Inspector Morse Vol 4: Last Bus To Woodstock / The Ghost In The Machine Review
is relatively rare in recent TV history in that it is a series which ran for 13 years and managed to maintain a consistently high standard. There are one or two turkeys admittedly - The Daughters Of Cain springs to mind - but overall you could rely upon it being intelligent adult entertainment. Watching several of the episodes again on DVD tends to leave you a little confused as to exactly what happened in which story - the atmosphere tends to be similar in each episode - but impresses you with how watchable the show is even when you know what happens in the denoument. The package under review is volume 4 containing Last Bus To Woodstock from 1988 and The Ghost In The Machine from 1989.
For a general discussion of my feelings about Morse, I refer you to my review of Last Seen Wearing and The Settling Of The Sun. I will however reiterate my comment about Morse being just as much a fantasy lawman as James Bond - it's just a different fantasy. A very good fantasy but fundamentally non-realistic. Once we accept this it doesn't matter a damn that Oxford appears to have a homicide rate comparable to that of LA South Central or that it seems to be inhabited largely by women in their forties who are tall and slim with flowing hair and a wardrobe full of long dresses from Laura Ashley. In this context, the plotting and characterisation assume key importance - procedurally, Morse would probably have been booted from the force a long time ago. It's fortunate then that the programme has been gifted with some extraordinarily good writers and directors. Julian Mitchell and Anthony Minghella have both provided screenplays which are every inch the equal of any other drama on television and several noted directors proved themselves on the programme, most notably Danny Boyle who directed the best ever Morse episode, Masonic Mysteries.
The first episode on this DVD double pack is Last Bus To Woodstock. Based on Colin Dexter's first Morse novel, it's a pretty good whodunnit which has a clever plot and some entertaining red herrings. A young insurance clerk, Sylvia Kane, is found beaten to death in a pub carpark, having hitched a lift instead of waiting for the eponymous bus. In her possession is an envelope addressed to her boss, Jennifer Colby (Baker), containing a coded letter with the message "Take It Please". Exactly what she is to take is one of the unanswered questions, as is the identity of the driver who picked her up. Naturally, the solution is grounded in the baser emotions of love, sex and jealousy, leading Morse to muse, "Is sex more trouble than it's worth ?" His customary opportunity to find out the answer to this philosophical quandary is limited here to the very attractive Ms. Colby, but as she's having it away with Clive Palmer (Hardiman), the head honcho of the insurance company, he doesn't get very far.
This is all very diverting, with John Thaw getting comfortable in the role of Morse and allowing his more sensitive side free rein. The plot involves plenty of quotations from the works of Rochester, a literary reference which is very typical of Dexter's books but less so of the TV series, and Thaw enjoys quoting poetry and looking reflective. He also has the chance to deepen his friendship with Lewis. There's a lovely moment when Lewis is talking about the frustrations of family life and Morse says, sadly, "I don't own anyone, Lewis". Morse's loneliness, a key theme of later episodes, is being explored here with a surprisingly delicate touch. The poignancy, sometimes laid on with a trowel, is handled with equal deftness and isn't allowed to overshadow the mystery elements. Peter Duffell's direction is atmospheric and well paced. A strong supporting cast makes its mark too, with Anthony Bate standing out as the archetypal Oxford Don.
Ghost In The Machine - no relation to Rachel Ticotin's awful 1993 horror flick - is an original screenplay by Julian Mitchell, based on "an idea by Colin Dexter". It's a good idea too, concentrating on a rather awful upper-class family living on the gorgeous Hanbury estate, not allowing such fripperies as lack of money to affect their lifestyle. Lord Hanbury is found dead in the family mausoleum on the same morning as a collection of vulgar erotic paintings are stolen from his study. Morse's own class snobbery comes out, reluctant as he is to believe that anyone who lives in such beautiful surroundings could be involved with anything so common as murder, while Lewis's concerns are nicely summed up in his observation that "All that stonework must take a hell of a lot of pointing." Hanbury was one of the candidates to become Master of an Oxford college, which allows for a terse examination of the horrible wheeling and dealing behind all that ivy. Needless to say, plenty of red herrings are around to distract us from the rather simple solution, but it is possible to work out whodunnit and why - if you pay attention.
It has to be said that this story seems a lot more rambling than the previous one, with a lot of wandering about very pretty gardens and some irrelevant diversions into class prejudice and racism. Mitchell's dialogue is witty however and the performances are good enough to keep the attention. Patricia Hodge is especially good as Lady Hanbury, refusing to play for sympathy and maintaining a cold reserve throughout. Morse's love interest in this one isn't Hodge, surprisingly, but the new pathologist - Max being indisposed - played by the very fetching Amanda Hillwood. Just when you think it's stopped going anywhere, there's another death to liven things up and some flummery involving a deeply desirable French au-pair and her dodgy boyfriend. Thaw is rather less sympathetic than usual, which is quite refreshing, and his relationship with Lewis is sometimes downright abrasive.
If you like Inspector Morse then these episodes will certainly not disappoint. Early in the long life of the programme, you can see the favourite themes coming out and the superb acting manages to make some rather unlikely plotting halfway believable.
Both episodes are presented in a double pack from Carlton with minimal extras. The volumes are clearly designed to be collected but no effort has been made to make them especially collectible.
The picture quality varies, as it did on previous volumes, from acceptable to poor. Each episode is presented in the original 4:3 ratio. There is a lot of artifacting in some of the darker scenes and a generally soft appearance. Quite a bit of grain is apparent too. Detail is adequate throughout. Overall, this is about what you'd expect from a mediocre transfer of unrestored material.
The soundtrack is basic English mono. Nothing wrong with it and it is, in fact, crisp and clear. The music comes across particularly well.
The only extra is a stills gallery on each disc with 20 stills from the episode. Each story has a rather pathetic 8 chapter stops. Menus are moving montages backed by the theme music.
This double DVD pack maintains the same adequate standard of previous releases. Worth a look but only fans of the show are likely to find them an attractive purchase.