Endeavour’s Russell Lewis on the show’s longevity: ‘We’re getting very near the end’

Endeavour is now in its “third act”, its creator tells Den Of Geek in an interview about what to expect from series 6, and the end…

Writer Russell Lewis is behind all five series of Endeavour, the hit prequel series that explores the early career of one of our favourite fictional detectives, Endeavour Morse. It’s the latest in a long list of TV writing credits including The Bill, Sharpe, Kavanagh QC, Taggart, and the original Inspector Morse, along with its first spin-off series, Lewis. In advance of the coming sixth series, he spoke to Den of Geek about the young Endeavour, character relationships, and the groovy outfits – not to mention, the facial hair – we can hope for as our hero heads into that fabled summer of ’69…

What can we expect from this new series of Endeavour?

Well, it’s an awful cliché, but expect the unexpected, I guess. We’ve moved into 1969. The events of 1968, with regard to the death of George Fancy, cast a shadow over proceedings through ’69. The fellowship of Cowley is broken, and its constituent parts cast to the four winds. So yeah, tough times for Oxford’s finest as we begin.

’68 was the end of our second act, if you like, and ’69 represents the start of our third act. There’s a lot of change afoot. We moved fromOxford City to Thames Valley last year, and the repercussions of that change are still making themselves felt. All of our heroes and heroines are in a slightly different place as we start. We’re starting eight months on from the end of the last series, and that’s quite a chunk of time, so there’s a bit of a distance between them all. People haven’t seen each other for a bit, and I think that kind of carries us through the series as a whole: whether old allegiances can still survive in a changing world. That was our jumping-off point for it, really.

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We’re moving towards a phase of Endeavour’s life that’s a bit more recognisable to viewers of Inspector Morse now, aren’t we?

Yeah, absolutely, and in terms of his personal life, we’ve thrown a lot at him over the last five series. He’s no longer the young lad tipping up in Oxford from Castle Newtown. There’s a lot of blood that’s flowed under the bridge…

Did you have a narrative framework planned out for Endeavour when you started to write the show, or has the storyline evolved as you’ve gone along?

Well, it was originally just a one-off. We had no long-term plans, but as soon as we started making the first series, which was set in ’65…Obviously, it’s not a series that was commissioned for eight, or nine, or ten series. Every year, we had to wait – certainly to begin with – to see if we were going again. So we always finished the series at a place that was satisfactory if we never came back. But I think for all of us, in an ideal world, there was always a long-term terminus that we’d get to, if we stayed around long enough, and moving the series on as we moved on with each new year that the different stories are set in gave us a kind of framework that reflected Endeavour himself getting older. Shaun (Evans) is getting a little bit older each year, so Endeavour was, too. We’re still eighteen years out from when we first met John Thaw as Inspector Morse, so we’ve still got a way to go, but he’s certainly had a lot of the stuffing knocked out of him from when he first turned up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, in the Jubilee special we did (in 2012). That’s there with Endeavour, and it’s certainly there with Thursday, and with all that wonderful cast surrounding them; there’s development, hopefully, for all of them.

One of the things we’ve been blessed with each year as we make the series is that we know the order that the stories are going to go out in, which is something that neither Morse nor Lewis really did! They’d make them, and then decide the order they were going to show them in.

Which is deeply unhelpful when you’re trying to tell an ongoing story…

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Exactly! Making it as a series, we were all aware that there’s an appetite from the audience for character development these days in a way that perhaps there wasn’t thirty years ago. When you were doing these two-hour filmettes, you could dip in and out, and it wouldn’t matter too much. Certainly across the last ten years, with the rise of the boxset and HBO and all that, it’s become something that people do want to see. You’re not just pressing a reset button at the end of each film, and they can enjoy the experience with the characters they’ve become invested in.

With Inspector Morse, you were working within the parameters of the source novels, but with Endeavour, you had greater licence to tell new stories (albeit with the guiding presence of their late author, Colin Dexter). How did that change the process, if at all?

