Dorset magazine meets Inpsector Morse creator Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, talks about his love of Lyme Regis, Morse's Dorset holiday and Endeavour, his new series about Morse's early career

Morse in Dorset 

Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, talks about his love of Lyme Regis, Morse’s Dorset holiday and Endeavour, his new series about Morse’s early career 

Words: Jeremy MilesPhotos: Hattie Miles

Award-winning crime novelist Colin Dexter is sitting in a frightfully posh hotel near Bournemouth posing for photographs before giving a talk on his famous fictional detective, Inspector Morse.

For someone who has slaughtered dozens of innocent people, the quietly spoken 82-year-old is a remarkably agreeable man. He seems faintly surprised that as the author behind the curmudgeonly, real ale-quaffing detective he has managed to kill more than 80 people in his 14 novels and its hugely successful TV series Inspector Morse. Mention the death-toll and he shrugs mock apologetically.

In an hour or so this one-time Classics teacher turned best-selling author will regale his audience with behind-the-scenes tales of writing the books and working on the TV shows. So far there has been Inspector Morse, the spin-off series Lewis and in January last year a prequel Endeavour, about Morse’s early years as a young detective, was broadcast.

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There’s much to talk about and Dexter clearly enjoys engaging with his readers. He may be elderly and frail - diabetes, deafness, eyesight and mobility problems  mean he has “a season ticket to every NHS clinic within 20 miles of my home” -  but he still seems to relish being out on the road. What’s more he loves being in Dorset.

“For someone who has slaughtered dozens of innocent people, the quietly spoken 82-year-old is a remarkably agreeable man”

 The county was a regular family holiday destination for Dexter, his wife Dorothy and their children, Sally and Jeremy, now both in their fifties. They particularly loved Lyme Regis, a town which only last year Dexter told the Daily Telegraph was his “favourite place on Earth.”

His happiest days he says were when Morse was still very much a part-time concern, a couple of hundred words scribbled into an exercise book between The Archers and his nightly visit to the local pub. In those days Colin Dexter was running the University Schools Examination Board in Oxford.

“We used to have to take our holidays in August, the one free month between the exams and the complaints coming in from head teachers saying ‘I’m sure this has been mismarked.’ We’d pile into the car, drive down to Dorset and have the most wonderful time in Lyme Regis, we went there regularly. It’s a splendid place.”

To this day Dexter says the mere mention of Dorset brings back memories of “sitting in a deckchair, drinking a few glasses of Scotch and forgetting that the world isn’t a very happy place.”  He’s fond of the work of Thomas Hardy too and has read all but one of his novels, Dexter particularly rates him as a poet - “one of the finest in the English language.” He recalls visiting the writer’s cottage at Higher Bockhampton and taking his then teenage daughter Sally on a special Hardy-trail from the Kings Arms in Dorchester. “It included the places in his novels. We did that trail lots of times. Sally loved it, though chiefly because it involved lunch and she knew she could always have two puddings at the end of the main course!”

Sadly Dexter will never get to read that final Hardy novel - The Hand of Ethelberta. “I just didn’t get round to it and now my eyesight is so poor that I really can’t read anything anymore, not even crime novels.”

What he did get round to doing was using Dorset and his beloved Lyme Regis as a crucial location in an Inspector Morse novel. His 1992 book The Way Through the Woods finds a miserable Morse temporarily transplanted from the city of dreaming spires and reluctantly taking a short holiday in Lyme at The Bay Hotel.

Discovering some clues that will help him solve a murder back in Oxford, Morse also spends an entire afternoon in Dorchester’s County Museum. There are many good descriptions of places that Dexter knows well. The seafront Bay Hotel in particular was a destination of choice for many years. He even prints its address and phone number in an ‘advert’ in the book.

“I got in touch and asked if they’d mind me including it. They wrote back and said that far from minding they’d be absolutely delighted.”

Unlike Morse, Dexter thoroughly enjoyed his holidays in Dorset, but admits there are a number of striking similarities between himself and his crossword-solving, opera-loving, classic-car driving sleuth.

Like Morse, Dexter lives in Oxford, is a Classical scholar and read ‘Greats’ (at Cambridge as it happens), he loves a fiendishly difficult crossword and, until a few years ago when he was forced to give up alcohol on health grounds, enjoyed nothing more than a pint of real ale.

He claims that when he first started writing his famous books he had little idea of what Morse was actually like. “I’ve never had a very good visual imagination. I never had anyone in mind. If you write in the first person it’s always going to be little semi-autobiographical.

“The only thing that was really important to me about Morse was that he was very sensitive and rather vulnerable. People don’t realise this. The greatest things in his life were Houseman and Wagner. These were the things he would go home and listen to and talk about and that was me I suppose, but that’s about as far as it went. I never even wrote plots for my books. I always made sure that before I started writing a story I knew exactly how it was going to end. I never had any idea about what was going to happen in the middle but I knew where it was heading.”

Dexter says the Morse of his novels will forever be epitomised in his own mind by the late John Thaw who played the character on TV from 1987 until 2000. He believes that Thaw, who became a good friend, was the perfect actor for the role. “Nobody could match him.”

Dexter has even stated in his will that no other actor must ever be allowed to play the part. “I don’t want them doing a ‘Miss Marple’ on it and getting all kinds of different people in. John was the best.”

When he was eventually persuaded to revisit Morse, he got around the Thaw problem by writing a prequel. Millions tuned in last year to watch Endeavour featuring his anti-hero as a young constable (played by Shaun Evans) establishing his roots in the police service after dropping out of college in Oxford.

“They particularly loved Lyme Regis, a town which only last year Dexter told the Daily Telegraph was his “favourite place on Earth”

Described at the time as “a one-off”, the project was quickly optioned for a full series. Filming is now complete and, although details are being kept under wraps, screening is due soon.  Meanwhile Lewis, starring Kevin Whatley and Laurence Fox, has been back on our TV screens recently, and continues to be a very popular series with viewers. Not one to hide from the limelight, Colin continues to make his customary Hitchcock-like cameo appearances in the shows. Watch closely and you’ll see him in the background of scenes in almost all of the Morse and Lewis episodes.

Will this practice continue with the new series on young Morse? Colin isn’t saying but I do know he’s been working closely with the show’s producers and I suspect his fleeting appearances as ‘man in the street’ or ‘man in the pub’ are likely to remain an integral part of the brand.

He certainly likes having his picture taken, which takes us back to that hotel photo shoot in Bournemouth. Determined to capture the delightful Mr Dexter in character, photographer Hattie Miles decided it would be in keeping to use a copy of The Times and a pint of real ale as props. However it was ten in the morning and we’re in the kind of hotel that is so posh it simply doesn’t do pints of beer.

Fortunately a highly resourceful barmaid found a pint glass and poured a generous slug of dark rum into it, followed by a hefty splash of Tia Maria and an ample serving of sweet sherry. The whole filthy concoction was topped up with lager and stirred with a swizzle stick. The result was a dead-ringer for the real thing!

And so it was that an hour before most people are even thinking about a morning coffee, Hattie was handing an 82-year-old teetotaller a glass of booze that would alarm even a hardened alcoholic! Colin Dexter accepted it with a sweet smile, posed happily and then the whole lot was poured straight down the sink. Such are the joys of fiction!

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