Exclusive ENDEAVOUR interview with Russell Lewis on PREY

THE ENDEAVOUR ARCHIVES: CELEBRATING 30 YEARS OF MORSE ON SCREEN

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night. I love that one… what does fearful sy-mme-try mean?” – Paul Patterson

Russell Lewis on PREY

An exclusive ENDEAVOUR interview

by Damian Michael Barcroft

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2017

We continue our journey discussing the last series of ENDEAVOUR as well as previewing tonight’s film with writer/executive producer – Russell Lewis.

With special thanks to:
The staff & patients of Professor R.C. Tremayne’s Department of Psychiatric Medicine Research Wing

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DAMIAN: Is it feeding time already? Welcome back Russ and so we finally come to the one with the tiger! Could this be the most divisive episode of ENDEAVOUR thus far?

RUSS:  Was it that divisive?  Really?  I don’t think any of us thought of it in those terms when we were making it.  It was as rooted in reality as any of our other adventures.  We took a bit of history, and extrapolated a story from that.

DAMIAN: Are you one of those writers who doesn’t read reviews of their work or do you occasionally pat yourself on the back or perhaps even shed a tear or two when no one’s looking?

RUSS:  I don’t obsessively seek them out.  I’m aware of some of it, but I tend to take the figures, and the audience a.i. (appreciation index) as an indicator of how well or poorly we’re doing. Millions regularly tune in, and it would be madness to imagine every last person adores everything we do.  The internet is very interesting, and it’s great that people take the time to offer their considered opinion.  Some of it’s very well informed, and well written.

People have been very kind to us by and large, but the level of vitriol one sees vomited elsewhere upon some shows and, in particular, their makers does make one question the psychological well-being of those making the criticism.  It goes so far beyond critique.  It’s so personal, so indescribably nasty.  Wishing dreadful things upon strangers because a piece of television did not meet your expectations in some way?  It’s unhealthy.  Any of these things are primarily an entertainment.  We all try to make them as well as we can.

Look, it’s lovely if people like and enjoy one’s work.  But, as I’ve said before, ENDEAVOUR is a Selection Box, hopefully with something for everyone.  It would be very easy when a particular story is well received – FUGUE, for example – to sit back on our laurels and just turn out a collect the set serial killer story every week, but I think the appeal for the audience would quickly pall.  So, for better or worse, we’ll carry on making our Variety Pack.

DAMIAN: Well, to illustrate the diverse variety of opinions regarding PREY, here’s a few comments that I found on the reviews section of IMDB: “Great episode. Well written”, “Endeavour’s Baskerville? – quality episode with a breathtaking climax!” and “Overall an impressive episode that works despite its unlikely premise”. So far so good, but you may need a stiff drink for the next ones: “[the writer] is lost in a maze of his own confusion and ineptitude!”, “PREY versus JAWS – homage or ripoff?” and “it was off the wall and that Russell Lewis, the writer, needs a rest”. You’re not feeling tired are you Russ?

RUSS:  Well, it’s very good of you to cast some of those into my teeth.  Seriously, though – everyone’s entitled to their opinion.  I stand by it four-square.  “If you can meet with triumph and disaster…”  Or, as Lemmy wrote, ‘You win some, you lose some, it’s all the same to me.’  I think one would always prefer brickbats or bouquets to indifference.  People either bought it or they didn’t.

We achieved what we set out to do.  I certainly don’t feel any need to defend it.  It is what it is.  It worked for some, and not for others.  People are free to praise or criticise as they see fit.  I think the only cause for concern is when it slips in to Annie Wilkes territory.

Tired?  Certainly not of ENDEAVOUR, no.  Many more stories to tell – given the chance.  Some, none, or all of which may or may not contain tigers.

DAMIAN: If I may, and we’ve personally had a good natured laugh at the reaction to PREY – not least my own!, I suspect that those who found fault with the episode didn’t have a problem so much with the concept but rather in its execution – pun intended! So, while it may have been just about palatable to have a man-eating tiger on the loose in Oxford, do you think it was the fact that it was also served with a side order of blatantly obvious JAWS and JURASSIC PARK references that was the tough bit to swallow?

