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I detect a winner in Morse's Endeavour

Endeavour, the early adventures of the young, still-to-be-Inspector Morse, returns on Sunday for the first of four new episodes. Before the pilot episode was broadcast two years ago, many Morse fans feared it might sully the reputation of the original.

But thanks to a winning performance by Shaun Evans, who manages to catch the melancholy essence of Morse without resorting to a crude impression of the late John Thaw, good scripts and an evocative depiction of 1960s Oxford, Endeavour has silenced the doubters.

But Morse's creator, Colin Dexter, is adamant that Evans will be the final person to portray the character. The 83-year-old author said this week that he has written a clause into his will banning any actor from playing the mature Morse after his death.

"A lot of people connected with Morse didn't want anyone coming along to say, 'We will try to outdo dear old John'," Dexter said. "I said I was never going to allow that."

It's expected that when Dexter eventually passes away, his estate will enforce the ban for the 70 years it will hold the copyright.

Dexter has always been fiercely protective of Morse (it took four years' persuasion before he consented to Endeavour), so it's a mark of his respect for both Thaw and the producers of the original series that he allowed them to make a couple of significant changes when transferring his real-ale-drinking, crossword-solving, classical music-loving hero from page to screen.

In the early books, Morse drove a Lancia; in the series, he drove a red 1960 Jaguar. The literary Sgt Lewis, Morse's sidekick, was a burly Welsh ex-boxer; the TV Lewis was a young, working-class Geordie (Kevin Whately) with a family.

CHEMISTRY

The chemistry sparked by the contrast between the two characters – and the two actors, who became close friends off-screen – was key to the success of Inspector Morse.

You can appreciate why Dexter wants to protect his creation even from beyond the grave. Thaw was a perfect stroke of casting – you simply can't imagine anyone else playing the older, fully-formed Morse. But this wasn't the only case of an actor fitting the character of a detective like a glove.

David Suchet was the definitive Hercule Poirot. After his 24-year reign in the role, it's doubtful any actor would want to step into his spats. Sherlock Holmes has been incarnated numerous times on television, yet even Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch would probably agree that the late Jeremy Brett's Holmes in the long-running Granada Television series remains the best ever.

Columbo, starring Peter Falk as the homicide detective whose scruffy, shambolic appearance conceals a brilliant deductive brain, was another case of actor and character in perfect harmony. Believe it or not, though, Falk was actually the third actor to play him.

Bert Freed played Columbo in a live TV drama called Enough Rope in 1960, eight years before Falk donned the trademark mac. When Columbo's creators Richard Levinson and William Link adapted it into a stage play called Prescription: Murder two years later, the 70-year-old Thomas Mitchell, star of Gone with the Wind, took the lead.

But no matter how iconic a character, someone somewhere will always want to mess with it. Kojak, one of the greatest – and, for its time, grittiest – cop shows of the 70s, probably wouldn't have been a worldwide sensation without Telly Savalas as the bullet-headed, lollipop-sucking New York detective. A remake with Pulp Fiction star Ving Rhames, a great actor but no Savalas, was ill-advised and lasted only one season.

The disastrous recent remake of Ironside, the 60s and 70s favourite that starred the bear-like Raymond Burr as a San Francisco police chief in a wheelchair, basically turned the character into a kind of Shaft on wheels, played by Blair Underwood. Nine episodes were made but only four shown. You can catch it on 5USA – although catching chicken pox would probably be preferable.

ENDEAVOUR, SUNDAY, 8PM, UTV/ITV


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