Hello everyone. I have created this page to allow the interesting and comprehensive reviews of the Morse episodes by Edward Sisson to be read
- CHERUBIM & SERAPHIM
What I like about this episode is that it shows us the culture of young people, teenagers, trying to find themselves, trying to determine or discover or decide who they are.
The time-culture-context here is that of 1992 – different from my own time-culture-context of 1972 (20 years earlier than this) and greatly different from today’s 2021 context (29 years after this episode). But the basic social and psychological issue is the same. I see from comments here, and on IMDb, by those who were teenagers in the early 1990s, that this episode gives a very accurate depiction of the early 90’s rave scene.
This episode is also refreshing in that we are not shown the rather precious elite context of Oxford, but rather, the general middle-class world.
A key insight made by Morse at the end is his mistake in assuming that just because his life at ages 15 to 18 was horrible, every person’s life at ages 15 to 18 is horrible. He realizes at the end that this isn’t true, that for some, ages 15 to 18 feel like the best years their lives will ever be. This is a good lesson in avoiding assuming that everyone else is like oneself.
I do feel, both on my original watching some years ago, and again now, that it is a bit implausible that a person would kill himself or herself due to having just had such a wonderful experience (taking the doctor’s new drug) that life will never be as good again, so it would be better to die. The usual response would be: “that was great, I can’t wait to do it again.”
But for someone who has done it for, say, 5 times, the person might conclude: “it is so wonderful, but it never lasts. I can’t go on just living again and again for the occasional brief moment. That’s not good enough. It’s better to just leave.” The person wouldn’t think of it as death, but of leaving. Normal life, with what it offers, is just not good enough, even if normal life includes the recurrent brief opportunity to enter the far more wonderful world – only to come back to normal life again.
Thus I think the episode would have been more convincing if we had been shown that the teens who killed themselves had been repeat users of the mind-enhancing drug, and had thus gotten to the psychological stage that I have just described.
The interesting moral position of the episode is that it is criminal to offer to people an experience of heaven, or paradise, which is only temporary, and from which they will have to return to earth. I don’t think I have ever encountered a work of literature – which this episode is – that takes that position, that it is immoral and criminal to offer people such an experience. Morse’s view appears to be: “we are stuck here, we need to live and function here, and it is criminal to expose anyone to a better world.” This fits with Morse’s kind of bitter, resigned character and personality. But do we agree with it?
As Chris in his review so helpfully and insightfully points out, the cherubim and seraphim are fantastic entities – never actually called angels – whose purpose is to protect God and Paradise from entry by humans. Yet the drug does permit such entry – which ought not to be possible. The suicide reaction in some humans is one way in which protection is restored: like eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the consequence is death.
But another protection is provided – surprisingly – by Morse, who is determined that humans not have this avenue of access to experience God and Paradise. In a fundamental way, Morse himself is acting as one of the cherubim and seraphim – by driving the drug away from humans, and hounding the drug’s creator to a fiery death, Morse has performed the protective role of the cherubim and of the seraphim.
2 Secret of Bay 5B
I’ve always found this episode appealing because of its setting in the profession of architecture, which was my undergraduate major.
The important lesson to be learned from this episode is the devastating effect that a brutal narcissist can have on anyone who has the misfortune of getting close to him (or her, though not a her in this episode).
The dead man in the parking garage, Michael Gifford the architect, was an extremely dangerous man. He begins as a charmer – and while on an architecture job in Switzerland, he meets the vacationing Rosemary Henderson, who is there without her husband, the rather nerdy forest-keeper. Rosemary finds the architect charming and masterful, and they have a brief affair; but back in England he just won’t let her go. He persecutes her with intimate photos he threatens to deliver to her husband, with letters, etc. She cannot escape him. This architect is driven to dominate and keep people like conquests. She is reduced to trysts in the backseats of cars.
Unfortunately, she keeps the threatening materials, and even more unfortunately for her, her husband finds them.
Rosemary’s boss at work is Edward Manley, who is also attracted to her. Now they begin an affair, which involves him in the only way they can see for her to be free of the domineering architect: to kill him. They decide on murder in his car (presumably she has told him that she will meet him for sex in the car there) but happen to choose a parking garage that is nearby a skating rink that the architect’s subordinate says that he goes to for exercise – although in reality he is having an affair with the architecture office receptionist, much younger than he, with whom he is besotted. Thus when the body is discovered, and then the subordinate is questioned in the normal course of investigation, the subordinate, in repeating his skating-rink story, puts himself near the scene of the crime. Thus he becomes a red-herring suspect.
The nerdy forest-keeper husband of Rosemary also makes himself into a red-herring suspect, because, being so upset over the photos and accusations the architect had sent to his wife, he breaks into the architect’s house, and makes odd phone calls, drives about somewhat strangely, etc.
The resulting mish-mash of false clues, false leads, and valid clues makes for a fairly good mystery while we are watching it, but doesn’t give us much of anything to think about or to learn from. Morse’s key-switch is very clever, however – it is one of the few times in any of the episodes where Morse shows really quick thinking, and indeed, strategizing in such a way that the criminals will expose themselves as a result of what Morse has done.
I do find the subordinate architect’s suicide convincing. He is besotted with the cute young receptionist, so much so that he has deceived his wife (by claiming to have bought an expensive painting when in fact he bought a cheap fake, so he could pass the cash difference to the receptionist). The subordinate thinks that her love for him will rejuvenate his up-to-now disappointing life.
But when the architect is found dead, the receptionist collapses in tears – thus proving that it was really the architect, not the subordinate, whom she wanted and respected and loved. Thus, as the architect dominated him professionally, so too the architect has dominated him romantically.
The subordinate nevertheless loves her so much that he cheats his own wife and his own children, by selling the valuable paintings and then having all the cash delivered anonymously to the receptionist, who is using the money to buy herself a shop. And then the subordinate kills himself in despair over being a failure in love as well as in the profession. Not many people would respond this way, but some might, and it is reasonable to show him as of of those few.
As regards Rosemary’s character: at the very end, she reveals herself to be a very cold person. In order to disguise their affair from other office workers, she and her boss have put up a convincing front that they intensely dislike each other. Particularly, they have deceived the office secretary, whom Manley uses by being especially friendly and helpful to her.
When Manley is arrested at the boating-landing, and Morse’s key-switch is revealed, Rosemary is not there. She has been arrested elsewhere and brought to the police station. Then, when the police bring in Manley, she does not know that the police, due to following her the prior day as she took the key to plant it where Manley then would pick it us, already have proof of their affair – or at least, of their cooperation.
Thus Rosemary suddenly thinks that she can take advantage of the false office-story of hostility between her and Manley. Right to Manley’s face, she coldly adopts that false story as true – that Manley hates her, and thus, nothing that he says about her can be trusted.
Rosemary thus is throwing Manley to the wolves to save herself.
Before that, Rosemary has also tried to falsely portray her husband, by making false evidence at home regarding the architect’s threatening documents and her husband’s response.
Thus it may be that Rosemary is also basically just a self-centered narcissist – not so bad as the architect who caught her, but bad enough.
Thus Edward Manley, like the architect’s subordinate, finds himself suddenly disappointed in what he thought was the love and dedication of a woman, for him. The subordinate deceived his own wife and children to give money to the receptionist, Manley killed to free Rosemary from an abuser; both men did it for what they thought was the love of the woman for him; but both discovered that the woman did not love him.
A downer of an episode. I can see why few viewers like it.
- 3 The Infernal Serpent
This is an important episode because it deals with child molestation and the dilemmas faced by the wives of molesters, which the episode handles in a realistic and compelling way.
Mixed in with that story, however, is an environmental cover-up story and a company resorting to blackmail and violence, which is not nearly so realistic, in that the company is presented as a kind of bogey-man bad guy common to innumerable movies (Pelican Brief, Michael Clayton, The Firm, Erin Brockovich, for example) but not so common in real life.
To take the important story first: this episode shows the long-term damage of child molestation upon the girls who are the victims, showing that Imogen, the daughter, has withdrawn into a shell, while Sylvia, Imogen’s childhood friend, had resorted to wild, break-all-the-rules behavior. No one can dismiss child molestation as just a passage of adulthood, or a passing thing, after seeing this episode. Praise to the Morse series for making that point.
The episode also shows the almost unsolvable problem facing the wife of the molester. To expose him will ruin the entire family with shame, firing from prestige positions, loss of income, etc. The public shame would descend upon the children of the family – who would be known as children of a molester – and, as regards daughters in the family, would cause everyone to look at them with the silent thought “you’ve been raped” and “how flirtatious were you really?” Exposure is just about the last thing the children would want.
But the wife here does not merely keep silent: she continues to offer piano lessons to young girls. In effect, she is actively aiding her husband, by doing something that brings other people’s daughters into the zone of danger. Thus the wife here is a deeply compromised character, morally.
What brings this story out into the open is that one of the molested girls, Sylvia, is not a family member, and thus has gotten to the point where she wants the story to come out. Having become a noted journalist, with a reputation, she has a position of some strength to bring to the effort. She schedules an interview with the professor-molester – who, in the decade or two since her own girlhood and the acts of molestation, has now attained great prominence in academia, making him worthy of such an interview and story.
To unsettle him in advance, and to unsettle the wife, Sylvia starts sending anonymous packages containing items of the kind that were around the family in the days of molestation: mostly items of the kind that were on the beach where they vacationed. The professor-molester takes all this with great calmness, but not so the wife. It is reasonable that they would not understand that these items are all linked by having been the kind of items on the beach all those years ago. But their arrival, and then the arrival of Sylvia, deeply upsets reclusive Imogen. But it appears that Sylvia’s efforts alone do not have any real effect in causing the molestation history to be exposed.
Instead, the exposure comes from a different direction. The young daughter of a college manual worker, a gardener, has undertaken piano lessons from the professor-molester’s wife, and this has exposed the young girl to molestation very recently. The gardener-father is deeply frustrated because he is such a lower-class person that no accusation he could make against the highly prestigious professor-molester would be believed. And he, too would, as was the professor-molester’s wife, be concerned that public exposure that his daughter had been molested would be very damaging to the daughter herself, in marking her in people’s minds, for the rest of her life, as being somehow “damaged goods” – an unpleasant term, but one that describes how many onlookers will actually feel, even though they should not.