RUSS:  You should have seen the first draft.  Three tigers.  Fully operational safari park.  Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically…  But it proved to be beyond our resources.

Oh, I don’t know.  The fun of it for us was recasting some of those things through the prism of 1960s Oxford.  I think there were a couple of direct nods to Amity…  The death of the lad from the campfire singalong gang, and Max’s somewhat belated post-mortem.  There could have been many more…  The death of the Kintner boy, &c.

The former turned the conceit inside out, insofar as it was the boy who copped it, rather than the girl who went into the water.  We’re nothing if we’re not an equal opportunities slaughter-house.  Tigers are often drawn to watering holes to hunt for prey – and the rivers are the nearest things we’ve got to such in Oxford – so I thought that was justifiable.  And Max…  Week in, week out, he outlines the grisly details of this or that violent death – scenes that, if one thinks about it, aren’t that far removed from the one in question.

Who wouldn’t want Jimmy Bradshaw’s Max deBryn channelling Matt Hooper if they had the chance to do it?  I think I just about fought shy of him snapping, ‘Do NOT smoke in here, thank you.’ Or asking for a glass of water.  But nobody goes full Dreyfus.

There was only one JURASSIC PARK nod, wasn’t there?  That was more about a salute to the late Bob Peck – taken from us far too young — than anything else.  EDGE OF DARKNESS is such a touchstone.

As you know, we like to do a genre piece every now and again – and when you’re looking at Spielberg’s mighty ouvre there’s a lot to salute.  As always, it’s born of great affection and respect.  You know ‘Bruce’ casts a long shadow still.  I remember going to see it in the cinema that summer of ’75, with my buddy Charlie.  I guess we’d have been about eleven, rising twelve, and scene after scene was burned into the memory.  I mean quite literally shot after shot.

Being in a darkened cinema and seeing the audience react to the Ben Gardiner jump scare by leaping back in the seats and screaming their heads off.  That stays with you. It’s such a beautifully conceived and executed piece of work.  If I could only keep one Spielberg, it would have to be JAWS.  Even over Indy – and, believe me, that’s a wrench.  There’s still enough of that late 60s/early 70s naturalism about the performances that you’re suckered in and have boarded the Orca before you’re even aware you’re on a rollercoaster.

DAMIAN: You see, I still think that like the NIGHT OF THE DEMON reference for example (“It’s in the trees…” “It’s coming…”), there wouldn’t have been such debate if you’d been a little more subtle. I mean, your references and allusions are usually more cryptic and less obvious aren’t they?

RUSS:  I suspect far more people are familiar with ‘The Hounds of Love’ than Night of the Demon.  And even more unaware that the opening of the track is a sample from the movie soundtrack.  The film is mostly known by horror aficionados, and those of a certain age.  But – again – it didn’t seem impossible that those two lines could have been uttered in such circumstances as we engineered.

Yes – they’re often more cryptic, but sometimes it’s fun to go a little broader and play to the gallery.  Particularly in a story like this.  Might as well be hung for a Judas goat as a kid.

DAMIAN: Where did the idea of the tiger come from in the first place?

RUSS:  It arose from a few things.  I think I mentioned when we talked about RIDE, my interest in the Mayfair Set – in particular, John Aspinall, a colourful character, and the late founder of Howlett’s Wildlife Park – the fact that 1967 was the year of Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’…  And finally, I think, if I remember, it was originally a 1966 idea – with the opening of Longleat Safari Park, which – together with the Aspinall link – is why we went for a Tiger rather than a Lion.  To put some blue water between us.

But in the 50s, before setting up Howlett’s, it’s reported that Aspinall kept two brown bears and a tiger in a garden shed at his home in Eaton Place.  So, I didn’t think it was too much of a reach for the paterfamilias of an eccentric crowd such as the Mortmaignes to have taken things one stage further.

We like where possible to fold in a film or a book or a record that had some influence on the year in question.  The Jungle Book – taken together with all the rest – just caught my imagination.

