Age plays curious tricks on us. A few years ago I wasn’t much bothered about watching detective dramas on telly. Even the admittedly wonderfully crafted Inspector Morse was of scant interest while its rather contrived spin-off Lewis left me cold.
Yet last night I was really rather sad to see Kevin Whately’s Inspector Robbie Lewis finally hang up his truncheon saying farewell to trusty sidekick DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) and heading off for a romantic retirement with pathologist Dr Laura Hobson. Typical! Just as I’ve started to enjoy the programme they’ve pulled the plug on it. Admittedly Whately is now 62-years-old and bit long in the tooth to be racing around murder scenes.
I suppose my interest has been piqued by a number of recent conversations with Morse’s creator – the remarkable crime-writer Colin Dexter. Dexter killed Morse off more than a decade ago. He remains doggedly unsentimental about his fictional characters though he is clearly fond of both them and the actors who have portrayed them.
The late John Thaw who played Inspector Morse in 33 programmes over 13 years became a good friend while Whately, who originally played Lewis as Morse’s sergeant, is also a valued chum. “He always makes sure I’m all right when I turn up on set,” said 82-year-old Dexter.
Just before the screening of the final series of Lewis, Dexter told me: “I’ll be sorry to see it pass but dear old Kevin has been in it a hell of a long time. In real life you join the police force at 18 and they kick you out at a certain age. I think that time has come.” He sounded as though he was about to have a faithful old dog put-down. A regrettable action perhaps but the kindest thing to do.
A long time Oxford resident, Colin Dexter has the curious distinction of having made his home city one of the fictional murder capitals of the UK. He has slaughtered more than 80 people in his Inspector Morse stories, turning the dreaming spires of Oxford University into a kind of academic killing fields. Tourist buses regularly bring Morse fans on a guided tour of the locations of his stabbings, stranglings and poisonings.
Morse is of course a semi-autobiographical creation, sharing the classics teacher turned author’s love of crosswords, real-ale, the music of Wagner and the poetry of AE Houseman. When Morse died in his book The Remorseful Day, the title was borrowed from a Houseman poem while the cause of the detective’s death, cited by Dexter as: “ no exercise, diabetes, ulcers, and a bottle of Glenfiddich a day” was possibly rather closer to home than many imagine.
Dexter himself is diabetic and suffers from a number of health problems. He gave up booze 15 years ago on doctors orders after years of what he describes as “over-drinking”. He also knocked a serious smoking habit on the head. “I used to drink an awful lot and I had to stop. I was told to stop. I was far too fond of beer and scotch, especially scotch. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to pack up completely so I did,” he told me. For a moment he seemed almost wistful. “My goodness I miss it.” he sighed.
Was it true that he once said that given a week left to live he’d get a crate of single malt in? He was aghast at the suggestion. “No, no , no,” he insisted. “That’s a terrible misquote. I’d get two crates in… and a few thousand cigarettes.”
It seems that almost everything about Morse and Lewis was drawn from Dexter’s own life and experiences. Many of Dexter’s characters are named after roads near his home in the fashionable Summertown area of Oxford. For instance pathologist Laura Hobson gets her name from nearby Hobson Road.
While both his famous detectives are named after favourite crossword setters – Sir Jeremy Morse “the cleverest man I ever met” and Mrs B. Lewis who for years set the Everyman crossword in the Observer.
“She was an excellent setter but for some reason they wouldn’t let her go under her own name which was Dorothy Taylor. I think Mrs B. Lewis was actually her sister-in-law.
Dexter made many cameo appearances in both Inspector Morse and Lewis appearing Hitchcock-like in the background of scenes often as a drinker in one the riverside pubs.
He loved it but was typically modest when I raised the subject: “One subliminal second!” he jokingly huffed. “They only asked me for one reason. They think it’s good for the rest of the cast. My inability to do things without making a mess of it gives the rest of them confidence. Everyone’s delighted when you mess up or forget your lines – not that I get any lines!”
He maintains that he’s a cheap extra. On the odd occasions when Morse took off for foreign climes the Dexter cameos were considered surplus to budgetary requirements. “I wasn’t worth a return ticket to Australia and they did two in Italy. I don’t think I went there either. I can’t really remember.”
Dear Colin, I’ve come to like him an awful lot and now I’m looking forward in a few weeks time to the new ITV series Endeavour based on his short story about the young Morse establishing himself as a detective in Oxford in the 1960s.