Follow TV Tropes


Series / Inspector Morse

Go To
"Coded messages, murder — right up my street. It's not a bad way to start the day."

Inspector Morse was a British Detective Drama based on a series of novels by Colin Dexter, which ran from 1987 to 2000. Set among the dreaming spires of Oxford, it starred John Thaw as the grumpy, brilliant and beer-loving Chief Inspector "Inspector" Morse, and Kevin Whately as his cheerful Geordie sidekick Sgt. Robbie Lewis. During the course of each episode, the pair would investigate a murder, which would often involve complex university politics, bright but emotional students and the opportunity for Morse to utilise his love of classical music, literature and cryptic crossword puzzles. Baddies are usually rich, arrogant, and well-connected.

The show was immensely popular in Britain, and John Thaw's portrayal of Morse is generally considered one of British television's most iconic characters. Still repeated fairly frequently on ITV3 in Britain and PBS in the United States.


Sergeant Lewis later received his own spin-off in Lewis, joined by Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) as the only other regular returnee from this series. A prequel, Endeavour, set in 1965 and starring Shaun Evans as the young Detective Constable Morse, aired in 2012; it was renewed for a series airing from April 2013.

The show has also seen a 2010 theatre play adaption, Morse — House of Ghosts, where the role of Morse was played by Colin Baker. BBC later made an audio adaption of the play in 2017, this time with Neil Pearson in the role of Morse.


This show provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: In the book of Last Seen Wearing, Morse realises that Valerie (the missing schoolgirl) is alive and that he's even spoken to her without realising who she was. But by the time he's worked this out, she's disappeared again. In the TV episode with the same title, he succeeds in returning her to her family.
  • Afraid of Blood: Morse has quite a distaste for gore and won't look at fresh corpses unless he absolutely has to. Being a murder detective, he sometimes does have to.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: "Deadly Slumber" marks one of the few times Morse shows deep sympathy for the killer. The killer's young daughter had been rendered brain dead during what should have been a minor surgery thanks to cost-cutting on the part of the clinic which treated her, and the man had taken revenge on the family which owned the clinic. When the Asshole Victim's son calls the killer a monster, Morse bluntly replies that he had been made monstrous.
  • Always Murder: Well, 98% Murder, with the remainder being divided between actual suicides and deaths from natural causes. The only true aversion comes in "The Wench Is Dead," in which nobody dies at all in the story's present-day setting, while in the historical segment Joanna Franks faked her death, and the boat crew had the misfortune to be falsely convicted of her death and executed. "Dead on Time" is a borderline case, as there's only one death involved, and it actually turns out to be an assisted suicide, which is technically still a crime, but only about comparable to manslaughter in terms of punishment.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: A pretty literal example occurs in "Masonic Mysteries" when the Big Bad tries to murder Morse by setting his flat on fire while he sleeps. After surviving the attempt, Morse finds out that the device that started the fire was concealed in a tape of a notoriously bad version of The Magic Flute. Amusingly, Morse seems more annoyed at the notion of having that recording in his collection than he does the attempt on his life or the near-destruction of his flat.
  • Asshole Victim: Quite a few, but the ultimate has to be Ted Brooks in The Daughters of Cain. His drug dealing led to the death of a student. And then he murdered a tutor who discovered this. And he also beats his wife and his daughter. Oh, and the TV series actually improves on his character from the books where his abuse of his step daughter is sexual.
  • Author Appeal:
    • Colin Dexter's love of crosswords and opera are big parts of Morse's character and important to many of the plotlines. Later on, he got Dexter's type 2 diabetes as well.
    • Lewis' love of cricket is definite Author Appeal as well, for both Dexter and Kevin Whately.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The murderer in "The Last Enemy" ends up achieving everything he set out to do, with the only thing that went wrong being that Morse eventually caught him. Even then, as Lewis openly acknowledges, there's no way the murderer will ever be charged with anything since he'll be dead in a few months anyway from cancer, and any halfway competent lawyer would easily get him off on an insanity plea.
    • The murderer in "Deadly Slumber" is implicitly another case, despite ending up killed himself, as he achieves his revenge on the married doctors whose negligence and fraud resulted in his daughter's brain damage..
  • Batman Gambit: In "The Day of the Devil", a serial rapist escapes from prison and murders several people before being shot dead by police. Turns out his female psychiatrist arranged the whole thing — she convinced him the other members of his gang had betrayed him, but was actually one of his victims who'd been raped by the gang.
