Tag Archives: Inspector Morse

Being Morse

As Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour returns for a seventh season, star Shaun Evans talks to DQ about keeping the detective series fresh, avoiding impersonations and stepping into the director’s chair.

In the beginning, it was a single drama commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of Inspector Morse. But eight years later, prequel series Endeavour is now back for its seventh season, continuing the story of the young Endeavour Morse’s early days as a detective in Oxford.

Shaun Evans returns in the title role, once again joined by Roger Allam as DCI Fred Thursday for three new films again written by Russell Lewis, taking the characters into a new decade, the 1970s. Episode one, Oracle, sees Endeavour taking in the new year at an opera house in Venice, while Thursday is convinced he has found the man responsible for a murder on an Oxford towpath.

Shaun Evans steps behind the camera still in costume

New acquaintances and old friendships make themselves known, while a contentious college project develops into a fatal battle of the sexes.

The ITV drama – coproduced with Masterpiece in the US – may have been on air for eight years, but the limited number of episodes each year means Evans feels the series is as fresh as ever.

“We’re lucky because we only generally have four in the season, and this time it’s even less,” he says. “In a way that gives you more scope and because you’ve got a bigger gap between seasons it doesn’t feel like you’re constantly at the coalface. You can go away and do something else and then come back. That makes it easier, but also knowing there’s a shelf life [for the series] and that there is an end point focuses the mind. The great thing, though, is if the viewing figures are good enough, they’ll invite you to come back. It’s not taken for granted.”

With an eighth season already commissioned, the drama is now rapidly catching up to the original Morse series and it seems likely ITV will take Endeavour to its conclusion, however close that might be to the original series, which ran between 1987 and 2000.

“Having read the books [by Colin Dexter that inspired the original Morse series], that was my starting point of where the character was at the very beginning. But now, I feel like it’s got its own life,” Evans says of the prequel. “My only duty really is to finish the story we’ve embarked upon. To be honest, I think we’ll leave a big enough gap. There will be something like a 10-year gap before Morse starts, so I don’t feel too constrained by that.”

From the outset, the actor says he wanted to avoid any constraints put on Endeavour by the original series, particularly when it came to how he would portray the actor, who was originally played by the late John Thaw.

Part of the episode Oracle is set in a Venice opera house

“When we first started I said I didn’t want to do an impression, otherwise what’s the point? I’m not doing any creative work then,” he says. “Fortunately it’s snowballed and so my intention is, if we are going to continue, to continue in that vein, to just keep doing my work and doing the work I’m proud of and bringing immediacy to the role if I’m acting it or a dynamism to if I’m directing it, so I can sleep at night. Beyond that, it’s not my decision.”

The current trend in television drama is for stories to play out over eight or 10 hours, with just as much investment in character development as there might be in the plot driving through the series. With a restricted number of episodes and a crime to solve in each one, does Evans feel he’s able to dig deep into Endeavour’s own personality?

“What I have discovered to be interesting is the plot-versus-character aspect of it and negotiating that,” he says. “For example, what I enjoy now is the flexibility of whether something is implausible or unlikely. There’s the flexibility of going, ‘Okay, that could happen’ and how do I get this character from scene A to scene B in a way that’s as believable and as immediate as possible, even though it may be slightly implausible. That is the nature of this job, rather than me creating a character. So the whole experience has really made me rethink what I think about acting for the screen and what that is moving forward.”

As a producer on the series as well as the leading actor, Evans is constantly in touch with the ‘family’ behind the scenes, whether that’s series creator and writer Russell Lewis or the production team at Mammoth Screen. “We’re all speaking throughout the year so it there’s something that needs our attention, we’re already talking about it anyway. And by the end of each season, we’re all more or less on the same page about going, ‘That didn’t work so well, but that was really good.’ For better or worse, it’s a constant conversation, which is a really unique and joyous way to be working.”

Evans is now adding directing to his list of duties and with three episodes of BBC medical drama Casualty under his belt, he made his directorial debut on Endeavour with an episode on season six. Now in season seven, he repeated his dual role on the first episode, Oracle.

Roger Allam returns as DCI Fred Thursday

“I’m not going to lie and say I was a kid running around with a 16mm camera,” Evans says of his directing pedigree. “I wasn’t, but from the get-go I was always more interested in doing as much as I can and being as broad as I can. I was glad when I was given the opportunity.”