The gardener-father, semi-drunk one dark rainy night, heading home afoot, accidentally finds himself face-to-face with a man under an umbrella, wearing a suit, of the right age, whom he assumes to be the professor-molester, and on the spur of the moment decides to strike him down. Down goes the man, off goes the gardener.
But the man is actually an esteemed academic colleague of the professor-molester, who is about to give an important lecture on corporate environmental misconduct, using information given him by a young man whistleblower who used to work for the specific corporation to be challenged. The professor-molester would have been walking side-by-side with academic, but he had moments before turned back to pick up some overlooked papers.
And who comes upon the stricken-down academic a moment later? The very young man whistleblower who had given him the information – who himself then flees, fearing he will called the perpetrator. As he flees he bumps into the returning professor-molester.
Morse, investigating the murder of the environmental academic, naturally comes to interview the professor-molester, because the two had been walking together, and in the dark, it might have been that the attacker intended not the environmental academic, but the professor-molester – which, in fact, is the case.
But when the company sends thugs to burn-down the whistle-blower’s house, and right into the whistleblower mother’s hospital sick-bed to threaten her, it begins to look like maybe the attack really was focused on the environmental academic.
Morse and Lewis, at the professor-molester’s lodgings, begin to pick-up clues pointing to child molestation, and the building pressure at last leads the wife to kill the professor-molester, as being the only way to stop him.
Meanwhile, the whistleblower waits for his mother to die before coming out into the open; he had held back only to avoid upsetting his dying mother. This reveals the story of the corrupt environmental company.
But this is where I feel that the story veers into too much implausibility. The company had developed an animal nutrient supplement, to be supplied by spreading on the ground, taken up by plants, and eaten. At first it looked like a great success – but then damaging side-effects appeared, and the company withdrew the substance. The cover-up apparently involves not any egregious acts of continuing to provide it after the side effects appeared – I don’t recall the whistleblower charging the company with that – but rather a cover-up that the substance was ever tried, or perhaps it is just a cover-up of the side-effects themselves.
But this is not the kind of thing that, even if exposed, would be so damaging to the company that even an exaggerated fiction would claim to support surreptitious violence by the company to keep the cover-up going.
I was a “big firm” lawyer (Arnold & Porter, Washington) for 13 1/2 years, and while I saw enough immoral conduct to make me no loner want to be a lawyer, I never saw criminal conduct covered-up by any of the really big companies, and never any use of violence. I never heard of any firm that hired any “Michael Clayton” kind of fixer.
One of my earliest cases was an environmental criminal case, in which the company (John Morrell) had a federal permit to dump waste-water into a river, but failed to maintain the treatment plant despite pleadings by the chemist who tested the wastewater. The chemist, urged by the treatment plant manager, started falsifying his readings – but kept a record of the real readings, that showed violations of the ammonia limit. There was never any report of any actual environmental damage; the levels, while above permit, were below damage.
At last the chemist had a crisis of conscience and reported to a John Morrell company lawyer, who in turn reported to the corporate conglomerate lawyer (Chiquita), who contacted us.
We said: self-report to the EPA immediately, and offer cooperation, and plead guilty.
And that’s exactly what the company did. The chemist and treatment plant manager also pled guilty, while two top executives were tried and convicted. Our client paid $3 million – as a fig-leaf, $2 million was outright fine, and $1 million was a “donation” to a local civic body (Sioux Falls South Dakota).
At no time was there any hint of using violence to silence the chemist, or the lawyers inside the companies to whom he had reported.
That is how the big companies, employing big law firms, actually handle these things. But those stories don’t sell movie tickets.
Thus I think that the Morse show producers descended a bit into unreality, so that they could show us an arsoned-apartment fun of fire and flame, and a dying little old lady being intimidated by a thug beside her hospital bed.
- 4 The Last Bus to Woodstock
It is very interesting reading all the comments here, especially those focusing on differences between the book and the show. Note: I have not read the book, only the discussion about the book here. It appears that the producers deliberately decided to sacrifice a very compelling murder-mystery story, and the question is: why?
I suppose that the conceivers of any television crime series early-on address the question: how do we introduce our main character? How does he respond to crime, and how does crime play a role in his life? What is his life, if any, outside of crime?
And in sketching out the first episodes, the producers also have to consider: how do we build-up the world that our main character lives in?
And the producers have to consider: what kinds of stories do we tell? Always the same kind of story (think “Murder She Wrote”) or differently-toned stories, some of them complex who-done-its, but others more contemplative?
I strongly like the story the producers chose to tell here, but I am puzzled that they sacrificed what apparently is a very effective who-done-it, tension-filled story, in order to make this one.
What I like about this episode is that it is much more true-to-real-life than most detective show stories.
To start with what in the episode is unshown backstory: An older professor (played by the always-appealing Anthony Bate, whom I have seen many times in re-watching the Alec Guiness “Tinker Tailor” and “Smiley’s People”) whose wife sees him as an avenue for social advancement, and who knows the Morse-series-pathologist Max, by reason of Max being related to that wife, is in hospital for a chronic heart condition, where he catches first the sympathy and then the affection of a younger woman, a nurse.
They start an affair, but he is quite the bumbling amateur, and she no tart; it doesn’t appear that she has much more experience than he does. As the nurse explains at the end of the episode, they started out sexual, but that part later became less important, compared to their joint appreciative and thoughtful companionship. Out of all the love-relationships in all the Morse episodes, theirs strikes me as the truest-to-the-heart. She having chosen the career of nurse, this is a reasonable development for her character: she likes to take care of people. And the professor cares more for teaching the young than he does for prestige-advancement, and thus, this is a reasonable development for his character.
There are three overlapping sets of social relationships that bring all of our characters together.
First, the nurse shares a house with two other women: a young Oxford literature student, and an older business executive. This links the nurse with the business executive. The professor knows this, and the business executive knows of her housemate nurse’s affair with the sweet gentle professor. The business executive, sympathetic to their relationship, agrees to be a go-between for messages between the professor and the nurse.
Second, the business executive manages a company whose employees include a secretary-typist, Sylvia. This links the business executive with Sylvia.
Third, Sylvia has a slight medical condition that requires regular physical therapy – which brings Sylvia into the hospital where the nurse works.
Thus Sylvia is linked with the nurse by two independent paths: first, by reason of their periodic joint presence at the hospital; and second, by their independent connections with the business executive, Sylvia as subordinate employee, the nurse as house-mate. But the professor has no knowledge of Sylvia.
So far, all of this is reasonable to real life.
Now comes our unusual coincidence – which every mystery story has to have, to raise the story to a level engrossing our interest. This is about where the episode starts.
Sylvia and the nurse are together – why, we are not told – at a bus-stop, at night, in the rain, waiting to ride in the same direction. Sylvia gets impatient, and decides to hitch with the next passing car. A passing car pulls over, and the nurse somewhat reluctantly follow’s Sylvia’s lead, until, having gotten closer, realizes that it is the professor’s car (actually, his wife’s car, but no doubt she had seen it before) not just because of its model and color, but also because of its broken tail-light red plastic screen. So the nurse turns back while Sylvia gets in and drives off. The bus arrives shortly thereafter.
The nurse, feeling partly suspicious of Sylvia, and party concerned about the steadfastness of her professor, changes her plan to go home, and instead decides to follow the professor. This leads her to the parking-lot of a pub, where she watches from outside a fight develop inside the professor’s car. Then Sylvia pops out, angry. The nurse concludes that Sylvia must have made some sexual advances on the professor, which he in his bumbling way perhaps allowed to go a bit too far before realizing that he had to throw her out. The nurse accosts Sylvia and punches her in the face, knocking her down.
Meanwhile in those same few moments, the professor has decided to get out of there fast. He throws the car into reverse and backs and turns swiftly – thus unknowingly running-over Sylvia who is lying unseeable on the ground in the dark and rain, and killing her, which the nurse sees with horror. The professor thinks he has done no more than bumped a curb or some other unevenness in the parking-lot, and speeds off. The horrified nurse also runs off.
All of this is reasonable to real life. There is no enraged or sneaky plotting murderer here.
What this gives us, in terms of the series as a whole, is the impression that Morse is a series that tells us reasonable stories of real life – or at least, will sometimes do so – rather than present every single story as what is, really, a very unrealistic story of excessive ambition, greed, and planned murder, among people who hardly ever exist in real life.
We then get our odd clue: the envelope in Sylvia’s purse, addressed to the business exec. This will turn out to have come from the professor, to the business exec, for her to deliver to the nurse, containing a bundle of money – and how Sylvia intercepted it, I do not recall. Yes, Sylvia works in the business exec’s office, but I doubt that Sylvia would dare to steal a bulky letter to her boss right out of their own office, even if she knew that it had money in it. If Sylvia had it in order to give it to the nurse, she would have given it to the nurse before even arriving at the bus stop. So Sylvia must not know that it is really intended for the nurse. And it is a pretty odd coincidence that the professor’s own letter, with his own money it, has ended up back in the professor’s own car, next to the professor, by being in Sylvia’s purse (though of course the professor does not know this).
The rest of the story of clues, detection, and ultimate discovery has been covered in earlier comments. My only note is that the evocative elderly lady who was at the bus stop, who gives such an entertaining performance, actually is in error when she says, with great confidence, that a comment between Sylvia and the nurse must mean that the two persons work in the same office. They don’t! Thus the elderly forceful lady, though very proud of her deduction, has in fact made an erroneous deduction.
As regards the professor and his wife disposing of the car-wheel, some commenters have questioned how the professor could know which wheel had run-over Sylvia. But I think that anyone who has ever accidentally backed a car into a curb knows that you immediately know which wheel hit the obstruction. The plot issue concerning the wheel is that they could have changed the wheel while parked at their house, then driven off to the forest for a quick dump – not driven to get to the dump-spot, and then change the wheel, thus spending so much time in the forest that the passer-by saw them and challenged them. But this would be much less dramatic, and I suppose we can assume that they were not thinking very clearly, or that they did not want to be in a place where anyone could see them changing the wheel.
In sum, Like this episode because it very much strikes me as a sequence of events that really could happen, without having to imagine some extremely unusual character who is far more greedy, or far more angry, or far more emotional than anyone we are ever likely to meet in our real lives. And the affection between the professor and the nurse is very genuine and warm, which is a pleasant thing for us to experience.
