Inspector Morse Vol 3: Last Seen Wearing / Settling Of The Sun Review

The basic appeal of Inspector Morse was that it presented us with a policeman who didn't conform to the TV stereotype of policemen. Morse is middle aged, out of condition, single, apparently celibate, intellectual, loved classical music and real ale and generally as far from John Thaw's characterisation of Jack Regan in The Sweeney as it's possible to get. Much of this was in Colin Dexter's original novels but it was Thaw's work as an actor that made Morse into one of the best loved of all TV characters. By his final stand in "The Remorseful Day", Morse was as much a cultural institution as a character in an above-average cop show, but in his early shows you can see the elements coming together which eventually made him so popular.

If you've never seen Inspector Morse and are burning with the desire to remain virgin until the discs enter your player, then you might want to skip the following paragraph which contains some potential spoilers about general aspects of the programme.

This DVD is one of the Morse double bills which Carlton have released and it contains the first two episodes from the second series which originally aired in 1988 - Last Seen Wearing and The Settling Of The Sun. Both episodes contain the standard elements of every Morse story; his obsessions with decent beer, classical music and crosswords; Morse's prickly relationship with Lewis (Whateley), his put-upon Sergeant; the architecture and academic snobbishness of the Oxford middle-class; the moral compromises behind the facade of happy families; the remorseless influence of the past on everything in the present; and most significantly - and a part of virtually every Morse story - our hero's hopelessly romantic attraction to willowy ladies in their early forties, usually with Laura Ashley frocks and long hair. These unfortunate ladies usually die within forty minutes or turn out to be the killer and are often played by familiar actresses who are too old for sitcoms and too young for meaty character parts - Joanna David, Gemma Jones, Anne Calder-Marshall, Barbara Flynn and the like. Morse fans have a Pavlovian response to the repetitions - Morse shouting "Lewis !", listening to Mozart, wistfully staring after the female lead without ever thinking that those cottony summer dresses might have bloodstains underneath the hem - and John Thaw takes full advantage of this, creating a character who is superficially real but almost entirely fantastic. It's easy to believe in Morse when he's gently pumping witnesses for information or piecing together the puzzle, sorting out who did what to whom, when and why. You can even just about take him as a chorus extra in "The Magic Flute" or presenting a prize at his old college to a summer school student. But it stretches the imagination that he would get first crack at every one of the surprisingly frequent murders in the vicinity of Oxford, or that he would spend his free time at work with his feet on the desk reading "Jude The Obscure". It's in these moments that we realise what a total construct Morse is - as much of a glamorous law enforcer as James Bond. He's basically a fantasy figure for middle aged men - if you can't be the sex symbol then be the wistful, self-pitying celibate whose fate is to be eternally unloved. Later attempts to match him up with a suitable women never really rang true. Morse is a canny combination of Cyrano De Bergerac and John le Carre's George Smiley. His relationship with Lewis - sarcastic, sometimes uncomprehending but essentially one based on mutual need - has echoes of Holmes and Watson but is more like that of Smiley and Peter Guillam. Kevin Whateley's excellent and selfless performance brings more to Lewis than is there on the page.

The episodes on this double disc set are generally pretty good examples of the series. Neither of them scale the heights of the great Morse stories such as "Masonic Mysteries" or "Dead On Time" but they're both solid murder mysteries. The better of the two is Last Seen Wearing, largely because it's based on an original novel by Colin Dexter and has some clever plotting to atone for a derivative concept. This tale of a missing schoolgirl is very nicely constructed - Morse is convinced that she has been murdered and that the very odd staff of an exclusive girls' school are involved up to their necks. There is an amusingly twitchy performance from Peter McEnery as the headmaster and a superb supporting turn from the ever-watchable Frances Tomelty as the girl's mother. The chip on Morse's shoulder about class is amusingly presented - upon visting the school for the first time he says "The cream of the country... rich and thick" - and the solution just about manages to pull the rug out from under your feet, although it's quite logical once explained. In this episode, we see Morse at his most neurotic; indeed, he appears slightly unhinged, meddling with sufficient indiscretion as to get someone killed. His dependence on alcohol seems stronger here too, remarked upon by his boss, Superintendent Strange (James Grout) and his sparring partner, pathologist Max (a lovely performance by Peter Woodthorpe). Star-spotters will have fun noting early appearances from Julia Sawalha and a young looking Liz Hurley, sporting her best accent and a rather fetching school uniform.

The second story, The Settling Of The Son is based on an "idea" by Dexter and is not all that convincing. It centres around the mysterious ritual murder of a young Japanese student which takes place while all the suspects seem to have Morse as an alibi - he is presenting an award at the dinner which they are attending. The suspects are a dour lot with the exception of a hammy Robert Stephens, playing the Master of the college, and Anne Calder Marshall is disastrously bad as Jane, the romantic interest and, seemingly, key to the mystery. Derek Fowlds turns up, a long way from Whitehall, as Kurt Friedman, a German on the EFL course, and his dodgy accent is laughable until you realise that it might be intentionally bad. It's not hard to guess the denouement to this story as long as you concentrate during the opening five minutes and even then, the string of familial revelations at the end is unfortunately risible. The direction by Peter Hammond is perfunctory at best and Charles Wood's screenplay is surprisingly ordinary, lacking the biting wit he has brought to his other work for TV.

what makes the even the weaker episodes of "Morse" worth watching is John Thaw. He was always an underrated actor - I vividly remember how powerful he was on stage at the National Theatre in David Hare's "The Absence of War" - and he brings to the character a kind of haunted romanticism which is entirely his own. This was beautifully developed in the later episodes but is already fermenting here. He is irreplacable in the part - it's unthinkable that anyone else could have made this character quite so sympathetic while simultaneously being infuriatingly self-obsessed. Luckily, we have thirteen years of this series to demonstrate that, sometimes, great acting is happening on popular TV while we're looking for it everywhere else.

The Discs

After a couple of reasonable earlier efforts - The Dead Of Jericho and The Remorseful Day - Carlton have decided to pile their Morse archive onto double DVD sets, each containing two episodes. Later in the series this will probably mean, like the double videos, that you get one classic and one misfire. However, more of a concern than the episodes chosen, is the quality of the discs, which is not nearly as good as it should be.

Each episode is presented in fullscreen 4:3 format. This reflects the fact that they were made for television in the late eighties and is perfectly fine. What isn't fine is the picture quality. Both episodes have artifacting problems throughout which are sometimes merely annoying and sometimes horrible - the darker scenes towards the end of Settling of The Sun are particularly unsightly. The colours are acceptable and there is a reasonable level of detail but this is still a grave disappointment. The transfer looks like no care was taken at all. There isn't too much grain, which is the best I can say about it.

The sound is basic stereo and is reasonable without being spectacular. Dialogue is generally audible and the music sounds pleasant and without undue distortion. There are some noticable separations but not many.

The only extra is a photo gallery on each disc. Not really worth the trouble as the galleries only contain still images from the episodes. The menus contain scenes from the episode and are backed by the theme music. There are 8 chapter stops on each episode.

Collectors of TV Drama may very well want to invest in the complete Morse collection but they are likely to be disappointed by the poor visual quality and by the lack of extras on the discs. However, the quality of the series is a recommendation in itself and I am keen to see whether the picture quality improves as we come up to date.

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