Had I been asked, I might just as easily have suggested that Puccini was a fullback playing for Juventus as an Italian composer. To have done so would not have been entirely honest, I had encountered his name on BBC Radio 3, where his music might have been played just before or just after the coverage of test match cricket. It is hard to imagine now that sports commentary would have been embedded in the schedules of a classical music station, presumably it was thought that cricket aficionados would also be the sort of people who lived in houses where the day began with opera rather than Tony Blackburn.
Inspector Morse was an introduction to music never heard on Radio 1. The irascible Oxford chief inspector’s passions were opera, real ale and The Times crossword. There were passages of music that were pure beauty and I would watch Morse with the subtitles turned on so as to know the titles of the pieces being played. I even bought a CD of Madam Butterfly on the strength of Morse’s affection for the work of Puccini, only to discover that it had an unhappy ending.
But Morse was like that, there were endings that were flat, endings that were sad, endings where Morse and Sergeant Lewis could do no more than walk away. Morse got things wrong, he became frustrated, he became bad tempered, he annoyed other people, he received reprimands, he was likeable. The storylines had a degree of plausibility, even if the number of murders in Oxford and Morse’s successful resolution of the cases seemed rather higher than was likely.
Thirty years later, the programmers obviously think we are more stupid than in the days of Morse, his younger self depicted in Endeavour inhabits a two-dimensional world of cardboard cut-out villains and good guys. Each episode has a plot more implausible than the preceding one, young Morse single-handedly takes on gangsters, gunmen, grenade throwers, and even tigers. Confronted with the stories, John Thaw’s inspector would have screwed up his face in as much distaste as if he had been offered a glass of chilled lager.
Endeavour is part of the wider trend towards “dumbing-down” that all of us have experienced, yet, oddly, that trend runs contrary to much of everyday reality. Currently pursuing a mathematics course provided by the Times Educational Supplement, each week includes a question from the GCSE papers. The problems posed are considerably more difficult than anything I remember from the 1970s. One commenter said that material he had first encountered at A-level was now being presented in Year 8 (the second year at secondary school, for those of us who still count in old money). Why the contradictory trends? Why reduce a once intelligent television series to absurdity, whilst expecting younger people to have understanding beyond their years?
Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way, perhaps by the time Sergeant Morse becomes an inspector, Puccini music will prompt a return to the subtitles and GCSE questions will become simpler.