A tiger as a murder weapon seemed an interesting departure from the traditional country house Lead Piping in the Billiard Room.

DAMIAN: Were there any reservations from Mammoth Screen, ITV or the cast when they read the script?

RUSS:  Nope.  Not really.

DAMIAN: I don’t know if I dare ask, but have you ever had an idea so “out there” that someone has said it’s too much and you’re pushing the codes and conventions of ENDEAVOUR too far?

RUSS:  Not yet.  But, I’ll keep trying.

DAMIAN: It’s obviously credit to the special effects team that I’m even asking this question but what exactly was shot with a real tiger and what was CGI?

RUSS:  It was all real tiger, clever editing, and ‘comping’.  We did a two-day shoot with the real Shere Khan, at a sanctuary rather than transporting it to set.   Its well-being was paramount, and we didn’t want filming to disturb its regular life and habits any more that the absolute minimum.  Aside from setting a couple of maze hedge walls into its enclosure, and encouraging it to take an interest in the pram – which was achieved on the rangers’ advice by loading the vehicle with its lunch – what you see onscreen is pure legerdemain.

DAMIAN: Given your very early work for the screen, which I think I’ve -not so subtly- alluded to myself, and also the fact FEARFUL SYMMETRY was the title of one of your LEWIS episodes, isn’t it almost inconceivable that the tiger connection is mere coincidence?

RUSS:  Almost inconceivable…  and yet it was.  The LEWIS ep…  I think the title arose from something to do with knots, didn’t it?  The weight was on the symmetry.

DAMIAN: Let’s let sleeping tigers lie. You introduce us to a young Philip Hathaway (and the Mortmaigne estate of James Hathaway’s childhood) and I wanted to ask you about LEWIS. I think you wrote the story for the first episode and then also four actual screenplays. Given that you created the character of James Hathaway, wouldn’t you have liked to have come back and written the last ever episode of LEWIS?

RUSS:  There’s a line from The Croupier – ‘Hold on tightly, let go lightly.’  To have felt any proprietary sense over LEWIS would have been presumptuous.  I was there at the start, and then out, and then back…  So – no regrets.

DAMIAN: With the greatest respect to all the other writers involved, no one else ever came close or even seemed to make it a priority over the central murder-mystery to develop the characters of Lewis and Hathaway in the way that you did and have continued to do with characters in ENDEAVOUR. I wonder if you would have done anything different – perhaps a little more poignant for Lewis and Hathaway’s farewell?

RUSS:  I couldn’t possibly comment.  I think there were many terrific LEWISes by some truly great writers.  On the series with which I was involved, I think it was harder for LEWIS to develop the central characters because – I think I’ve mentioned before – as with INSPECTOR MORSE the transmission order was decided after the films had been shot.  So, at the end of any adventure, to a certain degree, the reset button had to be pressed.

DAMIAN: Now that we’ve got the tiger and Hathaway out of the way, I want to focus on what I think really deserves discussing about this film because there’s a plethora of standout scenes which really do flesh out the characters beautifully. One is where Strange visits Endeavour at his new home to give him the housewarming gift of a James Last LP (a close up of the record is present in the original broadcast but cut for DVD and international releases) which Endeavour turns his nose up at, the two then go to the pub and he also complains about the pint Strange has got him (“bit cloudy”), mocks Strange for drinking Double Diamond lager and generally acts rather unkindly towards him. For the show’s main protagonist, Endeavour is awfully antagonistic towards his friends isn’t he?

RUSS:  Well, I think with Strange he’s still working out his feelings post-Blenheim Vale – and the fact that, presumably in Endeavour’s view, the less able man has leap-frogged him on the promotional ladder.

DAMIAN: Another moment that I feel deserves special mention is the following short exchange between Sam and his father who is at a particular low point:

SAM: This with work… whatever it is, you’ll get him.
THURSDAY: Will I?
SAM: Of course. You’re my Dad.

I wonder if you bring such warmth and obvious love and affection to characters such as these because you are a father of a young son yourself?