- 5 Service of all the Dead
Very interesting discussion here! A few thoughts in no particular order:
1) the falsely-identified first victim would have been a problem, NOT because the police might have found papers, DNA, or fingerprints to identify correctly who the victim was, but because it would have been so easy – indeed inevitable – for the police to discover that he was NOT the person whom the “two in-person identifiers” orally said that he was. He is a fairly well-known person, who would have a drivers license, other government cards, etc., no doubt some with photos of him. If these were all missing – having been vacuumed-up by the real fellow beforehand – the fact that all such documents-with-photos were missing would itself have been a major signal to the police that something was wrong with this identification. And some of the documents would have copies on-file with various government agencies. Indeed, we learn at the end that the real man had been in Army special forces – and Army special forces would have had his photo, which the police could easily get. Any photo of the real man would immediately prove that the dead man was not him, was not the person whom the in-person witnesses had said that he was.
2) there never was a church service at which he was killed – we merely had the conspirators saying that there had been, and that they had attended. Maintaining this “fake church service” story would have required each conspirator to memorize a rather complicated false story, which competent police investigation would penetrate, such as with questions as: “How did you learn about the service?” “Where is the printed notice you saw that told you about the service?” “Did the vicar announce this service at the prior regular Sunday services? If so, what people were at that service and heard the announcement, but who did not come to this special service? We want to ask them if they remember the oral announcement.”
3) the comments contain much discussion about Morse’s romantic interest in one of the witnesses, but a more general comment is needed, namely: it is extremely unprofessional for any official holding government powers to pursue any personal interest with any witness, prior to the investigation being final and closed, such that the government powers in the hands of that official can no longer be applied to that witness. Morse violates this rule regularly – it is how the series inserts some romantic love-interest elements into each episode, so we can understand it as a practical matter of making a drama that sells to a large audience – but it is malpractice in the extreme.
Morse regularly asks-out for dates women witnesses in his cases whom he has the power to investigate with search-warrants and even to arrest. Is any woman really going to say no to a man who could respond to her rejection with a search warrant? Or with hand-cuffs? There is an element of abuse of power in all of his advances to women whom he meets because they are witnesses in his cases.
Morse’s inability to restrain his own desire for female companionship also regularly leads him to overlook obvious leads and clues, and thus erodes his effectiveness in doing the job that the people pay him to do – which happens to be the very important job of protecting the people from murderers.
I see from the comments that the “prequel” series Endeavor (which I haven’t seen after the first 2 or 3 seasons) is showing this same “try to date the cute witness” trait in the younger Morse. This is consistent dramatically, in terms of the later Morse, but I suspect that in reality, such actions in his younger years would have derailed his career, such that the later Morse would never have existed – he would have been fired long before becoming a Chief Inspector.
4) Morse’s habit of being insultingly dismissive of Lewis is particularly annoying in this episode, when Lewis shouts to warn Morse about the vicar having disappeared up the stairs to the top of the tower. Morse brushes Lewis’ warning aside, and Lewis has to rush forward to save Morse and the witness from being crushed by the suicidal falling vicar. Morse really should have learned by now to pay immediate attention to any urgent warning, especially from Lewis, even if it happens to interrupt some not-very-important conversation Morse is having at the moment.
- 6 The Wolvercote Tongue
This is a very engaging episode because of its focus on Old English archaeology combined with the high-quality academic rigor of Oxford: the two long-separated pieces of an ancient jeweled belt-buckle are about to be re-united in a great museum. We immediately are taken right back into the early Middle Ages in Britain, and to the scholars who are experts in it. Only in Oxford could we have this kind of story.
The lesson of the episode, in terms of investigators doing a good job, is to watch out for the dangers of connecting events to a common theme, and trying to solve the case assuming that theme, when in fact there is no theme, the events are totally unconnected except by accidental coincidence.
A rich American woman who has come to Oxford to return her piece of the jewel is found dead in her hotel room, of a heart attack, and the jewel is gone. She must have stumbled upon a jewel thief and died of the shock! Then the academic expert who was in charge of the re-uniting of the two pieces of the jewel is found stabbed to death, naked, in the river. Of course there must be a plot to steal the jewel!
But in fact there is no such plot. The husband of the rich woman, who has no money of his own, comes in from a walk with another tourist, finds his wife on the floor, and, knowing that she has a weak heart, assumes she is dead. He steals the jewel – not to sell it, but because he will get the insurance money if he reports it stolen. He intends to use the money to endow his illegitimate daughter who lives in England. He throws the archaeologically-important treasure of British history into the local river, and departs without telling anyone, to meet with his long-not-seen daughter.
His unexplained departure, immediately after what appears to be his wife’s death-by-shock-at-theft, makes him immediately suspicious to the police.
Meanwhile, the academic expert – who was supposed to give a dinner presentation and then tour to the members of a tour group, has begged-off claiming illness, and the tour manager calls-in a second professor – who happens to be the husband of the woman that the academic expert is having a torrid affair with. The academic expert has in fact – smirking with cleverness – arranged to have sex with the second professor’s wife at precisely the time that the second professor will be out-of-the-house covering the lecture that the academic expert was supposed to be doing!
However, the second professor has to go back unexpectedly to his house to get some lecture notes, finds the academic expert in bed with his own wife, and in a rage kills him. The adulterous wife collaborates with her husband to hide the academic expert’s body – thus the dumping in the river – and to dispose of the clothes (the husband killed the expert while he was naked having sex, hence the nakedness of the body).
I have seen a comment or two, doubting that the wife would collaborate with her husband to hide the murder, but I read of a real-life murder in Silicon Valley in the 1990s that follows this pattern. A high-flying computer company exec had a married secretary, with whom he was having a torrid affair. One time they were having sex in her marital house when her husband unexpectedly came in, caught them, and immediately killed the computer exec.
The adulterous wife and her husband then collaborated to hide the murder. They stuffed the dead body of the computer exec into a sleeping-bag, drove to the marshy shallow waters of the south end of San Francisco Bay, and dumped him. The body being found, the dead man was quickly identified (being a prominent high-tech exec) and it did not take long for the police to pressure the wife, his secretary, to admit first to the affair, and then to the murder.
As regards the second professor then killing his wife, he explains his feelings at the end: he had thought that she loved him and held him very special, and he was devastated and disillusioned to find that she didn’t really love him or think him special at all. Instead, she thought of him as a person who had no right to be free from being deceived and tricked. After all, she knew of and participated in the especially humiliating scheme of the academic expert to get him out of his own house by asking him to fill-in for the academic expert himself, by giving the lecture that the expert was supposed to give.
As regards keeping the luggage tag, the murderous husband might well have thought that storing the clothes in a railway luggage room could only be a temporary solution – just to get them away from his own house while the police were on the case – and that permanent destruction (such as by burning) would have to be done later.
My major objection to this episode is the lack of Morse expressing any moral condemnation of the rich woman’s husband for what he did. Normally Morse – who is so free to issue blunt denunciations of more than half the people he meets – would quite legitimately drop a hard harsh hammer on this man:
1) seeing his wife lying on the hotel room floor, what right did the husband, a mere layman, have to decide that she was dead? It was his duty to call for a doctor immediately – but he did not do it. She might have been saved. Her husband just let her die.
2) the husband let her die for money: the value of the jewel.
3) worse than this, the husband tried to commit insurance fraud – faking a theft by a burglar when in fact there was no such theft, except by the husband himself.
4) and worse than that, the husband wasted police time, by letting the police think that there had been an outsider-burglar, when the husband knew that there wasn’t one.
5) the fact that the husband did all this to provide money for his own illegitimate daughter doesn’t change the fact that he was trying to loot his wife’s estate for the benefit of someone entirely outside his wife’s family, indeed, entirely outside her knowledge.
6) and he deliberately tried to destroy a priceless historical artifact of Britain – the second part of the belt-buckle – by throwing it into the river, never to be found probably.
7) and in this destruction and insurance fraud, the husband intentionally contradicted the express wish of his wife, that her property (the jewel) be donated to the museum. This husband has treated his wife with complete contempt.
But instead of Morse denouncing the husband for all of this, we see the husband happily sitting on a hotel lobby couch, smiling as the other members of his tour group smile back at him – “Oh, how sweet, you reunited with your long-lost daughter. It doesn’t matter that you allowed your wife to die, you stole from her, you tried to commit major insurance fraud, and you allowed the police to think that there had been a burglary as part of a plot to steal the jewel – who could care about any of that! You wanted to help your daughter!”
This gives the episode a sweet-feeling ending – but it is a feeling that doesn’t hold up very long, once you think about it. The real Morse would have had that man sitting down at the station under charges, not letting him sit on a couch chatting with his companions.
- 7 Twilight of the Gods
Thanks for a great entry, Chris, and also, this is the first of your reviews that I watched/listened to as video. Very pleasant for this American to hear your wonderful Scottish accent! However, I still prefer written reviews – writing hits the mind stronger with the details.
I will now regale your readers with a bit of detective work I just did, hoping to add a tid-bit of info on this episode, that just turned out more like a “Lewis research moment switcheroo” in one of these shows. I’m feeling like Lewis right now! So here goes.
I watched this episode yesterday and on reading your post here remembered that the Welsh high university official early in the episode had said to Morse something like “I’m the most prominent Welshman known at Oxford since Tom Jones, so they listen to me on things Welsh.”
I realized instantly that this must refer to the very important high civil servant Thomas Jones, who was deputy cabinet secretary from December 1916 into 1931, serving Prime Ministers of all parties. Jones was brought into government by his fellow Welshman David Lloyd George when Lloyd George became PM. I’ve read several times Jones’ book “A Diary with Letters” which starts after he left this service in 1931, going well into World War II. This book is a great resource for those wishing to understand the decision-making process of the UK government in the lead-up to World War II.
I did a little touch-up research to verify the data about Thomas Jones, and was about to post it, when I realized that I had to verify exactly what post the fictional Welsh academic held. The character name is Sir Watkin Davies – but I had to verify his rank. I thought it was Vice Chancellor but I had to be sure.