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Happens on quite a few occasions. Even Morse finds himself on the wrong end of this trope in "Masonic Mysteries."
  • Blackmail: Pops up in several episodes, with the blackmailer getting murdered more often than not. The plot of 'Sins of the Fathers' revolves around a case of historical blackmail: in the early 1900s one of the partners of a brewery took full control over the business after running the other partner out of town. However the blackmailer failed to get their victim to formally relinquish their shares of the brewery - an oversight which leads to the death of most of the blackmailer's descendants nearly a century later.
  • Bluff the Imposter: In "The Settling of the Sun", Morse does this to a German visitor to Oxford, who isn't actually German.
  • Bowdlerise: With the series often being broadcast during the day, this can happen quite heavily. In particular, the initial daytime edit of "Service of all the Dead" was severely chopped up to remove a subplot which involved a ten year old boy being murdered, rendering the end product barely coherent (fortunately, more recent versions of that episode just remove the reveal of the boy's corpse).
  • British Brevity: While each series is between 3 and 5 episodes long, each episode is an hour and forty minutes!
    • It ran for seven regular series and one series of one-off yearly specials as well, another aversion of this trope.
    • This also applies to Lewis and Endeavour as well, all three series only have 3-5 episodes per series on average, however they are all at least 7 series long and have hour and 40 minute long episodes.
  • Cartwright Curse: Morse has a couple of romantic entanglements across the series, but with the exception of Adele Cecil, none of them lasts longer than a single episode.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Morse is very much this in the early novels, but less so later on and in the TV version.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Grayling Russell vanishes after the third season and, unlike Max, doesn't even get a token explanation as to where she went. The next regular pathologist, Laura Hobson doesn't show up until near the very end of the show's run.
  • Clear My Name: In "Masonic Mysteries", the murderer arranges matters so that Morse is found standing over the victim's body with the murder weapon in his hand. Unsurprisingly, he's arrested and has to prove his own innocence.
  • Climbing Climax: In the episode "Service of all the Dead," Morse chases the murderer up a church tower. Note that Morse is not only Afraid of Blood as noted above, he's also got a serious fear of heights.
  • Con Man: In "The Death of the Self," Morse is quick to suspect Russell Clark, a convicted fraudster, of involvement in the murder.
  • Cool Car: Morse's red Jaguar Mark II.
  • The Coroner: There were three regular ones — Max in Series 1 and 2, Grayling Russell in Series 3, and Laura Hobson in the specials (which are considered as series 8) — and a variety of one-off ones in Series 4-7.
    • Max also appears in every series of Endeavour and Laura in every series of Lewis.
  • Creator Cameo: Series creator Colin Dexter would make a cameo in every episode.
  • Da Chief: Chief Superintendent Strange veers into this on occasion... in a very British way, of course.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • Series 1 and 2 featured a lot more in the way of profanity and graphic violence. However, the show's creators greatly toned this down from Series 3 onwards, as it became obvious to ITV that the show performed very well in daytime repeats, and the edits required to broadcast the early episodes before the watershed could be quite severe. Starting with Series 3 (and continuing on into Lewis and Endeavour), the episode generally didn't require any cuts to be shown in the daytime.
    • "Service of All The Dead," even compared to most other episodes of the show. Not only does it have the highest bodycount of any Morse episode, it also features themes of pedophilia and infanticide — the latter of which the killer gleefully admits doing For the Evulz — and even has Morse knowingly committing perjury to get the murderer's accomplice off with a lighter prison sentence, simply because he's attracted to her.
    • "Dead On Time" is one of the most downright bleak episodes that features themes of suicide pacts and strongly averts Infant Immortality, not to mention its incredibly depressing Downer Ending.
  • Death by Adaptation: Mr. Greenaway, the man in the next hospital bed to Morse in "The Wench is Dead". In the book he recovers from his operation; not so in the series.
  • Death Faked for You: Unintentionally done in "The Setting of the Sun". The victims of the episode cooked up a very elaborate plot to murder a man, which involved obscuring the time of his death by employing a body double to act as him during a public dinner. Unfortunately for them their would-be victim wound up swapping places with the body double, leading to the double being killed in his place. The intended victim then decided that he very much liked the freedom that his 'death' bought him, and spends the episode elminating all the people who knew about the plot so that the truth wouldn't come out.
