The creator of Chief Inspector Morse, one of Britain’s and the world’s favorite fictional detectives, has died. Colin Dexter’s publisher announced that the beloved 86-year-old writer and raconteur passed away peacefully at his Oxford home Tuesday morning. No cause of death was given.
Dexter, a former academic turned crime writer, first gave the world the curmudgeonly Morse in the 1975 novel Last Bus to Woodstock. A dozen more successful novels and a collection of short stories followed until 1999’s The Remorseful Day, when Morse dies on the page. Also following were 33 episodes of ITV’s production of Inspector Morse, where the lead character is played pitch-perfectly by the late John Thaw. The series, new episodes of which ran in the U.K. from 1987 to 2000, became one of the most popular television shows in British history, sometimes drawing audiences north of 15 million in a country of 60 million. Dexter worked as a consultant to the show (and later to Inspector Lewis) and, taking a page from Alfred Hitchcock, often made brief cameo appearances in the episodes.
The show came to the American small screen, mostly on PBS stations, a year after it was first aired in the U.K. It proved widely popular here, as well as in the scores of other countries where it has been broadcast. The show led to spin-offs in the form of Inspector Lewis, Morse’s sergeant in the original series, and Endeavour, a “prequel” featuring the young Detective Constable Morse, played by Shaun Evans.
The show was a phenomenon but an unlikely one. It’s hard to overestimate the challenges facing those who initially pitched the show and the character, as it’s hard to play more against type than Chief Inspector Morse. Rather than the usual tough-guy cop, familiar and popular on both sides of the Atlantic, Morse is contemplative, an opera-loving intellectual snob more apt to quote poetry in difficult situations than to resort to barnyard oaths. Morse and Lewis are relentless in pursuing the bad guys and hardly creampuffs. But Crocket and Tubbs they aren’t. There are very few physical dustups in the episodes. Suspects are not thrown against walls and threatened. And Morse would never risk his classic red Jaguar in a car-chase.
But somehow it all works. Thanks to great scripts, which Dexter helped form. Also first-rate acting, a very photogenic Oxford as a backdrop, and a fine soundtrack by Barrington Pheloung, a mix of classical music and Pheloug’s original compositions, like the haunting theme from Morse which you can listen to here. Some of Britain’s finest actors — Sir John Gielgud, Robert Hardy, Richard Griffiths, and Phyllis Logan, just to name a few — made guest appearances in the episodes.
Like many creators of a fictional series character, Dexter gives Morse many of his own attributes. Both love classical music, especially Wagner. They both love crossword puzzles and real ale. They’re both readers and grammar pedants. They’re both really smart, quick with a quip or a comeback. But Morse’s comebacks are usually more acerbic than Dexter’s. On the basis of everything I’ve read about Dexter and the interviews with him I’ve seen (here’s an example), Dexter, unlike Morse, was the most engaging and personable fellow. Apparently the cheeriest of men created the grumpiest of characters, but a character many across the world came to love.
Dexter acknowledged the scratchiness of his creation in 2000 on the occasion of his (Dexter, not Morse) being awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire, saying that if Morse were real and alive, he might say, “I wish you’d made me a slightly less miserable blighter and slightly more generous, and you could have painted me in a little bit better light.”
But while Morse had his grumpy spells, he was a very complex and always compelling character who could surprise viewers with his sensitivity and humanity when it was least expected. This and the richness of Dexter’s stories make Chief Inspector Morse a character for the ages. And Dexter a writer who has brought reading and viewing pleasure to millions. May they both be always remembered.
RIP Colin Dexter.
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