The nation may no longer be glued to Downton Abbey on Sunday nights, but ITV have been enjoying another ratings hit with Endeavour, the ‘prequel’ to the immensely popular Inspector Morse series. And appearing as a younger version of the character made famous by John Thaw is the latest Liverpool actor to hit the big time, 33-year old Shaun Evans.
In the new series it’s 1965 and Morse, having left Oxford University before completing his degree, is a young detective constable. The character’s familiar psychological oddities – his prickly, solitary nature, unsuccessful love life and general inability to ‘fit in’ – are already present and if anything even more pronounced than in the later episodes. He’s also an opera buff with a flair for crosswords and is fast developing a taste for real ale.
As with the later programmes, the Oxford locations are all part of the appeal, with an added layer of atmospheric period detail: old-fashioned cars, buses and telephones, plus evocative references to “postal orders” and “the war”.
Several critics consider the series superior to the other Morse spin-off Lewis, where Kevin Whateley in the title role was saddled with some decidedly ropey scripts and in DS Hathaway had a wooden, uninteresting sidekick. In Endeavour the central partnership is much stronger: DI Thursday (played by the urbane Roger Allam) is an avuncular mentor, aware of Morse’s exceptional skills as a detective, tolerant of his quirks and sensitive to his loneliness, inviting him to join his family for some decent home cooking. He also has an enjoyably dry sense of humour, often exercised at the expense of their prissy, unimaginative boss, the ironically named Chief Superintendent Bright (Anton Lesser).
Another strength of Endeavour is that we also meet younger versions of other characters from the long-running Morse series, including Max the pathologist and Jim Strange, who in 1965 is a humble uniformed constable, but destined to become Morse’s superior officer. He’s already calling everyone ‘matey’ and we see the beginnings of his friendship with Morse: he’s one of the few policemen at the station willing to put up with his eccentricities and buy him a pint. Other nice touches have included non-speaking cameo roles for Colin Dexter – who wrote the original Morse novels and had similar walk-on parts in Morse – and appearances by John Thaw’s actress daughter Abigail.
Shaun Evans is excellent as the younger Morse – edgy, obsessive and very believable. The actor was born in Walton and educated at St Edward’s College, where he starred as Mr Briggs in a lower school production of Willy Russell’s Our Day Out. He still returns to Liverpool to visit his family (his father was a taxi driver, his mother a health service worker), but has said that once he’d completed his A levels at St Edward’s he felt the need to ‘move on’. He went to London, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
His first major role came in 2002, as a French teacher in the Channel 4 comedy drama series Teachers. Since then there have been many film and TV appearances. On television he’s been in Silk, Whitechapel and George Gently, while on the big screen he’s appeared with Bernard Hill in The Boys From County Clare and alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in Wreckers.
Before he was accepted for his role in Endeavour he had to gain the approval of Colin Dexter. He was impressed that Dexter seemed to know a lot about St Edward’s, asking him if particular teachers were still working there. Evans hadn’t read the Morse novels before he was approached about the part, but says he’s now a ‘massive fan’ of them. The character appeals to him because he’s ‘very human’ – someone who’s ‘flawed’ and ‘makes mistakes’.
Endeavour is a British-American co-production and Evans recently told Radio Times that when he went to the States to promote it, he toned down his Liverpudlian accent, adding ‘You’ve got to play the game, haven’t you?’ (Fellow Liverpool actor Ian Hart takes it a stage further – when he’s in the US he’ll often go the whole hog and adopt a fake American accent.)
There’s no word yet on whether there’ll be more series of Endeavour, but Evans says he’s ‘definitely’ up for it and, with Lewis thought to have finally reached the end of its long run, let’s hope ITV will decide the public’s continuing hunger for Morse-based
dramas needs to be satisfied.