  • Did They or Didn't They?: In "Fat Chance", it's hinted that Morse may have spent the night with Emma Pickford. He certainly arrives at the police station in a very good mood the next morning — and his leitmotif is played in a major key, for the first time in five years.
  • Diegetic Switch/Left the Background Music On: Both are employed throughout the series, usually by way of Morse's love of classical music.
  • Distaff Counterpart:
    • Dr. Grayling Russell is loosely this to Morse. While she has a different job and is significantly younger than Morse, she has a similar personality, a love of classical music and opera, and an Embarrassing First Name.
    • Laura Hobson, on the other hand, was initially more the Distaff Counterpart of Max, due to her much more irreverent attitude to her job and straight-talking nature, although as time went on (and especially in Lewis) she became a much more distinct character.
  • Downer Ending:
    • Dead on Time ends with the woman who's apparently the nearest Morse has never had to a true love turn out to have assisted her husband in killing himself, then tried to use the death to falsely pin a murder charge on her son-in-law, before committing suicide herself. The only thing preventing it from being even more of a downer ending is the fact that Lewis destroyed the tape that confirmed she was involved in the former two actions.
    • The Remorseful Day. After the collapse of the only true relationship he's actually had in the series, Morse's health declines throughout the episode, eventually resulting in him dying of a heart attack. At least he was able to solve the case shortly before he dies.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Morse's first name is Endeavour, leading Lewis to comment "You poor sod."
  • Eureka Moment: Often supplied by a passing comment from Sergeant Lewis.
  • Everything Is Online: In "Masonic Mysteries", a villain manages to hack the police database, alter Morse's file and frame him... after having taken a single computing course while in prison. However, Lewis does point out that the Internet is only one possible way he did it, and that as a notorious Con Man he may have been able to trick someone into giving him physical access to the system.
  • Extremely Cold Case: In "The Wench Is Dead", Morse is laid up in hospital and passes the time by reinvestigating a murder case from Oxford during the 1860s, which he suspects resulted in three wrongful convictions. (The murder case is fictional, but inspired by a real 1839 case.)
  • Faking the Dead: In 'Service of All the Dead' and 'The Way Through the Woods', the murderer ends up being someone who's established to be dead very early on in the episode.
  • Famous Last Words: "Thank Lewis for me..."
  • First-Name Basis: Max is never given a surname while on this show, though in Endeavour his full name is revealed to be Max DeBryn.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Morse is convinced that the missing girl in 'Last Seen Wearing' is dead. She isn't, and in the televison adaption he even manages to get her to return home.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: In 'The Setting of the Sun', a tape full of cocaine is planted on one of the victims in an attempt to make the police believe that the murder was drug related. Turns out the dead man was actually a drug smuggler.
  • Frame-Up: In 'Dead on Time', a couple plot to make the husband's assisted suicide look like murder in order to land their son-in-law (who caused the death of the couple's daughter and grandchild) in prison with a murder charge.
  • Hero's Classic Car: Morse's red Jaguar Mark II, as an iconic element of the show.
  • Historical In-Joke: In "The Daughters of Cain", the Morseverse equivalent of Christ Church is called "Wolsey College".
  • Hope Spot: In 'Dead on Time' Susan's accomplice tries to talk her out of killing herself by reminding her that there are people who still care for her, namely Morse. Unfortunately all this does is cement her resolve to go through with the deed, as she explains to him that her actions have already ruined any chance of a successful relationship with Morse.
  • Hospital Hottie: In "The Wench is Dead", Morse is quick to note how attractive his nurses are.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted in "Dead on Time". We see the death of a baby in a flashback.
  • Inspector Lestrade: Sergeant Lewis to Morse most of the time. Although in later series he sometimes found the right answer before Morse and even once successfully hid the truth from Morse to spare Morse's feelings.
  • Irregular Series: Became this after the seventh series, running four one-off episodes over the next six years.
  • Lead Police Detective: Inspector Morse. Offers a variation on the situation where a long-running show passes the torch: Lewis never became Lead Police Detective on Inspector Morse, but he did get his own show.
  • Leitmotif: Morse has his own one which appears in the theme and in the incidental music throughout the series.
    • In a more villainous and unsettling example, the serial killer in "Driven To Distraction" is always seen playing Marion Montgomery's version of "Why Can't You Behave" while stalking victims.
  • Long-Runners: The show ran for 33 installments across 13 years, which is an incredibly long time for a British series. The franchise kept on running long after, with Lewis lasting nine series and Endeavour having broadcast six series (as of 2018).