So I ran a search on Watkin Davies and Vice Chancellor – and amazingly, this brought up a website that has the complete transcript of this entire episode: taicishe.com. It is the kind of rough version produced by machine, I think: no character names speaking are shown, no scene breaks, and often, one line has words from two different characters. I’ve found these kinds of transcripts before, and having just seen the episode, I had no problem telling who was speaking.
The great thing this gave me was the exact words said.
The key words I needed are on page 4 and then 5 of this transcript:
Morse: You knew her, sir, personally?
Davies: Oh, God, yes. Gwladys and I we went to the same chapel. Our fathers worked down the same pit.
Morse: Was it your idea to give her the honorary degree?
Davies: Well, all Oxford knows about Pontypridd is Tom bloody Jones, so, when I became Vice Chancellor, my word counts for something on matters like that.
Now, this gave me a new and unexpected word: “Pontypridd.” So I had to research that. Pontypridd has a wikipedia page.
I noted in the wikipedia entry that it is a place in Wales about 12 miles from Cardiff, known for coal mining, and the name of a primary coal mine mentioned in the wikipedia article is the same name used by Gwladys and her sister talking about where they lived.
Amazing accuracy in this script, I thought.
And then scrolling down on the wikipedia page, I came to the usual section on famous people from Pontypridd. I went to see Thomas Jones.
Yup, there he is – Tom Jones.
Except – wait – it isn’t Thomas Jones the prominent and important British civil servant, confidant of Prime Ministers. Not the Tom Jones anyone would expect to be meant, when talking about people known to stuffy and prominent Oxford professors. Not him at all! That Tom Jones does not appear in the list of prominent people from Pontypridd.
No: it is Tom Jones the hit singer from the 1960s. I remember him well – great voice. “What’s New, Pussycat?” The theme song for the Sean Connery James Bond movie Thunderball. “Its Not Unusual.” “I’ll … Never Fall in Love Again.” Had his own TV show.
And he was – here it comes – a singer from Pontypridd! Like our fictional Gwladys the opera diva!
I feel just like Lewis near the crisis-end of an episode rushing into Morse’ office, waving a just-found piece of paper and saying “we’ve got the wrong man! It’s not Tom Jones the civil servant – its Tom Jones the singer!”
And I never would have gotten it if I hadn’t been so picky about making sure of the title of the Oxford Welshman, which led to the transcript, which led to Pontypridd, which led to the wikipedia page custom of listing prominent people from a town or city in its entry on that town or city. So:
Sisson: I’m feeling a bit more bucked-up about sitting for the Inspector’s Exam, now, sir! After catching that mistake about Tom Jones. Think I’ll do well on the exam, sir.
Morse: Do you, Sisson. Do you. Well perhaps you will – detective sergeant. But don’t ever say that Tom bloody Jones was a singer like Gwladys, Sisson. It’s preposterous to put the two of them together. Hurts my ears just to hear you say it.
Sisson: Right, sir. Won’t happen again.
- 8 Who Killed Harry Field
Great post, Chris! I never caught the switching pictures behind Harry Sr. as he speaks about genuines and fakes – a brilliant bit by the director. I would not call this a hint of pictures faked by Harry Sr., but rather, a call-out to make us realize that what we are watching – the Morse film – is itself a fake, in that we are not seeing real people. Or rather, that what we are seeing is not reality, it is a work of art. Once noticed by the viewer, it takes us entirely out of the show and makes us conscious that we are watching actors.
I wish they had made an out-take reel, in which Morse’s face changes with puzzlement each time the painting behind Harry Sr. changes. After a couple of these, Morse would turn to Lewis with a kind of gesture -“Do you see what I’m seeing?” And Lewis would just give a shrug back, the message being “Yes I do, but just let it go sir.”
Also great work by you covering all the paintings done by Harry Jr. with the blonde model’s face inserted into a classic painting.
One thing that struck me about all of these paintings by Harry Jr. – they are quite untalented. Each of these makes clear that he was a poor painter.
We know that this is intentional by the filmmakers because the Harry Sr. “homage” – of his wife and son as the Virgin Mary and Christ – is actually quite a good painting.
Thus the filmmakers have deliberately and successfully presented fictional Harry Sr. as talented, and fictional Harry Jr. as untalented – by showing us their works.
As regards the rich European allowing Harry Sr. into his car, where Harry Sr. stabs him with the chisel: the European had to keep Harry Sr. friendly, because Harry Sr. had made the fake Durer that was the heart of the value of the European’s art collection, which he is trying to make money on by renting it to Britain. Harry Sr. could wreck the European’s financial scheme at any time just by proclaiming the Durer a fake that he had done.
I’ve always liked this episode, first for the humor, and second because of its portrayal of the art world – by which I mean the actual artists and the way they live and behave. I was in the San Francisco avant-garde art world for ten years, and based on that, I can say that Harry Field Jr.’s wife rings absolutely true as an artist’s girlfriend, and the party in his house as shown on his pre-death video rings true also.
It did occur to me that the screenwriter missed a bet when Harry Jr.’s wife invited Morse to join the post-death wake-party: she should have said:
“You must come – it’s the best place to meet all the suspects!”
That’s the kind of thing that an art-world person would say.
The only part of it that does not quite ring true is the claim that Harry Field Jr. is really an artist who would be accepted by other artists as part of their world. Based on the paintings we see that he did, he is just not good enough to have been treated as a real artist by any other real artist. He was just a cleaner, really.
But that effect does not hit us watching the episode, because we get such brief shots of his paintings that we don’t really sense just how untalented he is. But seeing his work in your screenshots, I have to say: Harry Jr. is terrible.
Lastly, regarding the “angry eyes” of the blonde model in the mirror-pastiche painting: it wasn’t until I saw your screenshot above that I realized that there was a version of that painting in which she has down-looking peaceful eyes. I thought it was always “angry eyes” – which it should be, given that we do not see the painting until after Harry Jr. has died. Thus the commenter above is correct that it was an error show it with normal downcast peaceful eyes.
And it was not until you did the work of finding the original that I realized that down-looking peaceful eyes is the proper gesture to use in copying the original. No mere viewer of this episode, not knowing already of what the original looks like, would realize that down-looking peaceful eyes is the proper way to copy. It is your work alone that lets us realize all this.
Like the painting-switching that goes on behind Harry Sr., this has to be deliberate. The props dept. had to have done two versions, which means they planned from the outset to show both versions. If they had been logical to the plot, they just would never have made a down-cast peaceful eyes version at all. But they did make it.
Deliberate, yes. But yet, the effect is so minor, so easy to overlook, that it does not have any effect on the viewers.
What this may hint at, however, is that the entire episode may be filled with such tiny apparent continuity errors, deliberately planted, and thus, none of which really are errors. Diligent viewers may have the energy to go through this episode practically frame-by-frame, to compile a list of all of such little elements, inserted to reinforce the point that what we are watching is not reality, but a work of art.
- 9 The Settling of the Sun
This episode is important because it is the one in which Morse, rising at the head table at a dinner for foreign students, states that most murders other than those for money arise from insult: the future murderer has been insulted and humiliated by another person, and wants to kill that other person either for revenge, or, if the insulting is still going on, to silence the insulter – to be free of that annoying, insulting voice.
Revenge-for-insult is a theme we see in many Morse episodes, such as “The Day of the Devil,” in which at the end we learn that the action really has been driven by a woman seeking to destroy the men who raped and tortured her several years before. She explains that until the moment they seized her, hers had been a happy, protected life – they took from her her sense of being meaningful and respected by the world around her.
In this “Settling of the Sun” episode, the original insult was much more massive than that in “Day of the Devil:” the Japanese World War II conquest and capture of Britons in Hong Kong and Singapore in early 1942, and the torture of the captured in the Japanese prison camps. Two such captured persons are in this episode: the woman bursar of the college, and a Christian priest. We are not told what humiliations were done to the bursar, but the priest was mockingly crucified, and as we meet him at the opening of the episode, he is crippled, and has holes in his hands and feet from the crucifixion, and his tongue has been cut out.
Morse, at the opening of the episode, apparently does not know the details of the priest’s torture. An exhibition on artistic representations of Christ Crucified is going on in Oxford, and Morse has just left it, still holding the printed program with harsh, graphic representations of Christ’s wounds, when he meets the priest and his granddaughter – meets them in a botanical hot-house, where an asian person wearing a conical asian hat happens to be gardening. The crippled priest, seeing the program that Morse has left on the bench beside him, with its bloody images of crucifixion, and being inside a jungle-like hot-house, and then seeing an asian in a conical hat, is seized by a wave of fear and hysteria, thinking himself transported back to the time and place of his torture. This leads to his heart-attack death.
Morse then makes his second important observation in this episode: that we tend to abuse our Christian priests with insults, mocking them, partly because we know that under the teachings of Jesus, no priest will ever hit back, or strike back, or return insult for insult; instead the priests will just take the insult, and take another insult, and another – until at last they break.
Considering how often through all the episodes Morse himself is so gratuitously insulting to others, we would hope that he might apply to himself these observations that he makes in this episode; but he pretty much never learns or changes.
The priest’s grandchildren, a brother and sister, believe they know the specific individual Japanese officer responsible – but this officer’s biological knowledge, gained by inhumane experiments on prisoners, has won him protection by the Americans, who want to benefit from that knowledge. Thus he cannot be prosecuted for war crimes.
Thus, they decide to wreak vengeance on his son, called Yukio Li, who has previously come to England in the same student exchange program in which he is now coming again. The sister happens to be an administrator at the very Oxford college that hosts this exchange program, and as a result, she has seen his photograph from his prior year’s participation, and thus knows what he looks like.
This brings us to the convoluted plot that so many reviewers have already justly denounced, denunciations that I agree with but need not repeat. Basically, the writer serves-up a string of murders which keeps us engaged and interested, but then at the end fails to give us a very plausible explanation for all of them.
The success of the Morse series tells us that for a very large audience, it doesn’t really ultimately matter whether the conclusion at the end is a competent explanation for all that we have seen before. The famous Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie “The Big Sleep” is like this: not even the actors could tell who was responsible for each murder, or why. But who cares? It was really great while we were watching it. (Actually, the Raymond Chandler book “The Big Sleep” is comprehensible, but the book plot turns on a pornography ring and gay male sex, and the 1930s movie industry had to pretend that gayness and porn did not exist, thus cutting-out and wrecking the logic of the plot).
