'Middlebrow' is often used as a derogatory term in British culture,
particularly in TV, where it is thought to be a dominant form of expression.
Considered to appeal particularly to the suburban middle classes, 'middlebrow'
drama is considered safe and sterile. This is often true, but there are
undeniable pleasures too and Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-2000) embodies the best
On the surface, the series offers little that is new or challenging; it
adopts the familiar patterns of the English 'whodunnit', usually played out
against the background of Oxford colleges. However, it proved to be enormously
influential in British television (if not entirely to the good) and sometimes
succeeded in bringing out the complexities of the human condition.
Formally, Inspector Morse set a new mould for TV drama. Each episode ran for
2 hours and the pace was typically languid. The series' success showed that
audiences accepted this if the story was involving enough and the surroundings
pleasant. Some of the pleasure was in the space and detail given to lingering
footage of old buildings, vintage cars and real ale and to the classical music
No one could accuse the programme of being grittily realistic - Oxford's
murder rate rivalled the Bronx; Morse, with his taciturn ways and hatred of
computers, would have been pensioned off years ago - but there is a level of
emotional realism at work. Much of this rests on John Thaw's extraordinary
central performance, hinting at an unremitting sadness and disappointment at the
frailty of human beings, himself above all. However unlikely the murder plots,
you can feel the pain of failure every time Thaw is on screen.
There is a formulaic edge to the series that veers occasionally to parody -
Morse will invariably fall for a female suspect, blush when admitting he has
never married and ask her out for dinner at the most inappropriate moment
possible, then will wrongly guess the murderer until the downtrodden Lewis puts
him right at the last moment - but that ultimately only adds to the enjoyment.
The series usually makes the audience comfortable, but surely that has its place
in our viewing lives, alongside edgier work. Its exemplary craftsmanship and
moral complexity raises it far above the slew of derivative thrillers that
followed in its wake. When Morse died of a coronary in the final episode -
fittingly alone - it was a genuinely moving TV moment.