  • Lovely Assistant: Joanna Franks, the victim in "The Wench is Dead", had previously assisted in her husband's conjuring act.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: In extremely compressed form in "Masonic Mysteries": MacNutt is introduced as Morse's former mentor from when Morse was a sergeant, and promptly becomes the killer's next victim.
  • My Beloved Smother: One of the two murderers in "The Sins of the Fathers" lives with his very overbearing mother. Subverted in that despite her obnoxious behaviour, she isn't actually responsible at all for the murders, and that it was his embittered old grandmother who poisoned his mind at an early age.
  • Murder by Mistake: The first victim in 'Death Is Now My Neighbour' winds up dead after the murderer mistakes her home for the home of their intended victim.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The murderer in "Happy Families" actually says this out loud after it turns out that her accomplice, Lady Balcombe, disregarded the warning not to tell her supposed (and emotionally disturbed) long-lost daughter of their relationship, resulting in her being stabbed to death.
  • Naughty Birdwatching: In "The Dead of Jericho", it's discovered that George Jackson spied on the woman whose death sets the plot in motion. She didn't have any curtains, and the window of her bedroom was opposite his house.
  • Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: "In Service of all the Dead", after Lewis spots a corpse from the top of a belltower, he tells the exhausted Morse to 'come and see for himself'.
  • Never One Murder: Generally there are around three or four murders an episode. Sometimes the series plays with this trope, however — "The Wolvercote Tongue" for instance has one actual murder, one death from natural causes, and one person who ends up breaking his own neck while fighting with an angry husband.
  • Never Suicide: Subverted in that Morse often makes a point of investigating suicides.
  • Newscaster Cameo: The Presenters of what was the ITV Central News South seemed to have a second career reporting in all the murders that Morse ended up investigating judging from the amount of times they appeared in the show.
  • No Name Given: Until the third-last episode, Morse was only ever referred to by his rank and/or surname.
  • The Not-Love Interest:
    • Morse is too ... Morse to be exactly paternal, but Lewis still manages to be his Most Important Person, to the point that he leaves a third of his estate to Lewis and Lewis finds that one of the few pictures in Morse's house is of himself and Morse in front of Morse's Jag.
    • The episode 'The Way Through The Woods' features Morse investigating a crime previously investigated by Lewis and Morse's rival DCI Johnson. A lot of the episode plays as if Lewis has returned to Morse after having an affair with Johnson.
  • Obviously Evil: Played with; characters who behave in an Obviously Evil manner are generally innocent, but characters who are played by actors well-known for playing villains almost always turn out to be murderers, or at least accomplices.
  • Old Cop, Young Cop: Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis.
  • Our Lawyers Advised This Trope: One episode had to have a particularly embarrassing disclaimer added to the end credits. The story involved Morse investigating a murder in a screwed-up upper-class family, with an extreme Asshole Victim named Sir John Balcombe. Unfortunately, it was realised too late that the Asshole Victim had exactly the same first name, surname, and knightly title as a senior judge, forcing a disclaimer to be read out after the episode explaining that the character had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the real person.
  • Overtook the Series: Averted by mixing adaptions of the novels with original plots.
  • Put on a Bus:
    • The series' original pathologist, Max is mentioned as having been forced to retire after suffering a stroke between the second and third seasons.
    • Adele Cecil, who becomes Morse's girlfriend near the back end of the series, disappears in the final episode with only a brief comment that she had decided to move to Australia and break off their relationship. It turns out later in the episode that Morse very likely cheated on her with a woman who eventually became the final murder victim he ever investigated.
    • DCI Bell appeared in the first episode as a rival with Morse for the post of Superintendent. He appeared in one other episode supervising Morse's investigation and was not heard from since.
  • Race Lift: In the televised version of "The Wench Is Dead", Fiona the nurse is black.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Occurs in several episodes.
    • 'Service of All the Dead', where first 'murder' victim is not as dead as Morse and Lewis thought, and uses the opportunity this brings him to kill everyone he felt wronged him.
    • 'The Last Enemy', where a a brain damaged man with mere months to live is compelled to murder everyone who even remotely slighted him over the course of his career.
    • 'Happy Families' where the relative of a murdered man ends up killing nearly all of the members of the family who caused his death.
