mellow Cotswold stone of a timeless Oxford, in a John Majorish landscape of warm beer and female undergraduates on bicycles. The dramas were supremely well plotted by writers of the calibre of Danny Boyle, Malcolm Bradbury, Anthony Minghella and Julian Mitchell (not to mention Dexter himself), and peopled with heavyweight character actors. And the mysteries unfolded at a luxuriously languid pace. Stephen Poliakoff, he of the famously slow dramas, recently quoted Inspector Morse as an example of mass audiences being able and willing to accept unhurried exposition.
But of course it was the interplay between Thaw, as crusty but cultured Morse, and Whately, as his long-suffering subordinate Lewis, that provided the show with its X factor. In November 2000, in the 33rd and final film, The Remorseful Day, Morse collapsed in an Oxford college quad and later died in hospital. Less than two years later, Thaw himself was dead from cancer at the age of 60. An indelible line would seem to have been drawn beneath the series. Now, however, it lives on in the shape of Lewis, one of the most eye-catching television comebacks in a long while.
"I don't think of it as coming back - I'm trying to fight the idea that this is Morse revisited," says Whately. "It's the same character, but without John inevitably it's going to be a very different animal. A lot of the old Morse fans will tune in and I want to play down the expectations that it will be Morse, because it can't be. John was a particularly special actor - in my view he was the best TV actor we've ever had - so you want to aim high. But you can't expect it to be Morse. It's Lewis."
Whately is sitting in his trailer wearing a particularly horrid Hawaiian shirt. "It's for the film," he says quickly. It seems that Lewis has spent the past two years on attachment to the British Virgin Islands, and was on his way back from the airport to rejoin Thames Valley police when he was diverted to a murder scene. In the new film he is a widower. His wife - the rarely glimpsed Valerie - has been killed in a hit-and-run accident, giving Lewis both a reason to be extra grouchy (just like his old boss) and freeing him to make romantic attachments. So that's the back-story to Lewis. But what about the back-story to Whately's return to a familiar role? In the five years since the end of Morse, Whately has strayed into darker territory, playing an adulterous murderer in Lucy Gannon's Plain Jane and an abusive son in Gannon's harrowing Comic Relief drama Dad.
"You get pigeonholed. Some people are film stars and some are theatre stars who do one-off telly. Somehow, I get into long-running series," he says, referring to his protracted stints in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Peak Practice and Inspector Morse. "Luckily they've all been successful, and so that's what I get offered. You can't get away from it."
Whately says that, although a series spin-off for Lewis had been "suggested for years" and he had always "pooh-poohed it", it was old Morse hands like producer Ted Childs and Michele Buck (now controller of ITV drama), who persuaded him that the production values would be as high as of yore. "Oh, and Madelaine, my wife, said: 'Have a go at it, why not?'" (Whately's wife, the actress Madelaine Newton, once appeared in an Inspector Morse episode herself, playing one of Morse's numerous "lady friends".)
"As a character we've got a head start because of Inspector Morse's popularity," says Whately. "In other ways we're slightly hamstrung by the character's original function. Lewis was always created as a foil, as a sounding board, for the amazing mind that Morse had - and you can't suddenly pretend that Lewis has that sort of mind."
In part, the writers, Stephen Churchett and Russell Lewis, have circumvented the problem by introducing a new sidekick, one who has many of the attributes of Morse, including a knowledge of Latin and cryptic crosswords. Detective Sergeant James Hathaway is played by Laurence Fox, who played Prince Charles in ITV1's recent Whatever Love Means. Hathaway is a rather inspired creation, having been thrown out of priest college, but still being what Lewis terms "a God-botherer". It's a double act with definite potential.
Whately spotted Fox in a television programme: "I caught the last 10 minutes of the ITV1 film of Colditz, and saw this young English boy going bonkers and wandering out to be shot, and I thought: 'He's interesting.' As it happens, I was meeting all the powers that be the very next day for lunch and did say that he would be worth taking a look at."
Fox admits that he's never seen an Inspector Morse in his life, which was probably a blessing in disguise. "I had no context for the history of Morse," he says. "I just strolled on as if this had never happened before and was brand new." Fox, who is 27, calls Whately "King Kev", and the pair have hit it off despite differences in age, politics and background. "Kevin is a great guy - very keen on understanding what other people think, not unlike my own father [the actor James Fox]."
Inspector Morse fans will discover other new faces. James Grout was too ill to resume his role as Lewis's boss, Chief Superintendent Strange, and he's been replaced by a female superior, played by Rebecca Front. But that still leaves the twin ghosts of Thaw and Morse. The script deftly handles this most tricky of problems, making just enough references for the viewer not to feel that Morse is being completely ignored. There's even a playful scene where Whately is seen laying flowers at a grave - Morse's, one assumes. It turns out to be his dead wife's headstone. In fact, the highest accolade one can give Churchett's script is that by the end of the film, Morse's absence seems irrelevant. The transition is a complete success.
Whately is not counting his chickens, however. "At the moment I'm just treating it as a one-off, which is all you can do. If ITV1 wants more then we can think about developing it." Dexter is also nervous. "I was very apprehensive about it. There hasn't been such a good track record with shows making a comeback - look at the once brilliant Only Fools and Horses. But whatever happens in the future, this is a good start," he concludes, obviously happy to be in the thick of things again.
Oh, and the answer to his favourite crossword clue "shot with craft on course"? It's albatross - as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the low-scoring golf shot, one better than an eagle. The hope, I suppose, is that the ghost of Thaw doesn't prove to be an albatross for Lewis. On this evidence, there shouldn't be anything to worry about.
'Lewis' will be screened on 29 January on ITV1Reuse content