Colin was very good to us. I don’t think there was anything where he outright said “No, that’s just not Morse”. We took a lot of our jumping-off points from the books and the TV series, and all of that was true to Colin’s vision, as was Lewis. He’s been our guiding light all the time. We always wanted to approach it with a great deal of respect. I came to it first as a viewer myself and had a great deal of respect for it as an entity, because it was a game-changer when the two-hour films first started, and I didn’t want to do anything that would denigrate that or that would come up short in the eyes of its admirers. That said, there is an audience that has come to Endeavour first and then from Endeavour has come to Morse. That’s quite a nice way to do it, I think, rather than to tell the story backwards: to get to know Endeavour and then to see where he is in another seventeen or eighteen years’ time.

A lot of viewers who came to Endeavour first have been able to enjoy Inspector Morse in repeats and then gained a new appreciation for the references and call-forwards you insert in the newer stories.

Yeah. We’ve taken stories and characters and drawn those out a little bit more. Some people mentioned that in ‘Lazaretto’ (series four) we saw Caroline, Susan Fallon’s (Morse’s ex-fiancée) mother, who’s not seen in Morse, but who’s obviously a character that we could develop and play with. You don’t want to overegg it, where every week we’re meeting somebody from one of the 33 Morse films, but there are a lot of very useful jumping-off points.

Shaun Evans has indicated in interviews that he’s not completely on board with the allusions to Morse lore.

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I think that’s right, and the only way that he could have approached it, for him, was that it was something new, because it would have been very difficult for him to do his job if he was trying to recreate a performance from thirty years ago. He had to make it his own, and he did that from the off. But I think the balance of him doing that, and our giving just enough of a nod to its heritage, is probably why it works. I’m super conscious of that, because actors want to be telling new stories, so it’s just finding a happy way of putting some things in for the long-term fandom, but we try and do it so the new films can stand on their own merits, if we’ve got legacy characters. There was the Geoffrey Palmer one (Matthew Copley-Barnes) from one of the early films – seeing him in a way that was true to the story we were telling, but that also signposted, if you were aware of it, that wonderful story by Alma Cullen, ‘The Infernal Serpent’ (1990).

I’m not sure how much of it we’ve got in ’69. There’s a bit less than hitherto, I think, because we’re more preoccupied with our characters and what’s driving them, taking them to places we haven’t before, certainly with Endeavour and Thursday and Bright and Strange. There are different things happening with them than we’re used to. They’re still the characters people hopefully know and love – it’s just another part of their history. We always wanted to keep it moving forward and not just rest on our laurels. We always try and give each run its own identity, as much as anything else.

Shaun Evans isn’t the only actor working with an established character, of course. James Bradshaw’s Max DeBryn and Sean Rigby’s Jim Strange are already known to us from Inspector Morse, in which they were played by Peter Woodthorpe and James Grout respectively.

Jimmy and Riggers are just delightful. They’re a privilege to write for. They’re both very special actors, they really are. Both of them from the off made my job so much easier, in that they just are Max and Strange. For my part, I cannot see the join. It’s like, of course they’re going to be who they’re going to be by 1987.

Max DeBryn’s presence is in itself a nod to long-time Morse fans, given that the character was only present in the first two series of the original show (1987-88). It’s a nice link to the very early days.

Yeah, and in the books, right through to The Way Through The Woods (1992), Max is present. He’s the closest thing Morse had to a friend in the books. Morse’s affection for the old pathologist is hard-wired into the stories. There’s a moment in that novel that is among the most profoundly moving stuff Colin ever wrote. Having Jimmy breathe life into young Max has been a joy. We watched Riggers’ audition as Strange and it was a young Jimmy Grout to the life. They’re so important to Endeavour as an entity, as are Abigail (Thaw), Caroline (O’Neil), Sara (Vickers), Anton (Lesser), and Rog (Roger Allam).

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It’s been so lovely to have that subtle nod to Morse continuity provided by Abigail Thaw (daughter of John Thaw) as journalist, Dorothea Frazil. She’s also a great character in her own right.

Absolutely. None of us ever wanted it to be a kind of gimmick. We had her in the anniversary special, and she was so fab that we of course wanted to see more of her. I think it was important, as with Caroline and with Sara, that it’s not just a cavalcade of boys. They bring so much to the show’s identity. It’s not just about blokes down the nick. It’s as much Joan (Thursday)’s story as it is Endeavour’s. We wanted to show how the Sixties was changing for women. Without standing on a soapbox and tub-thumping, we wanted to reflect the social history as much as we could.