  • Romantic Runner-Up: 'The Last Enemy' reveals that Morse was the unlucky runner up in the past. The woman in question turns up again in his life in 'Dead on Time', at which point shes seems to be much more receptive to his advances...only for history to wind up repeating itself, as once again she ultimately chooses her husband over Morse.
  • Room Full of Crazy: In 'Masonic Mysteries', the murderer takes pictures of Morse throughout the episode, and pins them up in such a room. In "Fat Chance", one character is obsessed with the idea that all women are harlots, and has dedicated a room to pictures demonstrating this.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: In 'Death Is Now My Neighbour', a female character agrees to sleep with an Oxford Don if he'll give her husband the position of master. Afterward he laughs at her and says he never had any intention of making him master, since the husband had already slept with the don's wife.
  • Scenery Porn: The show frequently featured shots of the skyline of Oxford and its iconic landmarks.
    • "Service Of All The Dead" has many scenes set within a Catholic church, and makes good use of it. The atmospheric direction of Peter Hammond also helps.
    • "Promised Land" is set (and was filmed) in Australia, and makes sure to get in shots of the Sydney opera house and skyline.
  • Sentenced to Down Under: In "The Wench Is Dead", Morse is forced to go on sick leave and busies himself by re-investigating a murder case from Oxford during the 1860s, which he suspects resulted in three wrongful convictions. The men were sentenced to hang, but one found religion in prison and became a model inmate. For this his sentence was commuted at the last minute to transportation (presumably to Australia given the time period).
    • In 'Promised Land', Morse placed a gang member in witness protection in Australia. When the Australian police find out about this, they remark that they thought Britain had decided to stop sending them their criminals by now.
  • Series Fauxnale: "The Wench is Dead" was written as being potentially the last episode of the series, as they had exhausted all of Colin Dexter's books. The following year Dexter published the final Morse novel, "The Remorseful Day," which would become the true finale for the TV series a year after that.
  • Setting Update: The novel series began publication in 1975 with a book set in 1970. It was only to be expected that the TV adaptations from 1987 would update to the then-present day. The effect of the Setting Update only becomes pronounced with the prequel Endeavour, initially set in 1965 - it follows the TV chronology, so its setting is 20+ years before the original series, not five.
  • Significant Anagram: Constantly. Colin Dexter is a major crossword fan and often included anagrams of important character's names.
  • Sleeps in the Nude: In "The Daughters of Cain" the police, trying to find out whether Kay Brooks might have been away from her fiance for part of the night, ask him how she was dressed when she woke him the following morning. He replies that she wasn't, but that's what he'd expect since they don't wear anything in bed.
  • Small Reference Pools: Completely averted due to both Morse and the show's writers having an extensive knowledge of classical music, leading to some obscure references that only a few fans will get.
  • Spin-Off: Lewis and Endeavour.
  • Take That!:
    • Inter-university ribbing variety. Kershaw jokingly compares Nuffield College to a "double-glazing establishment" in "The Wench Is Dead".
    • Also one at the Oxbridge set in "Ghost in the Machine":
    Professor Ullman: Surely you don't think-
    Morse: Oh I wouldn't presume to think. Not at an Oxford college.
  • Television Geography: Morse was seemingly able to walk between Oxford landmarks which are in reality several miles apart in a matter of seconds.
  • Temporary Substitute: Lewis isn't in 'The Wench is Dead'; his place is taken by a number of characters, chiefly Constable Kershaw.
  • This Is What the Building Will Look Like: The college that Baydon plans to endow in 'Twilight of the Gods'.
  • Together in Death: Susan ends up joining her husband in the climax to 'Dead on Time'.
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: The "Morse code" rhythm in the theme song changes key halfway through the closing credits.
  • Twisted Eucharist: In the episode "The Day of the Devil", a group of Satanists are performing a Black Mass, only for one of them to be murdered by the Villain of the Week, in costume as the Devil himself. In comparison to the grimness of the rest of the episode, it comes across almost as a comic interlude.
  • Wham Line: The penultimate line of the series, delivered to the just-apprehended murderer by Lewis: "Inspector Morse is DEAD!"
  • Women Are Wiser: Played straight with Dr. Russell, who is consciously depicted as being much more focused, knowledgeable and sensible compared to her predecessor, Max, and even Morse himself to a certain degree. Defied by the much quirkier Dr. Hobson, who was a bit closer to Bunny-Ears Lawyer (but only a bit, mind you).
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: In the very first episode, Morse becomes convinced he is in a modern day retelling of a Greek tragedy. "Sophocles did it."


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: