The concept of prequels is not one that, on first consideration, sits easily in the television landscape. Given the serialised nature of so much modern television drama, which essentially hinges on keeping viewers hooked on what will happen next, the idea of showing what happened before we met characters with whom we are already familiar – and to whom we therefore know precisely what is going to happen – must, surely, have limited appeal? In the US at present, this seems not to be the case; at the time of writing, Hannibal (NBC, 2013- ) has just made its television debut, and Bates Motel (A&E, 2013- ) is soon to follow. Any viewer on nodding terms with twentieth century popular culture (though these may admittedly be fewer in number than I’d like to imagine, judging from recent conversations with undergraduates) should be aware that these shows are not going to end well, and yet….
These are of course television prequels to established cinematic and literary franchises, each of which has already had its own big screen prequels (and, indeed, sequels). What, though, of those prequels designed purely as precursors to television works? What creative purpose can they serve that has not already been fulfilled by the parent series, whose success gave rise to their birth? If the central characters are the same (but – essentially – younger), viewers will presumably be presented with some recognisable personality traits, or at least bear witness to the formative events that helped shape them. This could, however, easily descend into an exercise in tedium (would-be George Lucases take note), unless some new factor is introduced: an environment or context in which we have not hitherto seen said character(s), or perhaps a new protagonist/antagonist of whose existence we were not previously aware. Each of these routes is laden with peril, differing as they do from that which is reassuringly familiar, but offer a potential spark of interest that might – just possibly – add lustre to the show whose overshadowing popularity such prequels presumably seek to replicate.
Over in America, The Carrie Diaries (The CW, 2013- ) is currently offering a teen take on Sex and the City’s (HBO, 1998-2004) finest, but here in Britain prequels have historically been somewhat thin on the ground. Oddly enough, sitcom has proved a slightly more fruitful field than drama. Just Good Friends(BBC, 1983-86) memorably provided a flashback pre-story to Vince and Penny’s rocky romance as a 1984 Christmas special, and First of the Summer Wine (BBC, 1988-89) and Rock and Chips (BBC, 2010-11) each provided series precursors to their better-known and longer-lived parent shows, Last of the Summer Wine (BBC, 1973-2010) and Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-2003). While these programmes maintained strong continuity with their forbears, each being penned by the same respective writer, Rock and Chips was arguably handicapped by a much weightier burden of backstory. It would be a casual Only Fools and Horses viewer indeed who remained unaware that Del and Rodney’s mum was fated to perish before they reached maturity, and once dodgy Freddie ‘the Frog’ Robdal (a character whose likely parentage of Rodney was first mentioned in a 1987 Christmas special) entered the scenario there was little room for significant narrative deviation, or indeed innovation. And whereas in First of the Summer Wine there was something rather charming about seeing a relatively unknown cast of actors essaying youthful versions of familiar characters, James Buckley’s impersonation of a teenage Del Trotter paled – perhaps inevitably – in comparison with the established persona of David Jason.
Well, plenty, as it turns out. Following the 2012 pilot and the recent series of four episodes, my initial fears have been largely allayed. Endeavour in fact possesses several distinct advantages over the average prequel, not least the fact that the personal history of its lead character was seldom revealed in any detail during the original programme. Yes, it was common knowledge by series three of Morse that he had become a policeman after dropping out of Oxford University due to an unhappy love affair. These events have, however, already taken place before Endeavour’s opening episode, meaning that the creative team are not hamstrung either by having to explicate or illustrate pre-ordained history. Certain character traits must be accommodated, of course; Morse’s love of real ale, the classics and opera, not to mention a blind spot when it comes to damsels in distress, are all present and correct. However, the writers are left with a remarkably blank canvas compared with so plot-laden a production as Rock and Chips. Short of killing Morse off, there is little they cannot legitimately do with or to him, the character having a potential twenty-plus years of further development prior to his earliest televised appearance in 1987’s ‘The Dead of Jericho’. One Radio Times reader with a long memory recently complained that Morse’s roof-top rescue of his boss in the Endeavour episode ‘Fugue’ ought to have been impossible, given the fear of heights that was established in the Morse instalment ‘Service of All the Dead’. Shaun Evans’s considered response was that it was perhaps this early trauma that had led to Morse’s later phobia; clearly, some narrative bets are off. Already we have seen the character embark on a tentative – though short-lived – sexual relationship (not a regular feature of the original series), and where backstory needs to be accommodated (which is not often) it is done so seamlessly. Even small events that would probably not be considered vital by the most pedantic of original series fans are occasionally slipped in. When, in the final episode of the first series, Morse is shot in the leg by a murder suspect, I was immediately put in mind of the slight limp which was a feature of John Thaw’s performance – but dismissed this as mere fancy on my part. ‘Why go to such lengths to accommodate another actor’s physical quirk?’, I asked myself. But no; at the episode’s close Morse the younger is solemnly informed by a medic that he has left his consultation too late, and will occasionally suffer from a limp in later life. Such tiny grace notes add depth for aficionados, without detracting from the drama or distracting casual viewers.
Another of Endeavour’s strengths as a prequel is the performances of its young cast. Playing the more youthful version of an established screen character runs the dual risk of: a) alienating fans of the original by failing to live up to expectations; and b) becoming little more than an impersonation. Happily, Shaun Evans’s interpretation of the twenty-something Morse avoids both pitfalls. Yes, there are moments when he skilfully incorporates a gesture which eagle-eyed viewers will associate with John Thaw (most noticeably ruffling the back of his head in moments of reflection, or pulling at his collar to signify disquietude), but these never overshadow the fact that this is a distinct, younger character, who does not yet quite share the same life experiences and viewpoints of his older self. James Bradshaw and Sean Rigby are similarly adept as the younger versions of Morse stalwarts Doctor Max de Bryn and PC (later Chief Superintendent) Jim Strange. The latter was never given a Christian name in the original series, but now, pleasingly, takes the nomenclature of the actor who portrayed him, the late James Grout.
All well and good, but this would perhaps lapse into indulgence were there no new tales to tell, or fresh ways of telling them. If Morse is pre-destined to survive any potentially lethal situation, the amount of peril in which he can be placed is necessarily limited. Endeavour has, however, circumvented this by pairing the young detective with the more seasoned DI Fred Thursday (unusual surnames are seemingly the sole entry requirement for the Oxford constabulary) – a character never once mentioned in Inspector Morse, though he is shown here to have had a significant influence on his partner’s early career. This of course means that Thursday’s fate is less certain. The character, and his relationship with Morse, can be taken in any direction – a fact played upon nicely in the tense Mexican stand-off that featured in the series finale. Endeavour is a prequel that indeed offers more of the same – Oxford locales, plots of Byzantine complexity – yet different.
As to whether the programme is superior to Inspector Morse, it is difficult to offer a robust affirmative – but this is as much due to the weight of affection the original still commands as any deficiencies in its precursor’s conception or execution. I have a personal issue with the re-casting of actors who appeared in Morse as new characters in Endeavour (a trend the programme shares with Lewis), but it is doubtful whether many other viewers will protest at seeing actors of the calibre of Patrick Malahide and Martin Jarvis, each of whom have now appeared in both series. It is true that, had Inspector Morse never been commissioned, the new series would not exist; for the moment, however, it has succeeded in extending the original’s legacy, without tarnishing its memory.
A worthy endeavour indeed.
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London, and the University of Arts. His PhD thesis, Acting for Auntie: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, 1953-2008, examines changes in acting style for British television drama, and was completed at the University of Nottingham in 2012. Publications include ‘Acting in the New World: Studio and Location Realism in Survivors‘ in The Journal of British Cinema and Television Volume 10.2, and ‘Who is Matt Smith?: Performing the Doctor’ in O’Day, Andrew (ed), The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I.B. Tauris, forthcoming, 2013).