Inspector Morse: Top 10 Episodes

A king among detective dramas, here are ten of the most complex, macabre and memorable cases faced by Inspector Morse...

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Detective Morse. It originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Beer, Wagner, a red Jaguar, and Barrington Pheloung’s haunting theme. Those images conjure up one of the most memorable characters in British television. Inspector Morse’s final episode aired in the U.K. over 15 years ago, yet the impression left by the hugely popular drama remains indelible. Its popular spinoff, Lewis, finished only two years ago after nine successful series, while a prequel, Endeavour, has just started to air its fourth run. The appeal of Morse and his Oxford is clearly as strong as ever.

Inspector Morse ran for 33 episodes between 1987 and 2000 (seven seasons and five specials). Colin Dexter’s bestselling series of thirteen Morse novels provided the basis for the show; twelve were adapted for television, while one, 1986’s The Secret of Annexe 3, proved too difficult to film, and was loosely reworked as “The Secret of Bay 5B.”

The show’s appeal hinges on its lead, the Inspector of the title, played with an unforgettable gruff warmth by the late John Thaw. The Morse of Dexter’s novels is a heavy drinker with a healthy sex drive and a bitter sense of humour. Thaw’s policeman, however, is a gentler, more romantic figure beneath his surface cynicism. As the series continues, his regrets about his past mount and his ill health worsens, leading to his heartbreaking onscreen demise in the final episode, “The Remorseful Day.”

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Marvelous though Thaw’s performance is, there are many other reasons why Inspector Morse remains a hugely popular and influential series. The sterling support given by the rest of the regular cast provides many opportunities for humor as Morse’s abrasive temperament gets him into trouble with friend and foe alike.

Great detectives usually have a sidekick, and Morse is no exception; his foil is Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately). The kindly, down-to-earth Geordie is often patronised by his intellectual boss, but the two men forge a sincere, bantering friendship that proves to be one of the show’s chief pleasures. This relationship differs significantly from that of the books, in which Lewis is Welsh and closer to Morse’s age.

Several pathologists appear throughout; eccentric Max (Peter Woodthorpe) counsels the duo in the first two seasons, while we later meet glamorous Dr. Grayling Russell (Amanda Hillwood) and, finally, Lewis’s future love interest, Dr Laura Hobson (Clare Holman). Belligerent Chief Superintendent Strange (James Grout) is a frequent annoyance to Morse during the show’s run.

The slow-paced, complex cases Morse must solve reflect the crossword puzzles he’s so fond of, yet also often rival his beloved opera for drama, creating a strange and unforgettable atmosphere born of concealed passions and quiet tragedies.

Oxford, its university and its suburbs provide the setting for these mysteries, with the beautiful architecture of the colleges serving as the perfect backdrop for murder and mayhem. Collegiate rituals and surface politeness mask old rivalries and poisonous hatreds. Morse, himself educated at Oxford before leaving after a broken love affair, is uniquely placed to investigate. Never quite at home among either the academic elite or his colleagues in the force, he’s an isolated character with whom we immediately identify.

Thanks to the spinoff series, we can now watch Inspector Morse with a deeper understanding of the detective’s character and foibles. Endeavour has allowed us to watch his romantic ideals fade, his prejudices harden and his relationship with Strange – once a police constable, now well on his way to the top job – turn irredeemably sour. 

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Lewis, meanwhile, shows us how Morse’s erstwhile DS ends up as an Inspector with an intelligent, reserved subordinate who bears a remarkable resemblance to his own much-missed boss. Throughout, Morse is central, whether as an earnest young policeman, a jaded older man or a fond memory in Lewis’s later life. Here are ten of the most complex, macabre and memorable cases Morse was challenged by in the series that started it all. 

10. The Death of the Self, Season 6 (1992)

“The arena, Lewis. Built by the Romans for their games. Carnage and brutality. Now it’s an opera house. I could almost believe in progress.”

Morse’s love life is largely disappointing and, more often than not, outright catastrophic. In fact, several of his brushes with romance end in the kind of tragedy more usually found in the operas the detective so enjoys. Oddly appropriate, then, that a briefly requited – though still, inevitably, doomed – love should come along in the form of beautiful, troubled opera singer Nicole Burgess (Frances Barber).

Trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a selfish and abusive man, Nicole has realised the difference between infatuation and real love all too late. She meets Morse when he and Lewis travel to Vicenza to investigate the mysterious death of May Lawrence, a patient at a psychotherapy clinic run by fraudster Russell Clark (Michael Kitchen).

