Morse code – Colin Dexter bans new actors playing Inspector Morse

Colin Dexter Photograph by Hattie Miles
Colin Dexter Photograph by Hattie Miles

News that crime writer Colin Dexter has changed his will to ensure that his famous Oxford detective Inspector Morse will always be remembered exactly as he is now, has been greeted as though it were a revelation.

Which is a little odd as Dexter, 83, has been telling people for years that he has put a clause in his will banning new actors from playing the role epitomised on TV by his good friend the late John Thaw. For Dexter, Thaw was absolutely perfect as the opera-loving, real-ale quaffing, crossword-solving, classic car driving, curmudgeon of a sleuth. He fears, not without good reason, that the role (and his much-loved stories) could be dumbed down, spivved-up or otherwise messed about by future actors.

He even took four years to agree to Shaun Evans playing a young Morse in the spin-off series Endeavour. In a recent interview, the programme’s executive producer Michele Buck said she convinced Dexter that the clause in his will had nothing to do with someone playing Morse as a 27-year-old. It merely prevented anyone competing with John Thaw. Eventually the writer agreed, on the proviso that Evans would be the last actor to play Morse. The terms of his will are expected to be enforced by his estate and will be legally binding for 70 years after his death.

Talking to Colin Dexter himself it is clear that he was amazed and delighted with the way Thaw interpreted Morse for the screen. He admits that he was astounded at how Thaw had given life to this complex individual. After 13 Morse novels, he had finally come face to face with his protagonist . “My visual imagination is really rather poor,” he told me. “I knew what Morse was like in terms of temperament and character but I had no idea whatsoever what he looked like. When I was told that John Thaw was going to take the role I didn’t know him at all. I’d never seen the Sweeney or anything else that he’d done. Yet he was extraordinary. “If I imagine Morse now I see dear old John. He did such a wonderful job playing him on television.”

The chattering classes have got in quite a twitter over this. In some cases literally. So why is Dexter so protective of a character that by his own admission was never fully fleshed out in the first place? Perhaps it has a lot to do with the how close the characters of Morse and Dexter seem entwined. The author tends to be a little dismissive about such theories claiming that anyone who writes in the first person about one particular individual is inevitably going create a character who is semi-autobiographical.

“The only thing that was really important about Morse was that he was very sensitive and very vulnerable. People don’t realise that. The greatest things in his life were Houseman and Wagner. These were the things he would go home and talk about and listen to. That was me, but that was all.”

Really? Both read classics – Morse at Oxford, Dexter at Cambridge. Both love crosswords, and the aforementioned opera and poetry, and both have a taste for booze – though Dexter, who is diabetic, has long given up drink for health reasons. Don’t worry the beer he’s clutching above isn’t real. Interestingly when Dexter killed Morse off with a heart attack in the 1999 story The Remorseful Day, diabetes was the underlying health problem that helped take the detective to an early grave.



Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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