Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Giving Thanks for John Thaw and Inspector Morse

"People who do crosswords..... have blanks in their lives, and no clue how to fill them"  

Adele to Morse, Death Is Now My Neighbour

My inaction to get a flu shot in October lead to--or at least contributed to--enduring a terrible bout of influenza in November. Maybe not of the magnitude of the pandemic of 1918 that killed more people than battlefields of WWl  (Wiki says 50 to 100 million, or 3 to 5% of the world's population) but it felt as deadly.

To make matters worse, I needed to keep going into work, as many do. And so began 14 days of a weird, feverish stumbling about between waking periods in pain and discomfort, and unrestful sleeping periods, not always at night. Living in the fog of the flu is the closest to being a zombie that I ever wish to experience.

Within the fog I was searching for anything to help me feel better, including surfing channels hither and yon, when I stumbled across CUNY NYC that was playing the second half of Inspector Morse, "Fat Chance."


Endorphins immediately flooded my brain at the first sight of John Thaw. Here the world made sense: it was visually beautiful and aurally sublime.  There was strength of thought and mind, not weakness of body (well, not yet).

I watched the 1991 episode with Zoe Wanamaker about theology students who wish to enter the Anglican priesthood (Church of England approved ordination of women in 1992, and the first are ordained in 1994) entwined with complications from a diet pill, with the Mozart Laudate Dominum playing throughout. 

That half episode transported me to a place where I felt a little better, for a little bit of time. And to try to continue any sense of well-being I launched into 2 weeks of a Morse marathon, from the beginning, through all 33 episodes. 

I watched sequentially, but it felt like a mosaic of bits & pieces as I dozed off here and there with the flu fatigue.

"You never married?" "You never married?" "You never married?"

"No,  I didn't, why do you keep asking?" I snap to no one. 

Oh, the fog of the flu. They're not asking  me. In the early episodes of the series someone is always questioning Morse about this. His answer: "Too choosy, too hesitant, too lazy, too busy."  I can go with that.

As I burrow into each story,  I meet several old friends. They are all so young, I first recognize their voices, and then the facial recognition snaps it. 

It's the 9th Doctor! (1991 Second Time Around)

It's Doc Martin! (1992 Happy Families)

It's Chief Superintendent Foyle! (1992 The Death of the Self)

It's Boromir! I mean Ned Stark! (1992: Absolution Conviction)

I knew none of these actors when I first watched Inspector Morse, back in the 90s. It was appointment TV for me, as for many.  You knew it was going to be a special series from its first distinctive opening sequence of The Dead of Jericho: glimpses of disparate scenes, which didn't yet make sense, intercut with black title cards, usually to the strains of some soaring piece of classical music.

The music was the most breathtaking for me. I had recently started singing with a choir and learning much of the basic choral repertoire.

Scene up on The Dead of Jericho, and we hear Vivaldi's Gloria.  It's actually very funny, given the later swipes that Morse will take at the piece, putting it down, particularly in relation to the greatness of Wagner.

There is lots of Wagner during the series.  Lots & lots of Mozart, Brahms, more Mozart, the cascades of the Allegri Miserere (years before it was overused).

No other episodic series has ever used classical music with such conviction of its worth, and implicitly, its ability to connect to wide audience.

There series is also imbued with poetry and poetic references of all kinds.  The one that jumped out at me was in "The Last Enemy"  when "the guy" [as Monk would said] is in hospital, and from his bed starts in with:

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
 I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
 I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
  Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
   I hid from Him, 

It is the very distinct opening of Francis Thompson's feverish "The Hound of Heaven."  (Well. everything Thompson wrote was feverish, as is wont for a Jack the Ripper suspect.)

Morse then jumps in with the end of the first stanza.

But with unhurrying chase, 
And unperturbèd pace, 
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, 
They beat--and a Voice beat 
More instant than the Feet-- 
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.'

Ok. Maybe.  Then the guy continues

"Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds 
From the hid battlements of Eternity"

and finishes with couplets that actually come a little earlier, and is not the end of the poem:

My days have crackled and gone up in smoke, 
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream. 
Yea, faileth now even dream 
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;  

"The Hound of Heaven" is a very long poem. I fear that gone are the days when people committed stanza upon stanza to memory. But the series committed to poetry as deeply as it did to classical music.

The distinct cinematography and Barrington Pheloung's whistful, witty, haunting, Morse Code-influenced theme music, that beautiful Jaguar sliding through the canyons and exquisite spires of Oxford are all compelling, but the real draw are John Thaw and Kevin Whately.  

Thaw inhabits Morse with enormous authenticity: the misanthrope who accepts being alone, but continues to try to connect with women. The lover of logic and rules and law, who finds some release for his emotion in music. Who loves crossword puzzles (the Brit kind, not the simpler US type that I do) and good ale to a startling degree. 

And at his side, Whately's epitome of the "comfortable in me skin" man. Genuinely baffled by much of Morse, but drawn to the talent and a shared love of the rule of law.

Their work marriage--both the characters and the actors--is a joy to experience. 

In between watching episodes I was reading 30 years of articles on the series.  When the Blue-Ray 25th anniversary came out lots more articles were written, now with lots of comments.  One sentiment that I saw over and over was "I can't watch 'The Remorseful Day' again."  That is the episode where Endeavour Morse dies, set beautifully to the strains of the Faure Requiem.  I hadn't thought of it in years.

When my own marathon brought me to that point in the story, I thought I was ready. But my fellow fans were right.  It was terrible to watch again, to lose that special character again. My congested chest started heaving amongst deep sobs drowning out "Libera me Dominum . . ."

I knew what I had to do.  

A few clicks of the fingers, and Morse is back creating havoc trying to get his Jaguar fixed at the closed garage, set against the cheery Vivaldi's Gloria, intercut with a choir room rehearsal of Parry's "My Soul, There is a Country," until Morse slips into his front-row seat in the choir, and the story is off and running. All the sorrow of "The Remorseful Day" is gone, and I can visit Oxford again now whenever I want, outside of the fog of the flu. 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!