Morse’s loathing of Clark complicates matters, as does his growing attraction to Nicole, who is also attending the clinic. A stunning Italian setting, lashings of opera and the genuinely touching bond between Morse and Nicole make this a welcome trip away from Oxford.  

9. Deceived by Flight, Season 3 (1989)

Anthony Donn: “Do you cook or something? Or is there someone at home you’re keeping a secret?”

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Morse: “I did live with a microwave for a while, but, er, we argued.”

Endeavour fans will remember Tony Donn (played here by Daniel Massey) from the opening episode of series three; he’s an old college friend of Morse’s who brings him into the tragic Bixby’s gilded orbit. However, “Deceived By Flight” sees him meet an unhappy end while back at Lonsdale College for an old boys’ cricket match. His death, assumed to be a suicide, arouses Morse’s suspicions, so there’s only one thing for it: Lewis has to go undercover and infiltrate the cricket team to learn the truth. Unorthodox, but Lewis is a surprisingly adept spy.

The script by Anthony Minghella offers plenty of good jokes, not least Morse’s attempts to explain his domestic life and culinary ineptitude to his fellow alumni. We also learn the origins of Morse’s college nickname, “Pagan,” which he acquired when he refused to disclose that infamous Christian name.  

8. Promised Land, Season 5 (1991)

“Aren’t you a clever Pommie bastard, sir?”

Oxford may be Morse’s natural habitat, but seeing the detective removed from his usual environment is always a treat. “Promised Land” takes Morse and Lewis to Australia on the hunt for Kenny Stone, an informant living in rural New South Wales under an assumed name.

Following the death of Peter Matthews (yes, one of the bank robbers we recently met in Endeavour) the investigation into the activities of the Abingdon Gang has been reopened, to Morse’s chagrin. Stone’s evidence put Matthews away, and now Morse needs his help to confirm the dead man’s guilt once and for all. However, he and Lewis find Stone missing, his wife reticent, and the local police decidedly unimpressed by outside intervention. Lewis, on the other hand, fits right in, leaving Morse even more isolated than usual.

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Oscar-winning director John Madden makes the most of the magnificent Australian landscape, and that final shot of Morse climbing the steps of the Sydney Opera House – alone, of course – is unforgettable. Look out for Noah Taylor amongst the episode’s fine cast.

7. The Wench is Dead (1998)

“To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Not much can keep Morse away from a compelling mystery, and a hospital stay due to a bleeding ulcer is as good an excuse as any to investigate an extremely cold case: the 1859 rape and murder of Joanna Franks as she travelled by canal boat to London. Two boatmen were hanged for the crime, while one was transported after finding religion in jail.

When visiting US historian Dr Millicent Van Buren (Lisa Eichhorn) lends him a copy of her book on the subject, Morse becomes convinced that the conviction was unsound, and puts his precise mind to work, with the help of history buff, PC Adrian Kershaw (Matthew Finney). With Lewis otherwise occupied on his Inspector’s course and Strange pushing Morse to retire, our favorite curmudgeonly detective needs all the support he can get, though a settled relationship with Adele Cecil (Judy Loe) offers a ray of hope for the future. That is, until you reach the end of this article.

A fascinating episode based on the eighth of Colin Dexter’s novels, “The Wench Is Dead” is unusual both in being a Lewis-free zone and in its Victorian flashbacks. 

6. Death Is Now My Neighbor, Season 10 (1997)

Morse: “Thank you, sir. It would never have occurred to me to question the neighbors.”

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Morse is drawn back into the typically fraught affairs of Lonsdale College when he is called upon to solve the murder of Rachel James (Julia Dalkin), shot dead through her kitchen window as she ate breakfast one morning. Her affair with would-be Master of Lonsdale, Dr Julian Storrs (John Shrapnel) sets up a thorny private life, but the subsequent shooting of her next-door neighbour leads Morse to suspect that the first murder may have been a case of mistaken identity.

The poisonous business of collegiate in-fighting is a compelling theme, and Richard Briers – cast against type as the deeply unpleasant Sir Clixby Bream (yes, really) is an excellent adversary for Morse. Oh, and don’t forget Roger Allam (Endeavour’s Fred Thursday) as Denis Cornford. Morse’s world is a very small one indeed… Appropriately enough, this is the episode in which we finally learn Morse’s first name.

5. The Way Through The Woods (1995)

Dr. Hobson: “Do you know where I might find a Detective Chief Inspector…looks like ‘Mouse’?”

Morse wasn’t involved in the conviction of serial killer Steven Parnell (Gary Powell), but is intrigued by the dying prisoner’s confession to a priest that he was not responsible for the murder of one of his apparent victims, Karen Anderson, whose body was never recovered. Her missing camera proves to be the key to solving the mystery, as does the discovery of a male body in the woodlands of the title.

