TELEVISION / The strange case of the vacant chair: Inspector Morse, the nation's No 1 crime-fighter, has gone to the great police station in the sky. But who will replace him? James Rampton joins in the hunt for a serial thriller

James Rampton
Saturday 31 July 1993 23:02

THE CAMERA pans across the executive dining-room of a booming ITV company. It alights on a drama producer who is complaining animatedly about his commissioning editor: 'Morse, Morse, Morse, that's all I ever hear. 'Can you make it more like Morse?' '

It is a mark of Inspector Morse's continuing importance that, six months after its (probable) demise, the series is still referred to in other TV dramas, such as the above scene from Granada's Micky Love. The glum detective's ghost continues to haunt Ad-land, too. In recent weeks, you could not turn on the telly without seeing the lugubrious features of Mel Smith as Inspector Morose, a paper-thin parody for the BT share campaign, which culminated in an appearance by John Thaw. Even the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, not a man noted for his love of television, conceded that he quite liked Morse when pushed to name his favourite programme.

At the height of Morse-o-mania, the programme, which received a Queen's Award for Export, was seen by 750 million people in 50 countries. Its last episode in January garnered a figure of 19 million viewers in Britain alone, a figure more readily associated with England winning the World Cup. David Lascelles, series producer, told the Independent in 1991: 'There used to be a saying among telly executives, 'all I want for Christmas is a British Hill Street Blues'. Now all they want is another Morse.'

Not any more - or so they claim. Giving his post-Morse post-mortem, Mervyn Watson, Deputy Head of Series Drama at the BBC, avers that 'it is a great mistake to try to follow such a resounding success. Doing something that is just like something else is suicide.' He reckons the straight whodunnit still has a place, but points to the success of more complex dramas, such as Between the Lines, the BBC1 serial about police corruption. 'That has many sophisticated layers that the viewer has to operate on. It makes you work harder.'

Sally Head, Head of Drama at Granada, who is working on Cracker, about a criminal psychologist (Robbie Coltrane), agrees, citing the impact of both Prime Suspects as evidence that 'people are happy to be challenged by a piece in which the police aren't whiter than white'. Ted Childs, Head of Drama at Central Television, the ITV company behind Morse, emphasises that 'it would be folly now to go for a clone of Morse. With that, we went for an upmarket detective and it worked. But it's over now. We're in the fashion business, we have to stay ahead of our market. I don't want to be at the back of the queue with another middle- aged misanthrope in a belted raincoat.'

Even so, there are still enough middle-aged misanthropes in belted raincoats around to fill an average-sized police canteen. The market leader casts such a long shadow over his competitors that, whatever the executive protestations, every new detective series inevitably carries a whiff of Morse Revisited. No detective can now be gruff with a younger partner or impatient with superiors without evoking memories of Morse. Added to that, the nature of the genre ensures that certain characteristics recur in every two-bit 'tec to hit our screens. Serial detectives have serial traits (see graphic).

You can certainly see the attraction of a Morse-alike for schedulers. Quality detective drama tends to loiter with intent to be watched by 15 million viewers. It has to be a giant-sized turkey - like BBC1's Virtual Murder - not to be gobbled up by a massive audience. People like telly 'tecs because they provide a sense of certainty not available in real life. Nick Elliott, managing director of LWT Productions, responsible for Anna Lee, pinpoints their appeal: 'Detectives can be placed in the centre of stories and make contributions to the denouement. When there's an emergency, most of us stand at the edge of things. There's a black and white, moral dimension to detective drama; wrongdoers come to a sticky end. It's a neater form than murky stories from the world of business, education or social work. For a lot of people, drama means crime.'

Some companies appear to be more guilty than others of the charge of manufacturing a counterfeit Morse. Granada came up with the moody, middle-aged malcontent Maigret, and BBC1 produced the moody, middle-aged malcontent Resnick. Yorkshire's A Touch of Frost, meanwhile, stars the only actor guaranteed to match John Thaw for pulling power, David Jason. Running at two hours, it features an intelligent, melancholic police inspector of a certain age who refuses to play it by the book. He has personal problems, a tendency to over-empathise with suspects, and a spikey relationship with a green sidekick. If Frost is not the brother of Morse, then at the least he's a close cousin. 'It was commissioned on the back of Morse,' Sheridan concedes, 'but David Jason brings a quirky angle of his own to the character.'

'He's not a million miles from Morse,' Childs says, 'but there's no denying that people feel comfortable with those sort of characters. They're believable.' Nick Elliott also defends friend Frost. 'For the network as a whole, you need a balance. You don't only want things that break the mould. Frost confirms an old mould and very welcome it is too. You have to remember that we've lost Wexford and Morse; Frost fills that hole.'

In many cases, Morse exerts a subtler influence on the new detectives on the beat. LWT's Anna Lee, based on the novels by Liza Cody and starring Imogen Stubbs, is one that stands for many: 30, attractive, scatter-brained and, oh yes, female, she appears to be as far removed from John Thaw's character as possible. But in fact she shares with Morse several of the elements essential for any telly 'tec: she drives a classic car, is workaholic and has a confused personal life.

Jenny Sheridan, Deputy Drama Controller at the Network Centre, which in the new ITV has the sort of power enjoyed by the Kremlin in the old USSR, praises Anna Lee's 'freshness. She's young, sexy and female; there was a buzz on the streets after the pilot. It isn't grey men in suits.'

Having created Morse, Central has to travel further than most to try to get off the track beaten by him. Its answer has been to go out of this century (and, for filming purposes, out of this country). It has been developing adaptations of Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters's medieval monk-cum-detective. Elliott calls it 'a very bold move. Good luck to them'. His tone of voice is reminiscent of that of Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister.

Derek Jacobi, whose most celebrated television role was as another man from the mists of time, the Roman Emperor Claudius, dons Cadfael's cowl and treks off to medieval Shrewsbury, just outside Budapest, the only place in Europe where a facsimile of Middle Ages England still exists. Otherwise, Central has toned down the more grisly aspects of medieval life. 'We won't have too much buggery and Black Death,' Childs reveals. 'Life was nasty, brutish and short then, but we're in the entertainment business. There won't be too many disembowellings. In the same way, we have to have modern playing. We won't have any 'Godsooth, Granny's stolen me codpiece'.

'Cadfael is a good man in a bad world. He is Holmesian in his primitive scientific awareness,' Childs adds. 'Although he's an apothecary, he doesn't enjoy a panoply of forensic facilities. Period detectives work on nous and understanding human nature.' But then so did Morse (or any telly 'tec you care to mention).

So it doesn't seem to matter that Morse has gone to the great police station in the sky; his spirit lives on in the Black Maria-full of new detectives he has, to a greater or lesser degree, inspired. When all inquiries have been made, it's an open-and-shut case, guv: we are hooked on 'tecs. The writers can inject what gimmicks they like a love of crosswords, exotic sandwiches or poetry; we will still mainline their creations without a thought of overdosing. Sheridan recalls a survey carried out by Yorkshire Television which revealed that 80 per cent of people wanted more detective drama. 'We may sit behind our desks and think that there are too many, but the audience seems to think there are not enough.'

Coming soon: A Year in Provence 2 The Detective Story?

(Photograph omitted)

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