RUSS:  Well, he’s not so young any more.  But the father/son dynamic interests me.  No more than any other, but I suppose it’s one of which I’ve experience – from both sides.

My old man fell off the perch just before I started making a living as a scribbler, and never got to see any of my stuff.  I don’t think I’m working any issues there, particularly.  I suppose everyone wants parental approval on some level at some time.  Even parental disapproval.  ‘Watch me, Daddy!’   But he gave me a pretty long rein.  As we’ve been talking Spielberg, “Did I ever tell you to eat up, go to bed, wash your ears, do your homework? No, I respected your privacy and I taught you self-reliance.”  He worked night shifts at a tannery for years, and so I didn’t get to spend a great deal of time with him until quite late in his life.

He was of an older generation – and his war mirrors Thursday’s pretty closely.  So, I had a window on a lot of the attitudes you’ll see echoed in the Thursday household.  The phraseology and idiom.

From the other end of the telescope..?  I’m sure we’d all like to be Atticus Finch, but most of us end up somewhere closer to Homer Simpson.  There’s no manual, unfortunately.  The road to hell… That last line of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit rings ever true – ‘Time just gets away from us.’

DAMIAN: Also steadily becoming part of the ENDEAVOUR family dynamic is Trewlove and her scenes with Bright are a particular delight: (Bright to Trewlove) “If we should encounter anything, you stay by me, yes?” and after hearing his story about killing the man-eating tiger of Kot Kindri, Trewlove says “Sounds frightfully heroic” to which he replies “No I fear not. A hero would have saved McKendrick” (his fellow officer) which of course was a fantastic segway to the climax of the story. In many ways, like SWAY was for Roger Allam, was this clearly Thursday’s episode; was this Bright’s turn to shine and how did Anton Lesser react to the script and the chance to reveal some of the character’s backstory?

RUSS:  Well, Anton’s always a delight – whether it’s a big BRIGHT story, or just a couple of scenes, he never gives anything less than his all.  So, I don’t think it engendered a huge reaction, but I think he enjoyed himself.  But yes, I wanted to do something for BRIGHT that gave him a moment in the sun.  I’ve said before that there’s more to him than meets the eye.  Still waters. But, I think everyone contains that capacity for heroism.

And it also serves as a reminder that BRIGHT too was once as young as Endeavour.  He had his hopes and dreams too.  Shades of Captain Darling, perhaps?  “Go back to work at Pratt and Sons, keep wicket for the Croydon Gentlemen, marry Doris…”

DAMIAN: Thursday erupts with anger and physically attacks a suspect (Hodges the park keeper) during questioning. Was there any debate as to how far you could go with this morally or at least Bright’s reaction, I mean would he have really been so willing to cover it up by claiming Hodges fell down the steps on the way to his cell?

RUSS:  It was intended to indicate Thursday’s increasingly cornered state of mind – and to a lesser degree to play into the theme of the story, which was about nature and instinct.  The Tiger’s nature.  Hodge’s predatory instincts.  And Thursday…  who, for all his warmth, has a great capacity for darkness at his centre.  He was carrying the knowledge that his days were most likely numbered by the bullet lodged in his chest.  As for BRIGHT, events at the end of NEVERLAND have brought him much closer to THURSDAY and ENDEAVOUR.  There is a sense of guilt there.  That he didn’t do enough.  That he was blinded by the dazzle of personal ambition to the cost of those who truly deserved his loyalty.  The blind eye turned was a small entry in the credit column.

DAMIAN: What did you think the audience would find more shocking, Thursday’s brutal attack of a suspect or the fact that Bright utters the words “pair of knickers”?

RUSS:  Oh – the former, certainly.

Knickers’ is one of those words, isn’t it?  ‘Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you’ve let your knickers down.’  How they got away with that lyric at the time still astonishes.  But ‘knickers’…  Yes.  It’s sort of a weirdly ambiguous word.  In this period, at least.  At once both ‘safe’ and de-sexualised, a playground word for underwear, while in the hands of a ‘blue’ club-comedian bent on innuendo, vaguely ‘eroticised’.   Like ‘newlyweds’.   Profoundly strange British hang-ups manifested in everyday speech.  Norman Bates stammering over the word ‘bathroom’ is the same thing.  We looked at some of this last week’s adventure with Mrs.Pettybon – the obsession with things – sex and bodily functions — being ‘dirty.’

