Recently I’ve noticed a lot of online commentators talking about why Death In Paradise, the locked-room mystery show set on a fictional Caribbean island, is still going.
The show hasn’t been very good in years, and it’s plots are getting increasingly boring and formulaic. After all, there’s only so many times you can create a closed murder scene with a set number of suspects before the stories simply become absurd.
Like Midsomer Murders, the show is unlikely to die any time soon. It’s a twee, repetitive show that features comically bumbling detectives and a reassuring formula. It appeals to those who don’t like change and want to watch something they know they’ll enjoy and won’t have to think too hard about.
By contrast, another longstanding show, part of an even longer standing series, is also back: Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel. Unlike Death In Paradise, Endeavour is actually a great show. It’s intelligent, well-written, beautifully scripted and masterfully acted by some of the UK’s best small screen actors.
The question is, why does Colin Dexter’s protagonist keep coming back? After all, we already had a sequel, the less well received Lewis, which focused on the work of Morse’s former Sergeant, turned Inspector and was set in the present day.
By contrast, Endeavour is set in the 1960s and start of 1970 and tells the story of how the taciturn, ingenious Inspector got to where he was when we first saw him on our screens in his original series.
The series isn’t based on the books, and whilst author Colin Dexter supervised the filming of the early shows, his ill health and eventual death means that the show is now entirely removed from the series of books on which it is based.
So, what is the enduring appeal behind Morse and why do so many people keep tuning in to find out more about him?
Part of it, I believe, is that the character is so entirely relatable. The inspiration for many other, similar characters, his Swedish counterpart, Inspector Wallander, Morse is a grumpy, belligerent investigator who acts as a blueprint for almost every other grumpy, belligerent investigator.
So much so, in fact, that many share the same traits as Morse. Dexter’s popular protagonist is the reason why so many detectives love opera, crossword puzzles and drinking heavily. His red Jaguar became his symbol, much like the cars of later detectives such as Wallander’s Peugeots, Starsky and Hutch’s Ford Gran Torino and Gene Hunt’s Audi Quattro.
It’s little wonder, then, that crime fiction fans are keen to find out more about the adventures of the original detective that sparked or, in some cases, cemented so many of these renowned genre tropes.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, Morse has a strange relationship with TV. Dexter reimagined some of the episodes of the show into his books, and some of the episodes were written completely for the series and never turned into books.
The show also differs drastically from the books. In the books, Morse is significantly younger than his Welsh Sergeant, a former boxer who tolerates his young boss at first but grows to enjoy spending time with him. On TV, Sergeant Lewis is a young Geordie who works with a curmudgeonly older Inspector.
Despite this, viewers took to the show, which displayed enough of the formula to be attractive to them but bent it enough to be unique and inventive.
It’s this combination of tradition and originality which, I think, is the reason behind the enduring success of the Inspector Morse TV franchise. Lewis had a long run, managing 9 series before it was eventually shelved, and Endeavour is now on its 7th series, and whilst it is indicated that it will soon have to end, as we’re almost reaching the point in time when the original Inspector Morse series began, it’s unclear how many more series there will be.
In all then, it’s the unique way that Dexter and the TV writers managed to combine traditional crime fiction tropes with original thinking that has made Morse such a longstanding TV favourite. With few avenues left to go on now that a prequel and a sequel have been done, I can only hope that rather than a remake, in the future TV bosses commission new shows that have the same winning combination.