Television: Crime and punishment, wrapped up in tweed or hidden behind bars

It’s all very well being tweedy, but elements of ‘Endeavour’ jar with the likeable aspects of ‘Morse’

More morose than Morse: Sean Rigby as PC Strange, Shaun Evans as Endeavour, Jack Laskey as DS Peter Jakes, Roger Allam as DI Fred Thursday and Anton Lesser as Chief Supt Reginald Bright

More morose than Morse: Sean Rigby as PC Strange, Shaun Evans as Endeavour, Jack Laskey as DS Peter Jakes, Roger Allam as DI Fred Thursday and Anton Lesser as Chief Supt Reginald Bright

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

A gentle, beautifully made whodunnit with nice costumes and no gory forensics is just right for a Sunday night, when you need to be diversted from the week ahead. Endeavour (UTV), the Inspector Morse prequel, does it particularly well. Set in the 1960s, it follows a young Morse (Shaun Evans) as he returns from sick leave to three crimes that he believes are linked – although his superiors take convincing. There’s a man who fell from a tall building, a missing girl and, because an Oxford college and academics have to figure somewhere, the theft of a trove of precious artefacts. Throw in a local election, some rather nice tweed suits and the dastardly lodge of Freemasons and you have a very English, very Morse drama.

Having happily bought into the idea in the first series that Evans could be a young Morse – he has the outward trappings, being fond of Jags, arias and a pint – I’m not sure I believe the young Morse as developed in this episode, which is the first of four. Here he is simply unlikeable, churlish, morose and mostly monosyllabic. Are we really to believe that the nice nurse in the apartment across the hall is going to fall for him, as is telegraphed this week? John Thaw’s Morse was a curmudgeon, but he didn’t lack charm. And young Morse spends the episode barely speaking, yet when it comes to the Poirot -style denouement, in which everyone is gathered together and he reveals who done it and why – Endeavour really is old school – his fluid, very lengthy speech seems out of character. (An unsavoury twist involving incest also seems an inconsistent add-on.) Roger Allam plays DI Fred Thursday, the calm, pipe-sucking voice of experience who is Morse’s mentor and father figure. He is so perfect that he could get a spin-off series of his own.

True crime is not as neat and appealing. The excellent, gritty and tough-to-watch observational documentary Prison Families (TV3, Tuesday) looks at the grindingly difficult experience of people whose son or partner is in prison.

It is a sensitive piece of work from producer Anne McLoughlin, who rewards the plain-speaking honesty of the participants by simply letting them tell their story. Brendan, a taxi driver and father-of-four, is hopeful that his 25-year-old addict son, Stephen, will stay on the straight and narrow when he gets out of Midlands Prison. Donna’s partner is in Mountjoy. She describes what “a hands-on dad” he is to their baby and how she “couldn’t have wished for a better father for him”.

In Brendan’s and, later, Mary’s stories we see the world their sons have dragged them into, the chaos of having a heroin addict in the house, and the relief for Brendan when his son is in prison. At least then, he says, he knows where he is at night. For Mary in Killarney, her son’s imprisonment means the extra responsibility of bringing up his child as well as her own teenagers, the long monthly round trips to Midlands Prison, and the emotional exhaustion of protecting the toddler from the reality that his dad, whom he hardly knows, is in jail and not “working away”.

The three young women in the show – Donna and Lauren from Dublin and Rachel from Limerick – had an idea what they were getting into with their choice of partners. They seem tougher and, in Lauren’s case, more resentful of the system. But, for Mary and Brendan, having adult sons in prison is another painful twist in the long road of parenthood, and their insights into their situation are raw and realistic without a trace of self pity. Prison Families (the second part is next week) is a rare, superbly made, very human insight into an aspect of crime and punishment that’s easy to forget.

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