TALKING POINT: Evolution of the character sends a tingle down the spine
When the late Colin Dexter brought the career of his creation Chief Inspector Morse to an end in the 13th and final novel in the series, The Remorseful Day, in 1999, he did so unequivocally.
Dexter decided Morse wouldn’t slip into a quiet retirement with his crosswords, his real ale and his Wagner records. He’d just die. In both the book and the television adaptation that followed in 2000, Morse – played on screen by the great John Thaw – died after a heart attack.
The end of the series left a gap in the lives of readers and viewers that the spin-off series, Lewis, never quite filled.
ITV knew there was still a huge appetite for Morse and in 2012 came up with a prequel series chronicling the character’s early career on the force.
Endeavour, starring Shaun Evans as the young, impetuous Morse and Roger Allam as his mentor Fred Thursday, turned out to be a triumph. In the wrong hands, however, things could all have gone horribly wrong – as they did with ITV’s subsequent stab at a prequel to another of its classic crime dramas, Prime Suspect.
Prime Suspect 1973 (broadcast in the USA as Prime Suspect: Tennison) fell flat on its face. Despite being based on a novel by Lynda La Plante, it had none of the flavour of the original.
It could have been the story of any young WPC struggling to make her mark in a 1970s force awash with sexism, bad moustaches and white-man Afros. La Plante hated it.
Get a prequel right and you end up with Bates Motel or Hannibal. Get it wrong and you wind up with a disaster like the dire Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries.
So far, the gold standard of prequels is Better Call Saul. The sixth and final season, which has been delayed by you-know-what, is due next year, but some people are already saying it’s surpassed the series that spawned it, Breaking Bad.
I’ll stick my neck out and say that Perry Mason might yet develop into the greatest TV prequel of all. Better Call Saul has the advantage of a well-defined character from a familiar pre-existing universe.
The team behind the new Perry Mason, on the other hand, are dealing with a character that’s been lying dormant for 25 years, since the run of TV movies starring Raymond Burr came to an end.
In addition, Perry’s creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, didn’t give any clues about the character’s past life before he became a lawyer. Essentially, he doesn’t exist outside the moment.
There were plenty of raised eyebrows when this Perry Mason, superbly played by Matthew Rhys, proved to be nothing like the Burr version. He’s not even a lawyer, but a down-at-heel private eye in early 1930s Los Angeles – although he does work for a lawyer, EB Jonathan (John Lithgow). But as the story has progressed, we’ve seen little glimpses of the man Mason might become.
In last night’s fifth episode (of eight), he finally became him. It opened with Della Street (Juliet Rylance) discovering the body of EB, who’d taken his own life in despair. It closed with Perry, having crammed and passed the bar exam, taking the Attorney’s Oath.
The key moment, though, came earlier in a wonderful, two-hand scene with Rhys and Rylance. As Perry, without even realising he’s doing it, makes an angry, impassioned, articulate speech about injustice and corruption, Della’s eyes light up.
She finally realises that Mason, despite being a screw-up in his personal life, has always been the smartest guy in any room. He’s a natural-born advocate and the only one who can sniff out the clues, piece together the evidence and save their innocent client from the electric chair – and he’s been right under her nose all this time.
It’s an electrifying moment that sends a tingle down the spine. Perry Mason is billed as a mini-series, but there surely has to be more after this, because the story has really only just begun.
Perry Mason is on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 9pm. 5 starsSign up to our free entertainment newsletter
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