Inspector Morse Vol 8: Masonic Mysteries / Second Time Around Review

Opinions differ as to which episode of Inspector Morse was the best, but this 2-disc set from Carlton contains two of the most impressive. Masonic Mysteries sees everybody's favourite middle aged curmudgeon come under suspicion for murder, while Second Time Around is a moving study of guilt and morality which cuts as deep as any more 'serious' TV drama. Put together, they make a pretty convincing case for Morse being one of the key television series of the last 20 years.

Masonic Mysteries sees Morse, grouchy as ever, attempting to start a romance with a middle aged divorcee, Beryl Newsome - tall, elegant and with the usual Laura Ashley chargecard - but making rather a hash of it. They have a row in the car on the way to a rehearsal of "The Magic Flute", in which they are members of the chorus, and Beryl gives him the brush-off while asking a friend to take her home. Unfortunately, before the end of the rehearsal, Beryl is killed and Morse is found with the body, holding the bloody knife. It screams "frame-up" but, naturally, the matter needs investigating and Morse is suspended. He begins to suspect that this is no ordinary stitch-up and that darker motives exist - a series of bizarre incidents indicates to him that, somehow, his disregard for the Masons might be involved, a suspicion confirmed when his car is covered in scratched Masonic symbols. Yet this explanation seems all too simplistic when he hears that Hugo De Vries, a con-man he arrested some years earlier, has just escaped from prison in Sweden.

This is engrossing stuff, superbly performed by John Thaw. Always a more subtle actor than his 'family favourite' image suggested, he conveys Morse's frustration with enough ambivalence to keep us at a certain remove. Morse, even as a TV super-cop, has always been an ambiguous figure in many ways, his failure in love as much a masochistic fantasy as a character trait, but Thaw has rarely allowed himself to wallow in sentiment - the reason why his tears in Dead On Time were so memorable. We understand Morse's inner sadness but we also understand why women might want to keep him at a distance. Meanwhile, those of us romantic failures who look like Casanova compared to Morse can congratulate ourselves that even we aren't quite that sad.

The Masonic edge to the story adds intrigue, even if it fizzles out somewhat, and there are nice incidental discussions on the role of the Masons within the police and the way men tend to isolate anyone who isn't happy being a member of 'clubs', in whatever sense. Sergeant Lewis has some good bits here as well and it's genuinely touching to see Morse, having undergone trial by fire and water, insist "I want Lewis, where is Lewis". Unfortunately, the Inspector who replaces Morse on the Newsome investigation, Bottomley, is horribly overplayed by Richard Kane, a skilled comic actor who hasn't a shred of credibility in this serious role. The other character who makes an impression is Hugo De Vries, a creditable attempt to give Morse a Moriarty figure. He's on the fringes of the story for the first two-thirds but comes into his own in the climax. Ian McDiarmid, the best thing about the recent Star Wars movies, and one of the finest character actors around, is chilling and subtle, realising that monsters aren't nearly as scary when they stomp about and shout.

Julian Mitchell's script is as good as you would expect and the direction by a pre-Shallow Grave Danny Boyle is perfectly poised. Indeed, at least one viewer thinks this is a better piece of work than Boyle has yet produced for the cinema. The Mozart and Masonic references are also good fun, although it does help if you're at least vaguely familiar with "The Magic Flute" and the lore of the Lodge.

The second story in this volume is Second Time Around and it's just as good as Masonic Mysteries. Where the previous story is self-consciously theatrical, this one is subtle, sad and superbly plotted. A deputy Police Commissioner Charlie Hlliam is killed in his home and a page is taken from his memoirs, leading Morse to suspect that the murder is connected to one of Hilliams's previous cases. He turns out to be right but not remotely in the way he initially suspects. Pulling in Frederick Redpath (the superb Ford-Davis), accused of child murder and beaten into a confession by Hilliam and his Inspector, Dawson (Colley), Morse realises that the shadow of the past is long and cruel. Redpath has always maintained his innocence and was not convicted but suffered five years of malicious intervention before managing to rebuild his life. But if he was innocent, why is his footprint inside Hilliam's house ? And why is the chapter concerning his case missing from Hilliam's memoirs ?

The pace here is slower than in most Morse episodes but it's also remorseless as the past seems to be rebuilding itself. Morse is at his bitterest here and his anger and jealousy make him a very uncomfortable hero and there's a scene where he comes to blows with Lewis that is one of my favourite moments in the entire series. The difference between his methods and those of Dawson is nicely sketched and Kenneth Colley is excellent as the rival cop, his own past never allowing him out of its clutches. You may well piece some of the plot together in this one but the actors make it compelling to watch. Thaw is at his peak, Whateley is rock-solid and the supporting cast are uniformally strong. In particular, Oliver Ford-Davis is very affecting as Redpath, an innocent man who can't seem to avoid looking guilty.

Serious themes are addressed here - child murder, police corruption, the relentlessness of history - but there is a light touch which doesn't sink into agit-prop campaigning. Morse's liberalism rounds his character and helps to explain his apparent isolation within the force. At one point, Dawson tells him that he is a great detective and a poor policeman, which seems as good a summing-up as any. The denoument is very ingenious, although based on the revelation of some family relationships which are not entirely credible.

These two stories demonstrate the effectiveness with which genre television can deal with serious issues. A light touch, a gripping plotline and good performances allow Morse,at its best, to examine sometimes knotty moral issues without patronising or lecturing the viewer. It's important never to underestimate the value of a story in enlightening an audience on subjects which they might not watch in a more documentary format. Morse does this very well in these episodes, both of which are superb examples of superior TV drama.

The Disc

As before, this Carlton disc is entirely average on every count. It's not a disgrace but there's not much sign that much effort has been put into it.

The quality of the picture is generally mediocre. Slightly better than on the last volume I reviewed but there are numerous artifacts on show and a slightly soft definition, lacking fine detail. Both episodes are presented in the original 4:3 aspect ratio. Colours are generally fine but this is not much better than the quality of the original transmissions.

The mono English soundtrack is equally undistinguished. It's clear and crisp but certainly nothing special.

The only extra is the usual 20 picture stills gallery. There are 8 chapter stops on each episode.

Two of the very best Inspector Morse episodes are present here and the disc is worth buying on that score alone. But Carlton could do a lot better if they really tried, as they have demonstrated elsewhere.

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