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TV crime fiction as period drama

Roger Allam (in the hat) and Shaun Evans in Endeavour

Roger Allam (in the hat) and Shaun Evans in ‘Endeavour’

I’ve just caught an episode of Endeavour, ITV’s Inspector Morse prequel series. It’s a very impressive production with an excellent leading pair of Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as DI Thursday. Tonight’s episode was set in January 1966 with generally very good production design but thankfully not a soundtrack packed with pop songs. The musical references, appropriately for Morse, were mainly classical but there were two good live performances of r&b/blues in a nightclub. Barrington Pheloung’s music was always an important ingredient of the original series.

My interest here is to raise questions about genre and the global market for crime fiction TV. Inspector Morse (Carlton/ITV 1987-2000)  was in many ways an influential TV export, not least because of its relatively large budget (arguably more than for domestic UK cinema features on an hourly basis). The most obvious reference for Endeavour in terms of period setting and narrative potential is the BBC series Inspector George Gently which began in 2007 with Martin Shaw in the lead. I was struck tonight by the central narrative thread which was shared by Inspectors Thursday and Gently as tough London cops who have had to leave London to work in Oxford and Tyneside respectively, but who are now facing up to the past they thought they had left behind. The London underworld, property development and town planning corruption as seen in the Endeavour episode are very much authentic 1960s crime narrative material. Endeavour scores because of the single-minded moral strength of the young Morse, very different to the unpleasant reactionary values of young Sergeant Bacchus in George Gently. I like George Gently but I do wonder if it doesn’t draw a little too much on the nostalgia repertoire of Heartbeat and its spin-off The Royal which filled ITV’s early evening Sunday slot. These were comic cop and doc dramas set in North Yorkshire in the 1960s, which fed voraciously on 60s nostalgia for cars, pop songs and other aspects of popular culture (I say this from only the very briefest of glimpses of long-running series and I’m happy to be corrected).

A slightly closer reference for George Gently and Endeavour might be Jericho with Robert Lindsay as Inspector Michael Jericho – a high-budget Granada series broadcast in 2005 and set in London in the 1950s. This was seen as linked to the success of ITV’s Foyle’s War with Michael Kitchen as a police inspector working in London during 1939-45. That series has recently returned, reportedly because of public demand and has moved into the immediate post-war period. Soon another new ITV ‘mini-series’ (2 x 1 hour) Murder on the Home Front will be broadcast dealing with the Home Office pathologist and his secretary investigating a series of murders in London in 1940.

I think we have here a quite distinctive crime genre repertoire covering crime fictions with ‘personal’ stories (i.e. interesting characters with back stories?) set in the 1940s-60s and drawing on crimes of the period in social/cultural/political terms. On the other hand, a much broader repertoire of ‘crime fiction mixed with costume drama’ could be seen to include a very large number of UK crime fiction production on TV over the years. The original Sherlock Holmes and more recently Ripper Street, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and other stories are all effectively period drama, but not treated in the same way as this current trend. These earlier series feel more like attempts just to use a colourful backdrop rather than to explore something about the time period in question.

Endeavour (the mysterious first name of the Morse character, if you weren’t aware) feels like the most ‘serious’ of these historical crime fictions, perhaps because of the personality of the central character. Some of the others exploit the comic potential much more and in the case of the BBC hits Life On Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-10) the comedy is partly social satire and postmodern ‘play’ mixed with science fiction. These two theories also dealt with the slightly more recent past of the 1970s and 1980s.

I guess I have two questions for others interested in TV crime fiction in a global context. First, is this a peculiarly UK genre? I remember as a child watching the US series The Untouchables (1959-63) and there has been a more recent Canadian series of Murdoch Mysteries (2008-) but neither of these seem quite the same as Endeavour/Gently/Jericho etc. I’m hopeful of Young Montalbano which I think we’ll get in the UK later this year? Do you agree that there is a distinctive new genre repertoire? If so, how do you think we should begin analysing it?

Discussion

2 thoughts on “TV crime fiction as period drama

  1. This series clearly owes its life on TV to the earlier success of Inspector Morse. I have watched most of one episode, Endeavour up against a serial-killer who pits his wits against the young Morse. It seemed very derivative. The two main characters are pretty good, but it was a long way from the original Morse.
    The best of these had a central theme that became fairly complex. Of course, I may have just picked on a weak episode in the series.

    Posted by keith1942 | May 10, 2013, 13:17
    • I’m bemused by this. It’s a prequel and therefore its whole raison d’ȇtre is to be derived from the earlier series and to try to represent a character who later grew into the character in the original series. I think that the scripts of the two I’ve seen do far have been quite carefully thought through in terms of how a young Morse might have behaved.

      Posted by Roy Stafford | May 13, 2013, 16:18

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