DAMIAN: I understand that you were the first and only choice to play young Endeavour Morse. Can you tell us whose original idea this was and what work they had seen you in that made them think you would be suitable for the role?
SHAUN: Yes, well that’s my understanding of it. I was at the read through for a part I was about to play of a guy who leaves his wife, because she has a brain tumour, and the execs clearly thought, “ah, what a charmer…there’s our man!” – and the rest is history.
No seriously, Mammoth Pictures were making a show called Monroe and I was in the first episode and I got the job from that. As to whose original idea the first film was, I can’t be sure, I suppose a combination of Damien, Michele, and Russ’.
DAMIAN: You weren’t familiar with the original TV series, Inspector Morse, hadn’t read Colin Dexter’s novels on which it was based, or even looked at a script at this very early point. What were your initial thoughts or perhaps even preconceptions regarding the character?
SHAUN: I didn’t have any preconceptions, as I didn’t really know anything about it, though that said, I wasn’t massively keen on the idea of a cheesy one off, that would just be a money spinner for the channel…however, given that, to my understanding, the execs had sought me out, I thought I have to repay that with a bit of research, and I’m glad I did… So I suppose I did have preconceptions!
SHAUN: I didn’t think I could make anything my own, but I was intrigued by the storytelling in the novels. The character seemed very clear and at the same time distant, I don’t know, I was intrigued I suppose. Then read Russ’ script and thought it was brilliant. So complex and interesting, that it allayed any of the perceptions that I thought I didn’t have!
DAMIAN: Were there any of the novels or short stories in particular that resonated most and what character details did you find in them that influenced your interpretation?
SHAUN: I particularly liked the penultimate novel, I can’t remember the name of it, something about it I just really liked. I’d long stopped reading them for research by that stage and was just enjoying them. It’s too hard to say specifically what influences your interpretation, it doesn’t really work that way in acting, for me at least, its a feeling.
DAMIAN: I wonder if you can describe the very first day of filming, the scene that was shot and at what point in the series did you think, yeah, I can do this – I’m Morse now?
SHAUN: Again, that’s a very external way of looking at it, you just do your days work, and hope people like it. The first day was myself and Jimmy Bradshaw looking at a dead body by a riverside, and I remember…well actually, when I work I often think “no one will see this, its just a bit of a laugh” and I do that to feel free so that I can be creative, but I remember coming into my trailer on the first morning and the producers had, very generously, left a first edition of “Last Bus to Woodstock”, signed by Colin, along with a replica Jag, (miniature unfortunately) and I thought, “oh shit”, I don’t know why , but I just felt a degree of pressure, which I’ve never felt before, expectation I suppose. So I put the gifts in a drawer until we’d finished (which I guess is significant) got on my knees, said a quick prayer to help me get on with it, and then went out and had a laugh with Jimmy and the crew, forgot all of it and got on with the job.
DAMIAN: Although the crosswords, the opera and the booze are all essential elements, I would argue that they have become almost a distraction in our understanding of the character. If I asked you to think of Morse as a man you had actually met and knew well, how would you describe him – how do you see him in your mind’s eye, where is he and what is he doing?
SHAUN: Wow that’s a good question, erm, I like to think that’s how he rests, sitting in a comfy chair, opera on the turntable, scotch by his side, and crossword half filled, in a melancholy mood, quizzing over the big questions and being lost in his thoughts…ha I love this character, I know that sounds mad, but I do.
DAMIAN: Morse is very much a man shaped and moulded by his past – we all are to some extent I suppose. However, if we were looking for clues as to his loneliness and social awkwardness, would we find the most revealing pointers in his failed relationship with his college sweetheart, Susan Fallon, or perhaps his troubled home life with his father?
SHAUN: It’s too academic to want such solid reasons for things, the whys and wherefores, but life is more interesting and mysterious than that. “Thursday’s child has far to go”, who knows why, he just does. Over intellectualising ruins inspiration I think for the actor.