This compelling episode is the first of the Morse specials and sets a very high standard. The introduction of new pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) is amusingly done and will delight those who first encountered her in Lewis, while the well-constructed plot does full justice to its source, Dexter’s tenth Morse novel.

4. Dead On Time, Season 6 (1992)

“It was Mrs Fallon I knew – before she became Mrs Fallon, Lewis. We were engaged to be married.”

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This moving episode briefly reunites Morse with Susan Fallon, his former fiancée and lifelong love, as he and Lewis are tasked with investigating the death of her husband, academic Henry Fallon. Wheelchair-bound due to a neurological condition, Henry could not have fired the gunshot that killed him. Is this a case of murder or assisted suicide?

Susan (Joanna David, aunt of Laurence “Hathaway” Fox) is a tragic figure, having previously lost her daughter and grandson in a car accident. Morse identifies several possible suspects, but Lewis becomes concerned as his boss’ long-buried emotions start to interfere with his handling of the case.

The resolution, when it comes, is a burden Lewis chooses to shoulder alone. A superb performance by Thaw, along with the touching proof of Lewis’ compassion for his irascible boss, leaves an indelible impression of the deep sadness that haunts Morse, and will prove especially poignant for fans of Endeavour.

3. Second Time Around, Season 5 (1991)

“Patrick thinks you’re a very good detective. Poor policeman, and a very good detective.”

When Deputy Assistant Commissioner Charlie Hillian (Maurice Bush) is murdered at his home on the night of his retirement party, suspicions fall upon those liable to be affected by the publication of his planned book on the most memorable cases from his time in the force. Chief amongst the suspects is Frederick Redpath (Oliver Ford Davis), who is widely believed to have been responsible for the still unsolved killing of an eight-year-old girl eighteen years previously.

Morse soon clashes with DCI Dawson (Kenneth Colley) as he tries to find the murderer once and for all. Christopher Eccleston brings unexpected pathos to his role as Terrence Mitchell, while the melancholic overtones always present in Inspector Morse deepen here into a pall of intense gloom, as the prejudices and miseries of decades come out into the open. Not a light watch, then, but an essential one for long-time fans.

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2. Masonic Mysteries, Season 4 (1990)

“Why do policemen always go around in pairs, like low comedians?”

Fool Morse once, shame on you. Fool Morse twice, and it’s pretty clear that you’re actually an old adversary with form in this area (shame on him, then, for forgetting the lessons of that season two Endeavour finale).

When Morse finds his friend Beryl Newsome stabbed to death at a rehearsal of The Magic Flute, he makes the mistake of picking up the murder weapon. This leads to his suspension and investigation for the crime, while Lewis is forced to work for Morse’s rival, Chief Inspector Bottomley (Richard Kane). It soon becomes clear that Morse has been framed, but by whom?

Future Star Wars villain Ian McDiarmid as Hugo De Vries brings a truly sinister edge to this most genuinely unnerving of Morse’s cases, in which the unfortunate detective is almost burnt alive in his house. His outrage is complete when he learns that the fire was started by a device concealed within a notoriously poor recording of The Magic Flute, which is downright insulting to opera buff Morse.

For those Endeavour fans curious to learn how a post-Thursday future might look, this episode sees the first appearance of Morse’s eventual mentor, Desmond McNutt (here played by Iain Cuthbertson). Danny Boyle’s direction lends this episode visual flair in abundance, while John Thaw’s superlative performance is utterly compelling.

1. The Remorseful Day (2000)

Ensanguining the skies

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How heavily it dies

     Into the west away;

Past touch and sight and sound

Not further to be found,

How hopeless under ground

     Falls the remorseful day.

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A. E. Housman – XVI (How clear, how lovely bright)

“The Remorseful Day,” based on Dexter’s final Morse novel, may not feature the strongest case in Morse’s history, but that hardly matters. Yvonne Harrison’s murder is reinvestigated after an anonymous tip-off, but her complicated personal life leaves Morse and Lewis with several potential suspects. Morse, only just returned from a period of sick leave, is forced to contemplate his own mortality, as his final collapse in the grounds of his old college, Lonsdale, draws ever closer. 

“The Remorseful Day” brings his story to a deeply moving close, of which the highlight is Morse’s beautiful recitation of Housman’s poem as he watches the sunset with Lewis while musing upon the retirement he will never get to enjoy. The relationship between Morse and Lewis is beautifully depicted here, culminating in the faithful sergeant’s farewell to the loveable curmudgeon he would never have dared display affection to in life. Bending to kiss Morse on the forehead, he simply says, “Goodbye, sir.”