So, instead of joining the denunciation of the plot, I will point out a couple of subjects that the episode gets us thinking about.
The first is the very smarmy, cynical character of the college master, Sir Wilfred Mulrayne. He doesn’t appear to believe in anything any more, which is kind of an insult to the British character. It is hard to think of any high-office character in any Morse episode who believes in Britain, or in what Britain fought for, or in the democratic principles of Britain. If I were British, I think I would develop an accumulating annoyance with the Morse series, because of this.
And as an American, I was annoyed to find “the Americans” blamed for protecting the war criminal, and for Sir Wilfred at the end saying that Britain’s moral status to complain of the Japanese torture of prisoners was erased by “Hiroshima and Nagasaki” – which were entirely an American decision to drop, and for which a reasonable moral case can be made. It was not accurate for Sir Wilfred to say that Britain’s moral status to complain of Japanese tortures had been lost even if Britain, rather than America, had been responsible for both the protection of the war criminal and for the use of atomic bombs, and this cynical comment at the end ought to have been cut.
The second and more interesting subject that this episode gets us thinking about is the attitude of the British towards the Japanese part of the Second World War. I have noticed that British-written, British-published trade books on the events and history of World War II often completely omit everything that happened in the Pacific after the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Land-fighting in New Guinea might get a mention – Australians and New Zealanders were there – but practically nothing on the Pacific naval war, right up until British warships finally come onto the scene again in summer 1945. This is understandable, because a British audience will not have much interest in reading about fights that no Britons were in.
But the impression we get from this episode is that no Britons were all that upset about losing Hong Kong and Singapore; nor even all that upset about soldiers and civilians being captured in those places; what was upsetting was the inhumane, mocking, insulting treatment the captive Britons received.
The loss of Hong Kong and of Singapore was, perhaps, seen by Britons as just the sort of setbacks an imperial power occasionally suffers in the 300-years-game of empire: they were got by the sword, held for a time by the sword, then lost by the sword. That sort of thing had been going-on since the 1600s, in competition with France and with Spain.
Contrast this with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a US territory destined eventually for statehood. It was not just the attack on US warships, but the attack on them in a US city, that infuriated the Americans. We don’t know whether an attack on Manila alone, not including Pearl Harbor, might have generated the same level of outrage; the Philippines were also a US territory, but one explicitly destined for independence, by statute law (to occur July 4, 1946, a schedule the Americans kept despite the war). It would be interesting to know if the same level of outrage that Americans felt about the attack on Pearl Harbor would have arisen if there had been only an attack on Manila; if not, then it would reveal that the Americans had less strong feelings that the Philippines “were ours” than they had for Hawaii, and that the American attitude towards the Philippines would have been more like the British attitude towards Singapore. But we can never know.
The impression we get from this episode is that the British people decided, based on the torture in the camps, that there was something fundamentally inhumane and cruel inborn in the character of Japanese persons. The British people in this episode are not resentful against Japan as a nation, nor against Japan setting its military on a course of conquest; theirs is not a resentment of the Japanese government. The only government that is morally judged in this episode is the American government: for protecting the war criminal and for using the atomic bomb.
I would appreciate responses to these observations from British readers, who would have a far more accurate understanding of their own culture than I am able to derive merely from watching this episode.
- 10 Greeks Bearing Gifts.
I have always strongly liked this episode because it feels so “Oxford” to me, and is so grounded in the ancient but troubled special relationship Britain has felt towards Greece (not, I suspect, reciprocated by the Greeks) which goes all the way back to Lord Byron dying trying to aid the Greek revolution. Britain long tried to maintain influence in Greece, manifested in early World War II when Britain tried to keep the Germans from capturing Crete, and lasting up until near-bankrupt Britain had to tell US President Truman that Britain could no longer maintain resistance to communism in Greece – whereupon Truman asked Congress to take-over the British role in Greece.
Showing this connection manifested in the academic world by a British focus on ancient Greek ships is just the sort of thing we would expect from Old Oxford – and the British-made video on the collaboration to build and sail a replica shows us this. But the students of the 1980s care nothing for the subject, leaving our poor professor an abandoned bore.
Meanwhile, the core story of the episode is, very appropriately, right out of Ancient Greek Myths. A woman, Friday Rees, is super-popular on television because she appears to be the perfect woman: perfect even in coping with the disappointment of childlessness.
Yet in reality her calm is but a fragile shell. The reality is that she, so strongly wanting to be the perfect and complete woman, is torn apart inside because she cannot conceive and give birth to a child. In disregard of her self-proclaimed image of the masterful and confident modern woman, she is in fact tormented by the desire to do that which is the ancient core of being a female, which she has not escaped despite all her pretense: having babies. She simply cannot give it up. And it drives her mad.
Her madness is triggered by her discovery that her husband, while in Greece with the replica ancient Greek ship, had a brief fling with a lowly Greek waitress, and promptly got her with child – something that she, the highly-educated, confident, modern British television star has been unable to do.
How does she make the discovery? The Greek waitress has a brother, a Greek chef, in Oxford. This brother knows of the baby and its father, but instead of going to the father, he goes to the famous TV star wife – to make a blackmail demand.
Of course, this being a Morse detective story, we aren’t shown this. Instead, we see a hidden hand suddenly snap the neck of the blackmailing chef, whom we don’t yet know was a blackmailer. This avoids the show having to actually show us Friday Rees, a very attractive woman, taking a very strong younger man by surprise and snapping his neck. Very hard to make such a shot believable.
The death of the chef discovered, the sister comes with baby to Oxford. Does she go to the professor, the father? No – she evades police observation, leaves the baby with an elderly Greek couple who live in the same apartment building as did her brother, and also goes to the TV star wife – thus indicating that she, like her brother the chef, is more intent on blackmail than in providing her baby with its father. Friday kills her as well, then posts watch on the Greek apartment building and, seizing a brief moment when the baby is left unattended on the front stoop, steals the baby and takes him to her and her husband’s luxurious Oxford home.
Thus those who would use a baby to commit crime, instead die by crime.
The husband coming home of course sees the baby, and his wife tells all, and the husband realizes that his wife has, essentially, gone mad. She thinks it will be possible to keep the baby, which is impossible – they are well-known people, their lives are basically public.
The wife’s, Friday’s, obsession is aggravated by jealousy of the husband, the male: it is so unfairly easy for him to do his part in making a baby; it is unfair that what is so hard for her is so easy for him. He, on the other hand, resents the fact that his wife has always been more emotionally powerful than he, as well as far more publicly successful; he unfairly blames her for his lack of academic success, when in fact he picked an increasingly-more-obsure field of expertise, and really did not have either the intelligence or the inner personal strength to assert himself and establish his own claim to public respect.
Initially the professor husband goes along with the wife, going out to buy disposable diapers and other baby-care-items; he won’t be recognized whereas she certainly would be. He is basically playing for time to think things out.
While he is out, Morse arrives at the house, following a trail of clues that is not really as complete as he thinks it is – Lewis, separated from him, has done a better job in the clue-collecting department. Morse mistakenly thinks that the professor husband is the killer, and that it is Friday, holding the baby, who has been trying to think-out how to cope with a crazy husband.
Then the professor husband arrives. In the confrontation that follows, the professor husband makes it absolutely clear that he wants this child, because this is HIS child. Rather stupidly – because he ought to know it will set-off his wife’s anger – he shouts that the baby is not hers.
Meanwhile Morse is awakening to the reality that it is the woman, not the man, who did the killings and snatched the baby, and is now a great danger to the life of that baby, because she is basically mad, and has just been told that the baby she is holding and cuddling is not hers and never will be hers.
Lewis, with his better clues, knows that the killer and baby-snatcher is Friday the TV star wife. Lewis arrives in the nick of time, like the US cavalry in a movie Western. Lewis sneaks up a back way to get behind the woman, and the episode ends with Lewis snatching the baby as the driven-mad woman, the star, falls from a great height to her death.
As I said, a very substantive Ancient Greek Tragedy, and one that poses an important question: although our culture today demands that women and also men downplay the desire to have children of their own, is this modern cultural ideal, that presses all of us towards this childless direction, really possible to put into effect, in the hearts of human beings? The story of this episode says no, it is not possible; this modern ideal is not feasible.
Morse, as usual in this series, misses the key point of the story. Morse is a man who has never wanted children. What he has wanted is a female copy of him: a woman who shares his love of classical music, who has all of his attitudes and prejudices, and who will give him the physical comfort of sex and togetherness. We see this in every episode. But we never see Morse longing for children. A man’s longing for a child, or children, of his own is not something that Morse feels or understands.
But what Morse does not see, we can see; and this episode is well worth watching, to get us to think about these questions.
- 11 The Day of the Devil
This is another episode in which the story actually has much more content, in terms of exploring human nature, than the episode actually presents to us, and much more than Morse himself sees.
As presented, we have a genius psychopath/satanist embarking on what we expect will be a killing spree. I tend to bypass stories based on psychopath/satanists, brilliant as these characters are usually presented, because in real life we almost never meet any such people, nor ever come near to any, and thus, we learn little about human nature from such stories.
The episode “Masonic Mysteries” has a similar problem, although in that, the antagonist is a brilliant psychopath con-man rather that satanist.
The psychopath/satanist here is presented as a genius beyond plausibility (as is the psychopath/con-man in “Masonic”). He is a master of disguise, with an unlimited supply of different disguises; and he has a large modern van to use, and apparently has no lack of cash.
And thus the story proceeds, until at the very end, suddenly we discover that – unlike the implausible psychopath/con-man in “Masonic,” who really is presented to us as being a twisted genius – the psychopath/satanist here was actually no genius at all, but instead was manipulated and aided secretly by one of his prior victims, into killing his accomplice, getting himself shot, and then exposing himself to death-by-cop, where he is tricked into trying to use an empty gun that he thinks is loaded.
Thus the story here suddenly becomes much more interesting and useful to us, because it is NOT a genius psychopath we have been watching, but rather, we have been watching an arrogant and vicious fool, who has been used by a much more intelligent person – the psychologist – who is a reasonable member of our “normal” professional and academic world.