DAMIAN: There are some elements of Morse which very much remind me of Educating Rita and, given his working-class background and later education at University, has become something of a “Frankenstein’s monster”. He feels he doesn’t belong to, or is too good or educated for his own family, but by the same token, doesn’t belong to the more highbrow world of Oxford academia either because he constantly feels inferior to them, not because of his intelligence but because of his background. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Morse, because of his great intellect, isolates himself, doesn’t speak anyone else’s language, and no one can ever fully understand his – he doesn’t truly belong anywhere does he?
SHAUN: That’s right.
DAMIAN: This situation is obviously intensified later in his police career and his refusal to either conform or “play the game”. Would you say that Morse is paradoxically both superior and inferior in all his personal and professional relationships?
DAMIAN: Except, of course, for Detective Inspector Fred Thursday?
SHAUN: Ah, Thursday. How cool is Roger Allam?
SHAUN: I think so.
DAMIAN: Is Roger usually in character between takes or is he simply a bit like his Thursday character in real life?
SHAUN: Oh no, he’s glorious…funny, and irreverent, and sharp, but most of all one of the most wonderful, coolest actors I know.
DAMIAN: In addition to yourself and Roger, I can honestly say that I believe Endeavour boasts one of the finest ensemble casts of any recent TV series. If we look at the progression and augmentation of characters from the pilot and series one, such as Max (James Bradshaw), Jakes (Jack Laskey), Bright (Anton Lesser), Strange (Sean Rigby) and Dorothea (Abigail Thaw), these really do seem like living breathing characters who inhabit both Oxford and our imagination in the most serendipitous way. Abigail told me that you both often try to play around with your scenes and their often inherent humour but the directors usually reign you in so I’m wondering to what extent is there room to improvise and take advantage of this beautiful chemistry that the whole cast seem to share?
SHAUN: Well, if you cast well, and let the actors do their job, they’ll give you good stuff… yes we are blessed with a brilliant ensemble, all of the actors are prepared, have thought about the scenes and come offering something. They are all terrific. And yeah within the time constraints we play around as much as possible, it’s very much a team effort, it really is. And that goes on off stage too, if anyone is doing anything else, we usually organise a team outing to support, and also because I love watching them all work.
DAMIAN: Abigail also mentioned that she and Jimmy Bradshaw want their own spin-off series, Dotty and Max! – what are your thoughts on this?
SHAUN: Can I be in it as a guest?
DAMIAN: After the first Endeavour film, FIRST BUS TO WOODSTOCK, you chose to play quite a dark character in The Last Weekend (2012) and again, more recently you opted for another character who couldn’t be further away from Morse in The Scandalous Lady W (2015) – do you think roles such as these are deliberate attempts to avoid type-casting?
SHAUN: I don’t believe in type-casting, you’re only limited to one role if that’s all you can play. I’m lucky that I’ve always had the opportunity to play parts far away from me, which I hope will continue.
DAMIAN: Would you say that it might be more interesting for you as an actor to portray Morse as dark a character as audiences would be willing to accept for a primetime ITV drama?
SHAUN: I don’t know, I don’t think about it, Russ does the writing, and if I have any ideas or anything jumps out I have the opportunity to air it, but I think that we’re all pretty much on the same page about the important stuff. I don’t really think about the audience, in that way.
DAMIAN: You have a very distinctive way of… Talking. And. Delivering your lines. I can only describe it as measured and introspective which really works for the character. However, I’ve noticed that, in comparison to Roger who is pretty much consistent and says the same line the same way take after take, you are a lot more unpredictable and perhaps even slightly capricious in your delivery. Is this something you are aware of and does it ever affect the interplay with other actors?
SHAUN: I’d never noticed, it could be in the writing, or perhaps I’m trying to work something out, or maybe that’s how I think this person is thinking this thought, and therefore speaking this… line.