He got his first break on Casualty, where series producer Erika Hossington invited him on to the show. “She did some due diligence and called around, heard that my heart was in the right place and then gave me the opportunity,” he recalls. “I prepared like a motherfucker and went and did it. The great thing for me at least about doing that rather than making a short film as a transition [into directing] is there’s something that focuses the mind when, yes it’s a machine, yes in six months time this will be out and people will see it, but also you’re surrounded by paid professionals who can sniff out if someone doesn’t know what they fuck they’re doing.

“For me, it’s better to learn under a little bit of pressure. It was an amazing experience in that respect. I started to learn about scenes and covering scenes. It was nerve-wracking for the first day or so but you’ve got to have a thick skin and be like, ‘Okay, I wasn’t so great at that. I’ll learn for next time.’”

He went on to direct three episodes of Casualty before filming 2019’s Apollo episode of Endeavour. “That was a really good experience and then they asked me to do it again. We also have a shorthand together now, myself and the team, because we’re friends and because we’ve made so many of them. I understand the tropes of this kind of story so I’m not wasting time there. I also have a shorthand with both the returning crew and the cast, so it makes it very efficient.”

Oracle opens with shots across the Oxford skyline and above rooftops, with atmospheric images of haunting woods and fog-covered bridges and canals. These are cross-cut with pictures of Endeavour attending the opera in Venice, where an elaborate performance – created purely for the series – is taking place on stage. There are also shots taken through windows, framing characters in different ways, while the camera, rarely still, is often moving with characters as they walk through crowds or waiting for them to approach from afar.

Evans says directors on the show, which is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, are encouraged to be “as bold and as different” as they can to make the film their own, rather than relying on a directing blueprint.

Actors Naomi Battrick and Abigail Thaw (right), daughter of Inspector Morse star John Thaw

“I storyboard it for myself in a very rudimentary way and then I make a list of things I want to see and the backgrounds I want to see and where I imagine things will take place, and then throw it out, and then start again,” he says of his preparation process. “You have to build to be able to destroy but that’s part of the nerves. I want to be the one with all the answers, as a director should be. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone in that role falter and flounder. It’s most effective when that person is most decisive and has a clear goal and is confident enough to be open to better suggestions. That’s what I’ve noticed by working for 20 years.”

For Oracle, he also enjoyed the opportunity to film in Venice, where he and a skeleton crew spent just a few days collecting what they needed.

“When you’re working on a TV show, it’s a huge circus that comes around but it’s great because you have all of that support,” he says. “But we wrapped on the Tuesday and then me and three others went to Venice on Wednesday, so we were shooting it in a very different set-up. There’s much more of a guerrilla style then. I flew out on Wednesday morning, looked at the location Wednesday afternoon and then we started shooting Thursday so you’re open to the TV gods to give you what you need and then you make it. It’s as simple as that.

“After being in the pressure cooker of being on a TV set, there’s something very freeing about just being in this place with a camera and a small team and knowing what you need, with just very rudimentary equipment. There’s something about that I found really engaging that I hadn’t done before, either on Casualty or Endeavour.”

Evans says what’s great about directing versus acting is that you can learn to become a better director, while acting is more instinctive and intuitive. He has also learned that, behind the camera, both preparation and an openness to other people’s ideas are key.

In addition, “experience is all,” he notes. “Don’t be precious. Go and do a show just to have hours. That was my take on it. You can learn even on a job you know is not your ultimate goal, but you’ve started on the journey and you learn some things. And work begets work as well. There’s no point you being aloof, sitting in the house until you get your big opportunities to make your film. If you’re out there busy grafting, then you’re learning something and people are talking about you anyway, and you’re not becoming stale. That would be my last thing that goes for anything. That’s a skill to be learned.”

The actor says he would eventually like to direct something he had written himself, adding that he’s “ambivalent” to whether that be a film or on television. “My hope is I’m in all of this for the long haul, so you can just keep that keep getting better and not just have one film that you want to direct or one part that you want to play,” he adds. “To get better at your work would be my goal.”

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Out with the new, in with the old

As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.

In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.

Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.

Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.

Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?

ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.

Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.

Nordic noir drama Jordskott
Jordskott has performed well on ITV Encore

From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.

Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?

At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.

Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.

One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.

It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).

And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.

Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.

Law & Order
Law & Order is a popular re-run choice among viewers

With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.

But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.

As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.

FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.

Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).

Love Hurts
Could classics like Love Hurts be remade, or sold as formats?

After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).

The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.

Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.

“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”

Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.

US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.

The Sweeney
We could see a remake of the hit series The Sweeney

UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.

Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”

Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”

As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).

In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.

Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.

And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.

Antenna Spain's Grand Hotel
Antenna Spain’s Grand Hotel

Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”

Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”

Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.

One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.

AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.

The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).

This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.

Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.

These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.

With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

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