Shaun Evans and Roger Allam (from left)
Apart from their piercing blue eyes, reed-thin and red-haired English actor Shaun Evans looks almost nothing like the late John Thaw, who so memorably created the paunchy and balding title character in the iconic British mystery series Inspector Morse. Nevertheless, as you watch Evans in Endeavour, which begins its first four-episode Masterpiece Mystery! season tonight on PBS (check local listings), you won’t have any problem accepting that Evans is playing the same character Thaw made famous, just at an earlier stage in his life and career.
Much of that credit should go to scribe Russell Lewis, who served as a writer on Inspector Morse before creating Endeavour, originally as a one-off TV mystery, in 2012 (as well as an earlier Morse spinoff, Inspector Lewis, which wrapped its seventh season just last week). Set in Oxford, England, during the 1960s, Endeavour – which takes its title from Morse’s long-concealed first name – follows the character as he struggles to establish himself as a police detective. He brings to the job a fairly undistinguished academic background as well as work experience as a cryptographer (code-beaker), the latter which proves very helpful in tonight’s season premiere.
Fortunately, Evans’ Detective Constable Morse has found a congenial mentor in Detective Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), who notices and appreciates Morse’s keen powers of deductive reasoning, even as be bemoans his protégé’s impatience with departmental politics and his glaring lack of tact and, indeed, most social skills – deficits that frequently put Morse’s career at risk when he clashes with newly arrived by-the-book Chief Superintendent Reginald Bright (Anton Lesser).
In tonight’s premiere, entitled “Girl,” Morse and Thursday investigate the sudden suspicious death of a young secretarial student, which at first appears unrelated to a spate of post office robberies and burgled gas meters, as well as, later, a pair of violent murders. Along the way, Morse befriends a fragile young mother with a history of mental instability, a relationship that Bright firmly believes compromises Morse’s focus and objectivity in the case.
Although Evans doesn’t attempt to suggest any of Thaw’s mannerisms or vocal tics – understandable, since the older actor never was big on such things in his own performance – he nevertheless nails the character’s single-minded, almost obsessive attention to details as he goes through his investigation, as well as his awkwardness at establishing much in the way of a relaxed, friendly relationship with his police colleagues, so there’s never a jarring note in his very fine performance.
That’s a very good thing, because since Inspector Morse is only a fond memory now and Inspector Lewis’s recent season finale ended with Kevin Whately’s title character announcing his retirement, Endeavour may very well become fans’ only ticket to keep returning to the ancient, hallowed halls of Oxford.
On its surface, HBO’s new three-night miniseries adaptation of Parade’s End, beginning tonight and based on a series of novels by Ford Madox Ford, might appear to be a perfect tonic for Downton Abbey addicts going through withdrawal now that their PBS favo(u)rite has ended another season.
Despite similarities in their Edwardian period settings, however, HBO’s ambitious and very adult drama is a good deal more complex and psychologically challenging than PBS’s glossy, grandly acted soap opera. Where Julian Fellowes dishes out readily accessible and often campy melodrama on Downton, HBO’s Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) charts the explosive course of a doomed marriage set against the backdrop of wartime and social upheaval in England.
Benedict Cumberbatch, a shooting star at the moment thanks to his work in Sherlock and his highly anticipated villainous turn in the upcoming Star Trek feature film, stars as Christopher Tietjens, a well-born conservative Englishman who meets and is seduced by the ravishing and headstrong Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) during a train journey. Later, when she reveals that she is pregnant – possibly by him, but maybe not – Christopher manfully does the right thing and marries her.
Yet while opposites may attract, Christopher and Sylvia’s union is explosive. She’s a sensual, decidedly modern woman with a voracious appetite for excitement, while he’s a cerebral genius who spends his idle time scribbling corrections in the margin of his Encyclopedia Brittannica. It’s only a matter of time before she decamps for an impetuous and scandalous fling in France with a besotted male admirer (Tom Mison) before returning to the shocked and humiliated Christopher, who dutifully takes her back.
Yet Christopher’s forbearance only drives Sylvia further around the bend. A devout Catholic, she resolves never again to be sexually unfaithful even as she continues to flirt with men at every turn, hoping against hope to rouse Christopher into an emotional confrontation that might let them finally lance the poison that is killing their marriage. Instead, Christopher embarks on a chaste relationship with Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a young suffragette whose selfless idealism is balm for Christopher’s wounds.
As love triangles go, this one is well short of equilateral in Stoppard’s hands. Clemens’ Valentine is endearing, but she’s somewhat stuck in standard ingénue mode. Fans who know Cumberbatch primarily from his role as the borderline-autistic sleuth in Sherlock will be deeply moved by his tender, vulnerable work in the fiendishly difficult role of Christopher. Stoic decency is never easy to make compelling, yet Cumberbatch lets us feel Christopher’s pain all too keenly.
Make no mistake, though, this miniseries belongs to Rebecca Hall, whose Sylvia emerges as the real life force driving Parade’s End. The odds are good that you’re going to spend a good part of the miniseries wanting to strangle this character, but the confident, mesmerizing Hall peels away Sylvia’s haughty exterior to reveal the chastened wife underneath. “You forgave without mercy!” she hurls at Christopher during one angry confrontation, and you can feel the aching loneliness of this infuriating but all too human woman.
The formidable cast also includes Roger Allam, offering invaluable comic relief as Cristopher’s military superior, former Oscar nominees Janet McTeer and Miranda Richardson as the mothers of Sylvia and Valentine respectively, and Rupert Everett as Christopher’s brother. Parade’s End isn’t easy TV – Stoppard’s dense dialogue demands that you pay close attention to every scene – yet ultimately delivers as much emotional payoff as spending time with the Crawleys of Downton Abbey.