The problem, if I can call it that, with Morse’s romantic life in storytelling terms is that we know he ends up a lifelong bachelor, which puts certain restrictions on any relationships he has in Endeavour. Despite that, his connection with Joan has been a major part of recent stories. How can we expect that to develop in series six?

I think that relationship will always be a big part of Endeavour, but – without wishing to pre-empt anything – she’s been through so much that we wanted her to have her own identity as a character independent of romantic entanglement with Morse. We see a bit of her work life this time around, and that becomes a part of her ongoing story as much as their relationship. There’s development there, but we’re not marching in step with it. Those characters are massively important to me.

The counterpoint to that, of course, is the settled, long-term marriage of Fred and Win Thursday, which seems to have been very well received by the audience.

I hope so. I adore the Thursdays. That has developed, though. Into every life, a little rain must fall! There’s still fallout from that (Fred’s ill-advised loan to his brother and the loss of the couple’s life savings in series five) to be had. It’s whether those relationships that have lasted so long can survive such change. Trust is at a premium.

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Awful question: are there any Endeavour episodes that worked better for you than others?

That’s really tough. To single out any of them would be discourteous to the directors; we usually have different directors on each film, and I’ve been thrilled with everyone’s work. What I will say is that Shaun directing one this year was absolutely delightful. He’s done a wonderful job. It’s been great to watch him blossom, without being sentimental about it. He’s been on a journey every bit as much as Endeavour Morse. He’s just fabulous. I can’t praise him highly enough.

Series four’s ‘Lazaretto’ (directed by Börkur Sigþórsson) was a great example of the kind of stylistic flair that recent series of Endeavour have become known for.

It was a lovely series to do, that. Helen Ziegler produced that, and she did a fabulous job, and she’s with us again on this series as an executive producer. Weird things kind of spark the imagination. For that one, I had moodboards with Mills and Boon doctor-nurse romances on, and was just staring at those until something fired, because I knew I wanted to do a hospital-based story. I also looked at the Ladybird books – you know, the Ladybird book of the hospital, the Ladybird book of the factory – and they’re great fun.

You manage to work in a lot of references to various Sixties films and TV shows, which have gone down very well with many viewers.

They’re always done with a huge amount of affection. It’s a period that is in my consciousness. I was small in the Sixties, but I think I must have been acting as a sponge, really. I was that generation that got stuck in front of a TV, and you just take it all in. That’s kind of been filtering over the last fifty years and finding its way onto the screen through Endeavour. We got to have fun with things like (the Sixties game show) It’s a Knockout in the last series. It’s fun for the viewers, and they’ll remember it. Baffling, I’m sure, for those who don’t! But YouTube is there, in all its glory…

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Is this sixth series the last we’ll see of the young Endeavour Morse?

Who knows? With each series, if force majeure had happened, if any of us had been struck by lightning, we could have left it there. There is an ultimate super-terminus we’ve all got in mind for it, and we’ll see if we get there. We don’t plan to take it up to 1987 (the start of Inspector Morse) – that’s a fairly safe bet! As I say, we’re into our third act now. As the Fab Four said on Sergeant Pepper: we’re getting very near the end. Series six is a modulation of what’s come before. We’re at the fag end of the Sixties – a decade that had promised so much.

We can look forward to plenty of great fashion from 1969, can’t we?

The fashions and hairstyles have always been great fun to play with, without going too over the top with it. When we look at documentaries, it’s always the cutting-edge fashion, but on the streets, it’s usually a couple of years behind. There’s still a little bit of lingering ‘50s and early-‘60s style, as you see in the films and TV shows (of the time). You look at Steptoe and Son: it could be Victorian.

Speaking of changing styles, I think a lot of people were pretty intrigued by Endeavour’s moustache in the preview images for series six…

(laughs) Well, there is a reason for that! We’ll see what people make of it. You look at the mop-tops in ’64, and by ’69, they’re men. That’s as much a part of it as anything else, but there is a reason for it, which I hope will become apparent.

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The enthusiastic fanbase for Endeavour keeps coming back. We’ve built up a lovely little community for Den of Geek’s Endeavour reviews since we started our coverage back in 2014 with series two.

That’s lovely. It’s all about the audience. That’s who we make it for, and if they’re having a good time, we’re doing our job.

Endeavour series 6 starts on Sunday the 10th of February at 9pm on ITV1.