DAMIAN: So, tonight’s film then – what can we look forward to?

RUSS:  Well, LAZARETTO is our Ladybird Book of the Hospital.  So, that’s at the centre of it.  A little bit creepy – as you might expect with such a location.  But there’s a lot else going on for both ENDEAVOUR and THURSDAY besides.  It’s quite a test for Oxford’s Finest.  And, again, a big link to INSPECTOR MORSE. Best not to say too much.

DAMIAN: Just time for our penultimate “Desert Island Dexter”. So far you have chosen DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION, GREEKS BEARING GIFTS, THE INFERNAL SERPENT and CHERUBIM & SERAPHIM as some of your favourite MORSE episodes. Can you given us your next two choices please?

RUSS:  DEAD ON TIME, which opened Series 6, is a very special film.  Susan Susan Susan. Joanna David.  David Haig.  Adrian Dunbar.  Samantha Bond – whose mum Pat Sandys produced my first drama script, an episode of The Bill.  Richard Pascoe – ‘Between your knees, man!’ – as William.  Another flawless turn from Madden.  I think for anyone who was a fan of the show, and had taken Morse to their heart… this one just kicks you half way down the street.  John and Kevin’s performances are sublime.  John’s scenes with Joanna David – that glimpse of a happy, playful Morse, was just heart-breaking.  It’s an incredibly tight core cast, and a madly narrow roster of suspects.  You should see it coming, and yet you don’t.  Morse’s fury – all reserve gone. John was immense in that scene.  Across the whole film, really.  You asked earlier about Thursday wailing on a suspect.  Perhaps its genesis was here.

Lewis’ care for Morse which leads him to put loyalty before duty…  It’s perfect. From that opening shot of the house with the Schubert adagio playing over it, across a very sedate overture in which little seems to happen – but all of it vital – Haig’s car passing the GPO engineer’s vehicle, the nurse on her bicycle, all the way through to the final frame…  It just doesn’t put a foot wrong.

And I guess my other pick this week is MASONIC MYSTERIES – Julian Mitchell’s magnum opus – and still, for many, the yardstick against which anyone who ventures into Dexterland must be measured.  I’m torn – I think my favourite by Julian is still to come, but I’ll save that for next week.  However – MASONIC MYSTERIES…  Putting Morse front and centre as a suspect was a masterstroke, and everything flows from that.  Unique, insofar as it delivers a villain of such diabolical wickedness that we leave the whodunit behind fairly early on, and, instead it becomes the most brilliant thriller.  That’s terribly liberating for a writer – because it’s pure storytelling. It’s not about laying clues, it’s about what happens next.

The fire is a highpoint – obviously.  And maybe it’s the moment that the audience moved from respect and admiration for their heroes to outright love.  Morse – still suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation in the back of the ambulance.  Paranoid.  The world against him.  And his heart reaches instinctively for the one person who has never failed him.   Never doubted him – for all his tongue lashings and irascibility…  The one true friend.  ‘Where’s Lewis?  I want Lewis.’ Just beautiful.

And the final showdown – mano a mano.  Two great minds pitted one against the other.  Ian McDiarmid delivers a showstopper of a turn.  Such lightness of touch.  You’re expecting the devil, and you get a trickster.  Hugely amused by his own cleverness.  All of it a game.  He’s on screen for what?  Ten minutes at most?  And yet he owns the film.  That voice.  That diction. Seductive and mocking.   When it crashed to black – a nation held its collective breath.  Such a break with convention.  Utter genius.

DAMIAN: Three down, one to go. Thank you Russ and see you next week.

RUSS:  Thanks very much.  Until next time.

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THE ENDEAVOUR ARCHIVES / 2810 / PREY

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2017

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No scriptwriters were harmed during the making of this interview

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