In a 2018 poll conducted by Radio Times, Inspector Morse was named “the greatest British crime drama of all time,” ahead of such shows as Poirot, Midsomer Murders, and Broadchurch. The fact that the final episode had aired nearly two decades earlier speaks to Morse’s enduring nature in the eyes of the viewing public. In many ways, the popularity of this TV series (itself an adaptation of a 13-book series by Colin Dexter) owes a lot to the Oxonian setting, and the ways in which the city almost becomes an additional character, providing a romantic backdrop to some of the most gruesome of murders.
Firstly, a bit of background on the ‘Morse universe’, which actually comprises three separate TV series: Inspector Morse (1987 – 2000), Lewis (2005 – 2015), and Endeavour (2012 – 2023). The shows were filmed out of order: Endeavour is actually set before the other two, following a young and upcoming Morse in the 1960s and 1970s. Morse remains faithful to the books in that the titular character tragically dies just before closing his final case before retirement. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on in Lewis, with several other characters also returning. Incidentally, Endeavour was 4th in the same popularity poll from Radio Times, whilst Lewis was 12th, so it’s safe to say that all three shows have been a resounding success.
In Morse, the titular character has deep ties with Oxford which are explored in various episodes across the three shows. His backstory is one marred by failure: a love affair gone wrong whilst studying for Greats at the fictional Lonsdale College, based on Brasenose College, leads to him losing his academic scholarship and leaving without completing his degree. However by the time Endeavour begins, he is back in Oxford and working for the City Police. As a modern telling of a prequel, Endeavour is able to integrate historical events into the storylines: audiences are not only treated to intricate cases where each character has tangible and relatable motivations, but they also witness the evolution of Oxford as a city across the series. However, it is sometimes evident that the directors working on Endeavour were more restricted in the variety of shots they could capture of the landscape, as cranes and construction work don’t really fit the 1960s aesthetic.
Another unique aspect of the Morse universe is its nuanced approach to the town and gown divide, something which prevails in the city to this day. From professors who prevent the police from carrying out their work, to obscure academia finding its way into clues to solve complex cases, the distinction between the two worlds is clear throughout the series. Broadly speaking, each of the three shows has one leading character who either attended Oxford (in Morse’s case) or Cambridge (in Lewis’ Sergeant Hathaway’s case) and one leading character who joined the police without pursuing a degree. The town and gown divide therefore also exists within the police force itself, meaning that whilst the characters who know Ancient Greek and Latin can use their knowledge to crack obscure codes, they sometimes rely too heavily on reason instead of gut instinct when solving cases. In many episodes, the students and tutors become embroiled in the investigations, and the creators treat the audience to snippets of Oxford life, albeit from a markedly outsider’s perspective. The tutors are frequently referred to using the archaic term “Dons” even in the modern episodes, and are depicted all too often as stuffy academics who are less than cooperative.
Nevertheless, the shows take full advantage of the stunning architectural backdrops that Oxford provides in abundance, coupled with carefully selected pieces of classical music interspersed into the soundtrack. If you want somewhere to start, I would suggest that you listen to the hauntingly beautiful Morse theme tune, which, in one of a huge number of ‘Easter eggs’ dotted throughout the shows, begins with the letters M-O-R-S-E in Morse code. It’s easy to see why the audience’s imaginations have been captured across nearly four decades, and why Morse walking tours are still popular today, attracting people from all over the world. Countless articles have been compiled listing the various filming locations in the shows, from college grounds, to libraries, to pubs – a frequent haunting ground for Morse and his colleagues. If you’re ever in The White Horse, you’ll see posters dotted around from Morse, and the Turf Tavern has a quote on its wall which sums up the Inspector quite well: “There’s always time for one more pint.” Perhaps the clearest indication of Morse’s legacy is the Morse Bar in the famous Randolph Hotel, where Colin Dexter penned some of the original stories.
Overall, I would thoroughly recommend watching an episode or two from any of the three shows if you fancy seeing a bit more of Oxford on your screens, and if you have an evening to spare. Although the number of murders that seem to take place in Oxford probably seems appallingly high, once the disbelief is suspended, you’re left with a gripping crime drama with a gorgeous aesthetic. What more could you ask for?