This story could have been told completely differently, and much better, by showing from the outset that the psychologist was aiding him, and manipulating him. We would then see Morse as we do see him – not realizing any of this – while we did realize it, having seen scenes of her taking control of and using the psychopath. We would be wondering: when will Morse finally catch on? And the only mystery to be kept to the end, and then be revealed, would be: why is she doing this? Answer, given at the end: she had been one of his victims.
This would have made the story all about vengeance. We would have been wondering; who is the greater psychopath – the perpetrator, or his victim?
All of this is in the story, and is material we can use to think about these issues. But regrettably, because the filmmakers have chosen to give us a “scary psychopath/satanist” story, we have to dig it out on our own.
- 12 Happy Families
This episode, like the “Day of the Devil” episode (both written by the same writer) uses the not-very-impressive technique of disguising the murderer from the audience by presenting an apparently perfectly normal professional woman, and then, at the very end, revealing that she actually was a revenge-obsessed long-range planner of multiple murders. Here, she is a child psychologist; in “Day of the Devil” she is a psychologist focusing on criminally insane adults.
The main thing I look for in any detective show is the recognition by the detective, at the end, of the tragedy in human nature that individual greed or obsession leads some individuals to profoundly damage and injure other people’s lives, totally disregarding their targets’ rights and dignity as individual human beings.
Here, there is such a core to the story: Lady Balcombe, a gentle caring person, is used by others for their own ends: first, by her husband, for her money; then by her two sons by that husband, also for her money; and lastly by the child psychologist, who uses her to impose her own revenge upon Lady Balcombe’s husband and her own two sons, for the murder of the psychologist’s brother, the stonemason, many years before. The child psychologist manipulates Lady Balcombe by lying that she has discovered, and now has custody of, Lady Balcombe’s child by her working-class lover, whom her husband murdered after Lady Balcombe’s illegitimate child by him had died shortly after childbirth. The psychologist tricks Lady Balcombe by saying that her husband had perverted the hospital officials into presenting a different woman’s dead baby as being Lady Balcombe’s child.
This is very selfish and cruel mis-use of Lady Balcombe by each of the four; and of the four users, it is the child psychologist who is by far morally the worst.
And yet neither we the audience are shown this, nor does Morse recognize it. Morse, who is so often so brutally judgmental of others, judges the child psychologist solely for negligently leaving Lady Balcombe alone with the mentally-disturbed pseudo-daughter, with the risk that Lady Balcombe will tell the pseudo-daughter “I am your real mother” and that the pseudo-daughter will kill her in response.
But where is Morse’s recognition and horror at what the child psychologist has done to Lady Balcombe directly, by her own words, to manipulate Lady Balcombe into cooperating with the murder of her own husband and sons? The psychologist personally murdered all three, and the first, the husband, with the direct aid of Lady Balcombe opening the back door to let her in. Lady Balcombe had been under the impression that her stonemason lvoer had abandoned her; it was the psychologist who informed her that the husband had murdered the stone-mason lover. This, while true, nevertheless is what turned Lady Balcombe into a murderer (aide to the murder, technically), by deepening her revulsion against her husband. And the psychologist told this to Lady Balcombe precisely to turn Lady Balcombe into a murderer – of not just her greedy husband, but also of her own sons.
This is the substance of a real Greek Tragedy, and it makes this episode well worth watching.
But we the viewers have to do all of the mental and moral work to see this.
Why do we the audience have to do all this work? Because Morse himself misses this entirely.
The closing scene has Morse, the psychologist, and Lewis side-by-side, looking in horror at the just-killed Lady Balcombe. The three are presented as emotionally united, like a Greek chorus.
But instead, Morse ought to be looking at the psychologist in absolute horror, literally physically shrinking away from her, as practically a demon – and the psychologist’s own face ought to transform at that moment, revealing what she really was, a thing of fury and ugliness.
But this does not happen. The major, meaningful point of the story is missed, because Morse misses it. The writer himself missed it.
Now for some technical issues.
First, the obnoxious journalist and his photographer happen,at the end, to be at the picnic-clearing site of Lady Balcombe’s death, which is some drive away from the psychologist’s rental-house. Morse has just sped from that house to the picnic-spot by car, as directed by the psychologist.
There was no car following them – and even had there been, the journalist and photographer are on the other side of the picnic, farther away from the car-parking place than are Morse et al.
Thus, it is absolutely impossible that the journalist and the photographer would be there, already pre-positioned in a forest, beside a picnic involving two people whom the journalist has never been shown to have followed before, and it being a picnic that the journalist would never expect to produce anything newsworthy.
Second, if the psychologist had dug-up the grave of her stonemason brother some weeks before, or perhaps just days before, the first murder, in order to pull out some of his tools to use as murder-weapons, and then had refilled the hole, the police, on arriving at the spot due to the Balcombe son having just been shot there, immediately would see the recently-dug ground. The police would have no mystery about where in the region to dig – yet they are shown as being unable to see any difference in the ground anywhere around there – and actually end up using the psychologist’s own metal-detector to find the spot to dig in. The police could have just said “there’s been recent digging here,” and then proceeded to dig at the same spot – there would have been no damage to the story.
Third, the first murder victim, the father, is holding a pen “made in” Montreal, Canada. This is not good enough to pin-point anyone as actually having been in Montreal. Pens are sold widely. We all own pens made in places where we have never been. What the screenwriter ought to have done was have the pen imprinted with “Montreal University” or something similar, that ties a person to that place.
Fourth, the psychologist makes her fatal mistake by lying to Morse, that she got a particular academic degree in Britain, thereby obscuring that she really got that degree in Montreal. It is when Morse, glancing at the author bio in the book by her that happened to be on a used-book table at the police station fete, realizes that the psychologist lied to him, that Morse realizes that the psychologist was the center to the murders. But she would only have felt the need to tell that lie if she knew that Morse had realized that the first murder victim was holding a pen that must have come from Montreal. But did she know that, before she lied to Morse about where she got that degree? To Morse, it would have been a police secret, and I can’t imagine a situation in which Morse would tell her that the first victim had been holding a pen that had to have come from Montreal. But maybe Morse was sloppy and unprofessional and did reveal it; I have not re-watched the episode to check this.
Fifth, I agree with an earlier commenter that the Balcombe boys would have been too young at the time that their father murdered the stonemason, for either boy to have been involved in that murder. Why, then, would the psychologist think that the two boys had been involved in the murder of the stonemason? She would have been satisfied with just the first murder, of the husband. But the building drama of the episode requires that both boys be killed. It makes for a compelling drama. A family of wealth is being killed one by one – what can be going on? Who is targeting that family? And so we watch right to the end, with bated breath. But the final explanation – that the psychologist wanted them dead as well as their father – is one that lasts just about until the end-credits have finished, whereupon the thoughtful viewer will suddenly think “wait a minute – that explanation doesn’t hold up.” But by then, the show has chalked-up another viewer number, and doesn’t really care.
Another characterization problem with this episode is that the two brothers are shown, from the outset, as bickering, immature, indeed juvenile. But then later on we are told that each plays a prominent managerial role in a very large business enterprise owned by their mother and developed successfully by their father. Neither boy is remotely convincing as an executive. Contrast them with the two brothers who are sons of the Radford Brewery firm in the episode “Sins of the Fathers:” those Radford men are both convincing as business executives. But these two Balcombe boys are not.
Thus, in conclusion, I feel that this episode is well worth watching for the moral lessons and the heartache we can feel from this story of selfishness and cruelty – but we have to all the mental work ourselves, because Morse completely misses all of it.
- 13 The Death of the Self
First: Chris, what a great website!
Second: have just been re-watching all Morse on DVD, which I got because I have long had all Maigret (with Bruno Cremer) and Montalbano on DVD, and wanted to add-in the best British equivalent to these French and Italian examples of intelligent persons penetrating into human nature via crime investigation.
Third: I’m commenting on this episode based on one of my early careers, as producer in the 1980s of avant garde performances (Duykers the First, The Way of How, SeeHear, Rare Area, and Actual Sho, all directed by George Coates) featuring professional opera singers (especially John Duykers).
My main comment is that the way the actress (Frances Barber) behaves is not convincing as a professional, highly successful opera singer (well, was successful, but currently suffering stage-fright). The scene walking with Morse in the vineyard is to me the most signal of how she is NOT an opera singer: she is far too casual. There is a certain reserve and gravitas, in my personal experience, about real opera singers, which she gives no sense of. The amount of training and focus required to be an opera singer – the enormous effort, the endless hours of practice – make them different than most folks. They are a little bit disconnected with the “normal world” because they don’t really live in it, nor want to – the same way that Olympics-level gymnasts and figure skaters are disconnected from the “normal” world.
I think the director wanted her “normal” because a major part of her role in the episode is to give Morse a romantic interest, and the director wanted a sexy young woman to fill that dramatic element in the show. To have Ms. Barber act as a real opera singer would have behaved would have created a distancing effect for the audience; the audience would have felt that she was odd, and thus, the audience would not be feeling the romance.
But if the director had asked Ms. Barber to behave more like a real opera singer in her personal interactions, the director could then have shown Morse reacting to that element of her in a very warm, attracted way – which would have deepened Morse’s character. We would sense that he was uniquely attracted to a truly great artist, precisely because of her distanced oddness, which was the result of her dedication to her talent.
Instead, we just get Morse being attracted yet again to an attractive woman whom he has met as a witness in a case (very unprofessional of Morse, by the way, to use his cases to get close to women who in fact are witnesses).
Related to this observation is the fact that the ease with which Morse gets into Ms. Barber’s dressing room in the Verona theater is totally impossible. She would be protected by the stage director, the producer, the music director – by hordes of people all concerned with getting the performance on. They would never allow an out-of-jurisdiction British policeman to just walk past them all into her dressing room. This I know – I used to be, for ten years, the producer blocking people from getting to my opera singers at any time in the theater!
My second comment concerns “who hit Morse in the vineyard office.” Ms. Barber says it was not her, that she stayed in Verona because she did not want to travel the day before her big come-back performance. This is the most authentic thing she says! A real opera singer would definitely NOT travel, or get involved in anything disturbing, the day or two before a major performance.