DAMIAN: I was actually complimenting Russ for the scene in HOME (S1:04) between Morse and his father, Cyril, shortly before he dies saying how it was written with such beautiful understatement and so many implicit thoughts and emotions only for him to tell me it was originally quite different! Apparently he had written so much more about Cyril/Gwen and Morse/Susan Fallon but you and Colm McCarthy [Director] had some “notes”! I know both yourself and Roger provide significant input into the scripts so is this sort of debate regarding how or a scene should be shot and played typical?
SHAUN: No not typical, they’re brilliantly written, but it’s our duty to create an imaginary world in our heads, so at the read through of each film I’ve made extensive notes about certain things which block that process for me, which then facilitates it being faster on the working day, that we’re not caught up with small inconsistencies.
DAMIAN: In preparing for my interviews with Russ that take quite an in depth look at every film, I’ll spend hours simply watching them, pausing the DVD to make notes and trying to research all his cunning references and nods to not only the original series but also anything from horror, noir or whatever scrap of film, television or literature history that seems to take his fancy. If you haven’t watched the original Inspector Morse episodes, do you yourself find it difficult to spot some of the more obscure references?
SHAUN: That’s intentional. If something sticks out to me in the reading to be surplus, I’ll question it and it will quite often be a “heritage” thing, which for me is neither here nor there, unless it slows down our stories. Then you have to question if it’s necessary to the plot, and if it is deemed necessary, but it still sticks out to me, I just try to limit all of my interactions with it, because its cried out to me. I personally don’t find any enjoyment in that, but I know others do, so that’s OK.
DAMIAN: Owing to the phenomenal success of the original series, Colin Dexter began to change the way he wrote Morse in his later novels and short stories so as to incorporate John Thaw’s performance, personality and appearance. Do you think Russ has done the same thing with you and your interpretation over the last three series?
SHAUN: I’m not sure, nah, I don’t think so, I’d like to think I was endlessly surprising Damian, and that they never know what they’re going to get from me!
DAMIAN: The first Endeavour film, FIRST BUS TO WOODSTOCK, was conceived in large part to mark the 25th anniversary of the original Inspector Morse series and was never actually intended to serve as a pilot at the time. Would you still have signed on to play Morse if you’d have known Endeavour would be such a success and last at least three -hopefully more!- series?
SHAUN: No, I don’t think so. It can lead to complacency, that way of looking at work, from everyone, the actors, the execs and the channel’s point of view. People feel like they own you, and it all becomes about business, making it cheaper and more of it-whilst we’ve managed to avoid that, which ultimately adds to the quality. I don’t think you can say any of our films are “fillers”, they’re all little works of art I like to think, some more successful than others admittedly, but all began with the best of intentions.
DAMIAN: Do you think that playing Morse during such long shoots (I think series three took about 95 days to film) has prevented you from accepting other roles you would have liked to explore?
SHAUN: Yes definitely, but you just have to prioritise, like I say I love this work and we have it very good, the team we have, and it won’t last forever, so I make the most of what I have in front of me, and if another job wants me enough, they’ll make the schedule work, and if not, that’s cool too. Its win/win.
DAMIAN: Russ has told me that he knows exactly how Endeavour will end and has even written the final scene. Presumably you’ve discussed this with him but what I and many fans really want to know, since there’s obviously no show without you playing Morse, will we ever get to see that ending?
SHAUN: I hope so.
DAMIAN: Shaun, thanks for doing this. As a fan of the novels, the original TV series and now especially Endeavour, it really is an enormous privilege for me to talk to you about this character that means so very much to me and so many other people around the world. And –hopefully Russ will forgive me for stealing his words from one of our previous interviews– thank you for bringing “a certain, special kind of Oxford magic to a whole new generation, with a pitch perfect portrayal of the heart, mind, body and soul of Endeavour Morse.” Thank you Shaun.
SHAUN: Kind words sir, thank you. I hope our new offerings delight more than anything we’ve done thus far. Cheers Damian.
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2016