This review contains spoilers.
When Ronald Beavis (Iain Stuart Robertson) is found dead by his landlady, the circumstances don’t initially suggest foul play. The deceased’s heart and liver were in poor shape, as DeBryn finds out when he performs the autopsy; either of those could have been the end of the retired policeman, but something doesn’t seem quite right. Morse discovers a ticket stub for the Roxy Cinema in the dead man’s belongings, and heads there to investigate. He learns that Beavis was a movie buff, and had been enjoying a horror film season currently running at the picture house. The detective himself is no fan of a good scare, and neither is DeBryn, who raises an eyebrow over his gore-strewn workbench. “For some of us, it’s horror season all year round.”
The season’s centrepiece is a gala presentation in honour of legendary star Emil Valdemar (Donald Sumpter), who’s filming a new horror flick in Oxford. The cinema’s smooth owner, Armand De Vere (Simon Dutton), isn’t much help with the case, and Morse has no luck at all with Pop Gallo (Pano Masti), owner of the café Beavis visited before his death. Gallo and his daughter Giulia (Sophia Capasso) seem afraid of something, but they’re not about to tell Morse what – or who – that might be. When the toxicology report reveals that Beavis died of strychnine poisoning, the investigation takes on new urgency.
A conversation with organist Leslie Garnier (John McAndrew) reveals that Beavis had a meeting with someone on the cinema’s rooftop on the night of his death. The evidence is building that the dead man’s life was more complicated than it at first appeared. Following his retirement from the police, he’d been working at the Pitt Rivers museum for Egyptian archaeologist Dr Shoukry (Christopher Sciueref), a man passionate about the preservation of his ancient culture and deeply suspicious of British imperialism. The legacy of colonialism is a major theme in this episode, with a case of arson attacks aimed at Kenyan Asians proving to be a cause of major concern for Thursday and Chief Superintendent Bright, both of whom are afraid that racial tensions are rising in their city. The owner of the torched buildings is local villain Eddie Nero (Mark Arden), whom we encountered in last week’s episode. Thursday’s growing worries about the potential for gangland warfare in Oxford of the kind that was a thorn in his side in his nativeLondon threatens trouble for the future.
Matters closer to home are no easier. Morse is still struggling to bond with Fancy, despite the best efforts of both Thursday and a slowly thawing Trewlove to convince him that the young man – his opposite in temperament – deserves a chance. His relationship with Joan is still a source of pain, not eased by her involvement in the arson case; she’s been working part-time at the public advice centre targeted by racist thugs, and comes to the station to give evidence. While there, she runs into her dad, whom she’s been avoiding ever since her return to Oxford; the two have an awkward conversation, played touchingly by Allam and Vickers. The fond relationship between these two characters, developed so poignantly in earlier series, lingers behind the new reserve that’s blighted their interactions since Joan’s abrupt departure. Reconciliation, however, is still some way off.
Joan’s tentative overtures of friendship towards Morse are hampered a little by a new development. The lovesick detective finds himself a partner – for one night only – in the glamorous shape of Carol (Emma Rigby). Strange’s reaction when he bumps into her in the morning is priceless in its understatement (“Thought you were off the birds?”) but further exquisite embarrassment is to come when Morse arrives to pick up Thursday for work. Fred and Win (Caroline O’Neill) are hosting his younger brother, Charlie (Phil Daniels, ideally cast) and his wife Paulette (Linette Beaumont), along with Joan’s cousin, whom Morse is asked to squire around Oxford. His and Carol’s mutual horror when they recognise each other is barely concealed, and their lack of chemistry on Morse’s rather dry sightseeing tour of his home city is conveyed with sensitivity by Evans and Rigby. When Morse eventually, and endearingly, loses his composure and asks her to suggest an alternative source of entertainment for the evening, Carol suggests the cinema, giving them an ideal vantage point to witness the spectacularly disruptive event that brings Valdemar’s big night to a shocking close, sending the murder investigation hurtling towards a conclusion fitting to this tale of mummies and mayhem. The beautiful Art Deco interior of the cinema provides an atmospheric backdrop to the grim goings-on, while horror enthusiasts will savour the pastiches of 60s horror films and the nods toHollywood lore, right down to usherette Betty Persky (Abby Wilson), who almost shares a birth name with the screen legend we know better as Lauren Bacall.
Last week, we caught a glimpse of Morse’s future as Oxford City Police became theThamesValley force familiar to Inspector Morse’s viewers. This time, the hint at his destiny is more personal. After a thoughtful conversation with Dr Shoukry in which the academic suggests that he and they, in their different ways, are all “keepers of the dead”, Morse and Thursday ponder how Beavis ended up alone “with only a bottle for company”. A look of panic briefly crosses Morse’s face, but Thursday reassures him that his future won’t look that way. “You’ll make better choices”, he tells his young friend confidently. And here, in this moment, we can almost believe him.
Read Gem’s review of the previous episode, Muse, here.