Real opera singers are incredibly protective of their vocal chords. In my first European tour, in 1979, John Duykers would, as soon as our train got into town for the next booking, hole-up in his hotel room and turn on his humidifier, filled with Eucalyptus leaves, turning his room into a mild Eucalyptus-scented steam bath – all to ensure his voice would be perfect. Ms. Barber certainly would not have gone out on a nocturnal trip miles from Verona to stumble through a night-dark vineyard, conk Morse with wine bottle, and steal some evidence of forgery by Guido, when she had the come-back performance of her life coming up, in a giant hall before thousands of people.
Guido was at the party. Thus the “hitter in the vineyard office” had to be Maureen, as Morse guessed.
- 14 Ghost in the Machine
Morse’s “Ghost in the Machine” is one of my favorite episodes because it is so English, and so Oxford.
We have a grand manor house, a dissolute baronet, a regal Lady, a semi-slumming Harrow School boy, a cute French quasi-governess (au pair), a doughty loyal housekeeper – and, I have to say, a wonderful little girl – waving over top of it all the family house flag, dutifully lowered to half-staff by the same Harrovian rebel; we have resentful coppers put-out by the difference in class; and, “back at the ranch,” a fight over leadership of an esteemed ancient Oxford college – and even more, the danger of the radical “visitor” – the Bishop of Banbury – making the selection of master if the board remains tied in its vote for a successor.
I particularly enjoy the invocation of the off-screen radical “Bishop of Banbury” as the “visitor” – the tie-breaker vote free to install as college head his own off-the-wall candidate who got no votes at all – because the same off-screen bishop is cited in the “Yes, Prime Minister” episode “The Bishop’s Gambit,” where this same mad Bishop of Banbury plays a key role in ensuring PM Hacker’s choice to fill the post of Bishop of Bury St. Edmunds.
Mucking up everything is the baronet’s yen for tempting nude Victorian young ladies – salting in a bit of semi-tasteful sex and lust, at least for the hetero-male part of the audience.
If there weren’t any murders, it would be a perfect P.G. Woodhouse set-up of comic British madness. This episode has everything.
But, of course, it is not a comedy, but a tragedy – and a good one. The tragedy stems from yet another powerful, narcissistic-dominating primate male, the arrogant baronet (Sir Julius Hanbury), pursuing his own desires without any thought or care at all for his effects upon other people.
Sir Julius openly indulges his yen for Victorian-era erotic paintings of young women who are not merely undressed, but sexually aroused. Much has been said in the comments that these Victorian paintings are tame compared with modern pornography, and thus, why the fuss over the baronet’s obsession with them?
The problem is that they reveal that he is an old goat lusting after young females. That is his paramount interest these days.
We are told that Sir Julius Hanbury used to be an Ambassador. He certainly did not have such paintings in the public reception rooms of Queen Elizabeth’s embassies overseas.
Such a man ought to be a dignified leader. He need not be an intellectual – but at a minimum he must want to appear to be one.
In earlier years, Sir Julius was such a man, or he could not have been an Ambassador. But obviously he is not such a man now. It is what the Victorian paintings, and the number of them that he has, reveal about him that shows what he is now – that he lusts to look at naked 20-year-olds. He doesn’t have just one among other kinds of paintings: he has surrounded himself with them. This collection reveals an obsession, by him, with sex. The paintings’ comparison to more explicit photographs is not the issue.
His competitor for the mastership, a rigorous academic German, expressly calls-out Sir Julius on this, during a walk in the manor-house gardens: Hanbury not is not fit to be in guidance of young people, especially not as master of a prestigious Oxford college.
We are told that Hanbury is supported by half of the board of the college, because he will use his social and City financial connections to aid the college. This is a reasonable scenario for the episode: in such an election, there would be board members who would overlook his personal defects because of his financial advantages. His voters would think, “Well, none of the paintings will be hung in the college rooms. He’ll have the good sense to keep them at home.”
But would you want this man to be in charge of your children, in comparison to other candidates to be in charge of your children – such as the strict academic German – just because the Victorian paintings are tame, in comparison to modern pornography?
It is the comparison of him to other men, not the comparison of the Victorian paintings to modern photos, which is the issue.
This is aggravated by the fact, unknown to the college board, that Hanbury is using his beautiful French child-caretaker as a sexy nude model in his photographic reproductions of the paintings. Publication of these photos would be extremely embarrassing to his sons, who would be teased by their classmates in school; and embarrassing to his extremely form-conscious wife; and would cost him the college mastership if he got it. If he uses a young woman au pair, employed in his own house, in such photos, won’t he try to use young woman students, enrolled in his own college, as well?
And there is the effect on his wife of this use of the young French woman. Male viewers may not feel the primeval insult given by Sir Julius to his wife, in taking naked photos of the French au pair. But imagine that your wife, or your steady girlfriend, was inducing sexy male sports-stars to come to her, for her to see naked in her photo studio, and then photograph – how would you, the male, feel about this? Deeply insulted, I suspect.
Yet Sir Julius bulls forward, disregarding all other people. It is this stubbornness, this complete disregard for his effects on others whom ought to care about and take care of, that finally causes his wife to bash him in the head with a camera tripod – with the effect of killing him.
A narcissist’s insistence on attaining his or her immediate, visualized goals, despite knowing the damaging effects on close family relatives, is a fundamental kind of insult to those close family members. I have long experience of this, because my father, my wife (now ex-wife), and one of my aunts have been narcissists like that. My aunt, the most talkative and unguarded of the three, once blurted out in a conversation about how she had lived:
“I decided I was going to have a life, even if it kills everyone around me!”
She then identified various deaths in the family that had been “trigger events” for this attitude.
But deaths in a family can make one more appreciative and protective of the ones who still live – it isn’t automatic that the response must be “this could be me, so I must do everything I want right now, even if it hurts those who still live.” The response could be: “other people’s time with me may be short, so I should protect them and appreciate them while we are together.”
It is a matter of innate predilection: outer-focused to protect the others, or inner-focused, to enjoy oneself even at the injury of others.
The inner-focus is the psychology of the narcissist: once they feel that a certain goal is something they must attain in life – in Hanbury’s case, satisfaction of his old-goat sexual longings – no injury to anyone else matters. “I am going to have a life, even if it kills everyone around me!” These are people who feel no guilt. They just do not have it in them to feel guilt.
This is a very deep insult to those who expect the narcissist to protect them from injury. “You are worthless,” is the message that they receive from him. “What I want at this moment matters more than protecting you.” This is the insulting message that Lady Hanbury has received from her husband Sir Julius; this is the message that she has received, and that their two sons either have received, although they might not yet know it.
And, to top it all off, the French au pair has passed some of the sexy photos to her boyfriend, who conceives and implements a blackmail plot. The French au pair is presented in the episode as an appealing innocent, but really she ought not to have been: she colludes in the blackmail plot.
Lady Hanbury discovers this blackmail plot – which her husband’s complete selfishness has now led the whole family into. Here is yet another, deeper insult, derived from her husband’s carelessness and brutality.
Lady Hanbury’s motivation is the kind of motivation that Morse describes in an earlier episode, “The Settling of the Sun:” that some murders are motivated by furious reaction to insult, and by a desire to silence the insulter, to obliterate the insulter from our lives.
To stop the endless stream of insults.
The baronet’s disregard of others is an insult to them – a deep and painful one. He has insulted and disrespected those whom he ought most to respect: his wife and his two sons. And he will never stop.
His wife at last in fury lashes out – if her words can’t make him stop, no other option is left. In her last, emotional confrontation in the top-floor photo studio, Lady Hanbury feels has no option left: she grabs a camera tripod and bashes at her husband.
And he falls dead. I imagine Lady Hanbury was rather surprised.
She calls those who love her and respect her: the Harrow-boy and the doughty housekeeper. These three amateurs devise a plot: Hanbury is already on the roof-level, just drag him out and let him drop. Suicide!
But no – there is the fatal head-wound from the camera tripod, which the pathologist will discover. So bash him up to hide it. Pretend that there was a break-in to steal the Victorian paintings, and he was caught by the fictional burglars and killed in the process.
But – the broken bones from the fall. How can they fit a beating on the ground? Um, the crooks did the beating on the roof and then threw him off?
And then – in the mad-est move of all – Lady Hanbury, the Harrow-boy, and the doughty housekeeper decide to drag Sir Julius’ body to the mausoleum – which only family members, not criminals, would do.
Commenters criticize correctly that this is not a very effective cover-up plot – but then, these are amateurs acting in the moment. A poor plot is what they would devise.
Then, Lady Hanbury and the Harrow-boy decide to squelch the blackmail plot by killing the French au pair’s boyfriend, and to kill him by cutting his sports-car brake-line.
Again, a plot justly criticized for incompetence – but also again, the kind of plot these desperate amateurs would do.
Morse and Lewis competently and quickly penetrate the plot and identify the “bad guys.”
Morse could have commented at the end that the case they had just solved was, yet again, an example of anger against insult: in this case, the deep and persistent insult delivered by the self-centered baronet against his wife and their two sons. It would have been entirely within Morse’s character to say this, and in so saying, the deeper meaning of the actions we had just seen would have been made clear to the audience.
Morse’s failure to say this is, I think, an oversight by the screenwriter. The screenwriter has failed to show us the complete and deep character of Morse. As we know from “The Settling of the Sun” Morse does think about and understand the motivations for murder. Thus the screenwriter ought to have given us Morse putting his insights into effect, and showing us what we should learn about human nature from the crimes that we have just seen.
The episode closes with the poor little girl – the adopted daughter – crying for her mother, who is being taken away under arrest.
In light of the criticism directed in comments above towards the acting of the little girl, let me say, I found her absolutely delightful. We first meet her walking with the French au pair, who urges that the girl learn French – to which the little girl stoutly and with full sense of personal dignity says something like “I’ll never go to France so I don’t need to learn French.”
Right at the outset I liked this little girl – she doesn’t let her littleness block herself from knowing that she has the right and power to make her own decisions – and to state bluntly what her decisions are. She has self-confidence!
And, despite being as young as she is, she has applied logic to her situation. She doesn’t just blurt out “no I won’t.” Instead, she has thought about the reason why she is supposed to learn French – that she will be visiting France – and she has realized that this reason is under her own control: she can choose whether or not to go to France. Since she has the right to decide whether to go to France, she can remove the reason why she is supposed to learn French, by deciding that she will never go to France.
There is reasoning and decision-making in this little girl, not just stupid stubbornness.
