Magazine article The Spectator

Oxford Polymath

Magazine article The Spectator

Oxford Polymath

Article excerpt

There was a scene in the latest Inspector Morse, Death Is Now My Neighbour (ITV), in which Morse and Lewis are having a drink. The detective sergeant says something a bit gormless, and Morse replies, almost under his breath, `Oh, Lewis...' It was a self-referential joke, since the catchphrase of the whole series has been - I will try to express this typographically 'O-H-H, Leeee-wiss!'

I was reminded of Maggie Smith's Lady Bracknell in the West End some years ago. For much of the play the audience is waiting for just one line, so when she murmured 'A handbag?' in an indifferent, throwaway fashion, there was not only laughter but an obvious release of tension.

As I've often said, almost all long-running, successful series become parodies of themselves. Morse the Show is as much a part of the plot as the improbable events themselves are. People ask why the characters in EastEnders never watch EastEnders; you sense that the people in Morse would tell you that Morse is their favourite programme.

For instance, this week he finally got himself a woman. As they waited for the flunkies to whisk his red Jag off to the valet parking, the lovely Adele said, `Are we going to have room service, or go down to dinner?' and Morse replied, 'I think, perhaps, both,' which, unless I'm being quite dirty, is quite a dirty remark to make. Fourteen million viewers must have sighed, `At last!'

Morse has always existed in two worlds. There's the reality of modern Oxford, Barratt housing estates, Lewis's surly offspring, hooligans from the city which includes the Blackbird Leys estate as well as Magdalen college. Then there are the plonking remarks designed to remind us that we are in the late 1990s. Alcoholic don's wife is recalling a rare romp with her husband that morning: `Then my radio alarm went off. Jim Naughtie at a time like that!' (Which seemed unfair on Jim. I don't suppose he would use the Today programme to complain about Maggie Steed interrupting his love life.)

On top of all this heavily signalled reality are plots of a complexity John le Carre might balk at. I almost began to lose it all this week when we saw, crashing fatally down the stairs, the wife of the candidate for Master who had been blackmailed into sleeping with the outgoing Master, whose marriage had been wrecked by her husband who had in turn been consoling himself with the wife of the other candidate. Or something on those lines. …

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