Then there comes a scene in the kitchen where Morse is questioning the doughty housekeeper, and the little girl is there, first scooping from the pudding mix, and then taking cookies from the cookie jar. The housekeeper says “no cookies” and pushes the jar away – and the little girl, with exactly the right balance of assertiveness and quietness, proceeds to take more cookies anyway. I found it so delightful that I watched her the entire time, and paid no attention to the conversation between Morse and the housekeeper.
When I was a theater producer, it used to be said that the worst thing for a play was if a cat happened to walk onto the stage in the middle of a scene. The entire audience immediately would be watching the cat – “what’s the cat going to do?” – and utterly forget the play.
I felt that the little girl was like a very cute cat walking onto the stage – I couldn’t take my eyes away, wondering what she was going to do. “They’ve got a cat on the stage” is exactly what I thought during the scene. A very cute and clever cat – cleverer than either of the adults talking in the scene.
I think the little girl was excellent. I can’t imagine why anyone criticizes her.
At the end, her poignant moment tugs at us – her beloved mother is being taken away.
But the episode could have illuminated the two other victims of the narcissistic baronet: his two sons. A few words on the nature of being a baronet are necessary to develop this.
A commenter above insightfully noted the similarity here of the collapse of a noble family, with the collapse of the noble Marchmain family in “Brideshead Revisited.”
But the Marchmains are truly noble – the head of the family is a Marquess, above Earl, just below Duke. He is called Lord Marchmain, not Sir. The collapse of an ancient Marquess-level family is far more socially significant than the collapse of a Baronet family – it is a sign that the ancient nobility itself is crumbling.
But a baronet is not really part of the hereditary nobility, and is not properly called a noble. Baronet is a rank created in 1611 by King James I, to reward certain very helpful commoners. It is below the lowest truly noble rank, Baron – hence baron-et. A baronet is titled “Sir,” not “Lord.” Knights are also titled “Sir.” But unlike a knighthood, the “Sir” title of a baronet is inherited by the eldest next-in-line male. Knighthoods, by contrast, are not inherited, but must be earned by the individual. The son of a knight is not called “Sir,” unless he earns it on his own.
Thus, to make a fictional character a baronet is to present us with a person who has the title “Sir” without having done anything to earn it.
The landed property of a baronet usually is “entailed” – which means it cannot be sold or mortgaged, or subject to creditors of the current baronet, but on his death goes automatically to the male who inherits the title – which in this episode is the eldest of the off-screen sons.
Thus, the death of the baronet here was relevant to the two off-screen boys not merely by being the death of their father – which is all that we are shown that Lady Hanbury says. Sir Julius’ death was also relevant to the older boy, because he was now the new baronet, master of the all the lands, the manor house, etc. – although, being a minor, management of the property would be in the custody of his mother.
The episode would have been more accurate if, in the scene where Lady Hanbury says that she wants to go to the boys’ school to tell them their father had died, she had also said that her eldest son had to be told that he was the new baronet. That is what she really would have said to Morse in that conversation, but the screenwriter didn’t realize that.
What that would mean is that she would almost certainly be bringing the two sons back with her from the school – the elder, to be recognized as the new baronet, and the younger, so as not to be insulted by being left behind the elder.
There could have been a short sharp scene of when Lady Hanbury arrived home with the two boys, and met Morse and Lewis:
Lady Hanbury: Inspector Morse, my two sons, Thomas and George.
Thomas: That’s Sir Thomas now, mother.
Morse: I regret we meet under such sad circumstances, Sir Thomas, Sir George.
Thomas: George isn’t a sir. Only I am.
[Thomas brushes past Morse to enter what is now his own manor house, followed by George and Lady Hanbury.]
Morse, to Lewis: The upper class, Lewis. The upper class.
To have shown this would have driven-home the message that these people really are of a different class than Morse and Lewis – not just by being richer and snootier, but by living under different legal and financial principles and rules, and by being people who inherit titles.
To make this change in plot would have required Lady Hanbury, on arriving at the school (off-screen), to have told her sons that they must lie to the police and say that the Harrow-boy had always been driving the car, even though in reality she was driving it herself when she arrived at their school, and it was she who drove them all back again, until picking-up the Harrow-boy outside the estate. The sons, of course, would do so – instinctively treating the police as mere servants who did not deserve to be told the truth if the truth is inconvenient. Again: the arrogance of the upper class, a mother teaching her sons to lie to the police.
But perhaps the screenwriter did not want to complicate the episode by bringing this social class element even more prominently into the show.
If the screenwriter had made Julius Hanbury a real noble – an earl, say – this would have transposed the social world of the episode into a different social realm. Baronets, being just below the real nobility, are more connected to the world of the untitled gentry, which is the world that Morse and Lewis operate in. Jane Austen, the premiere novelist of that group, has two major characters who are baronets – Sir Walter Elliot in “Persuasion,” Sir Thomas Bertram in “Mansfield Park” – because it is reasonable, socially, that baronets would be part of the world of the untitled gentry. But Austen never presents us with, say, an Earl – even though her famous character Mr. Darcy in “Pride & Prejudice” is the grandson of an Earl, nephew of the sitting Earl, and first-cousin to the Earl-next-in-line. His uncle the current Earl never appears, nor does his eldest son the future Earl appear; only the younger son of that Earl, Mr. Darcy’s first-cousin Col. Fitzwilliam, takes a speaking role in the novel, talking to the middle-gentry-woman Elizabeth Bennet.
Mr. Darcy’s aunt, the haughty Lady Catherine De Bourgh, is not a noble – she is daughter to an Earl and sister to the current Earl, but she is not a noble herself. She has the title “Lady” because she is daughter to a noble (an Earl). She also married a knight, and thus would have been called Lady by virtue of that marriage, but we can tell that her superior claim is by being daughter of a noble; this is why she is Lady “her first name” (Catherine) rather than Lady (“husband’s last name” (De Bourgh). We can tell that Julius Hanbury’s wife is not a daughter of a noble because she is Lady “husband’s last name” (Hanbury) rather than Lady “her first name” as is the case with “Pride & Prejudice’s” Lady Catherine.
If Julius Hanbury had been a noble (for example, an Earl), it is possible that the murder might never have happened. Being in a truly noble family, his wife (who would have been Countess Hanbury) might have felt that scandal felt by the lower classes, about them, just didn’t matter very much to them. A baronet – and his lady – by contrast, not being real nobles, will be more concerned about the opinion of the lower classes about them, because the major part of their prestige comes from being seen by the lower classes as superior to them. Real nobles don’t care what the “plebeians” think.
Also, to have made Julius Hanbury a noble (i.e., an Earl) might have been socially impossible for the plot, if it is the case that even the mastership of an Oxford college would be beneath the dignity of an Earl to accept. I don’t know British social expectations in enough detail to be certain, but it might be that such a post would smack too much of “work” to be done by an Earl, and might put the Earl into a position of his ability as a “worker” being judged by other people, people who do not have superior noble titles.
To place yourself under someone else’s judgment and criticism is not a thing proper to be done by hereditary nobles. They accept as judges only their peers, and those of higher noble rank. Thus it may be that for the plot to be plausible – that Hanbury is a serious candidate for an Oxford college mastership – Hanbury could be of no higher rank than a baronet.
Of course, such feelings might not characterize a “new” noble – Kings and Queens can make “new nobles,” as in fact was done with the family that really owns the house presented as Sir Julius’ house, Wrotham Park; in 1832 an esteemed General, John Byng, then sitting in the Commons, was made a Baron in return for supporting a voting-reform bill; in 1847 he was raised to Earl, of Strafford. What I am referring to are ancient noble families.
Lastly, a technical problem I have with this episode derives from my experiences as a theater producer: the practicality of making the specific scene that Sir Julius photographed. The issue is that Sir Julius, to make his photographic version using the French au pair, would have had to bring-up to his studio the big couch upon which she reclines. This would require manual helpers – thus exposing to third parties what his project was. The turning staircase, to get into the studio, would have been an obstacle to getting the couch in.
He also, before even making the photo, would have had to find and then buy a couch of the right design to match the one in the painting – no easy task.
And in the photo-studio – which we are shown – the couch would have been there, front-and-center, large before the cameras.
The production designers could have had Sir Julius make a photo-version of one of the other paintings, which did not require anything bulky, or hard to find, to be used in the photo. Sir Julius could have chosen a painting that would be easy for him to re-create in his top floor studio without making such a big disturbance (finding, buying, and then moving into the top floor that antique bulky couch) that others would start to wonder what was going on.
Alternatively, the plot could have made a point of the arrival of the couch a few days or weeks before, and everyone wondering what Sir Julius wanted it for. The mystery of the couch might have enriched the mysteriousness of the story. And it would have emphasized the self-centeredness of Sir Julius: that once he decided that this was the painting he wanted to copy, he would bull ahead and get the couch that he needed for it, regardless of how much his effort would disturb the house, and regardless of the attention he would bring to his photo-project.
Indeed, as I think about it, I think that the screenwriter missed a wonderful opportunity, by failing to develop the backstory of “the mystery of the couch” having disturbed the entire family some weeks earlier, and by failing to have the couch in the studio when Morse and Lewis entered the studio.
Instead, Morse and Lewis soon after arriving could have heard someone comment about the troublesome couch Sir Julius had wanted. Then, on getting into the studio, Morse and Lewis would have seen the couch. What’s this all about?
Then, when the Harrow-boy brought back the supposedly-stolen paintings, and they were unwrapped briefly on the stream-bank, Lewis would blurt out “Look sir – that’s the couch. The couch in this painting – that’s the couch in the studio.”
And Morse would say, looking at the painting: “Look, Lewis. Look. It’s what’s on the couch that matters. A young naked girl, Lewis. Sir Julius got the couch – but where did he get the girl to go on that couch? Where’s the girl on the couch, Lewis?”
Lewis: “Lady Hanbury?”
Morse: “Lewis, please. Does Lady Hanbury strike you as a woman who would pose naked on this couch in Sir Julius’ studio? To be photographed – in photos that could be shown to her sons? And does she strike you as the woman Sir Julius would want on that couch? Where’s the girl who was on that couch, Lewis? We have to find that girl.”
I think that this would have made for an even better episode than we have – which is already very good.