Taking the Lead: Interview with Inspector Lewis' Kevin Whately

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Robert Day/ITV Studios for MASTERPIECE

Kevin Whately as DI Robert "Robbie" Lewis

It was back in January 1987 that TV audiences were introduced to Detective Sergeant Robert “Robbie” Lewis, one half of the Oxford-based crime-fighting team in the long-running UK TV detective drama Inspector Morse. In his first case, "The Dead of Jericho," Lewis and his boss, the often irascible but always fair and dedicated Detective Inspector (later Chief Inspector) Morse, investigated the apparent suicide of a friend of Morse’s.

Despite being as different as chalk is from cheese, both detectives developed a quirky friendship of sorts over time and an intense loyalty for one another that lasted up to Morse’s tragic onscreen demise in the 2000 episode "The Remorseful Day," where his dying words were “Thank Lewis for me.”

With nearly three dozen cases under his belt, DS Lewis eventually struck out on his own almost 20 years later in the self-titled Morse spin-off Inspector Lewis. Newly-widowed and promoted to the rank of detective inspector, he carried on investigating complex murder cases in and around Oxford with the help of DS James Hathaway. What were some of the initial challenges that actor Kevin Whately, who plays Lewis, faced when stepping into the lead role on his own series?

“Fortunately, most of the crew on Lewis had worked on Morse, so from a productions standpoint it wasn’t that different,” says Whately. “I think the main thing for me was that in Morse I could be quite indulgent and laid back, but when you’re the central character in a story you have to drive that story. I was always very aware that that’s what John Thaw [Morse] did, particularly vocally. John had an absolutely fantastic cutting voice, which I’ve never had, and that always worried me. So for me with Lewis, it was largely an issue of energy as well as pace. 

“Something I found much more challenging was the fact that in Morse, my character had been quite down-to-Earth, happy-go-lucky, and easygoing. With Lewis, I think they [the producers] wanted him to be a bit more like Morse, more of a curmudgeon and a grumpy old guy. That was sometimes tricky for me to match with my memories of Lewis.”

In the Inspector Lewis pilot episode "Reputation," DI Lewis returns to Oxford after a lengthy absence and, much to his chagrin, his boss, DCS Jean Innocent (Rebecca Front), assigns him to investigate the murder of an Oxford mathematician student who was shot to death while taking part in a sleep study. Suspicion soon falls on one of the deceased’s fellow classmates, but when two more people are killed, Lewis must attempt to decipher a cryptic clue that his former boss, Morse, left in an old file.

“The pilot was rather odd in that you were very much aware that John Thaw wasn’t there, but the script had references to his character of Morse,” recalls Whately. “Again, because many of the crew had worked on Morse, there was a great deal of sentimental talk and reminiscing going on, and in a strange way that kind of worked against what we were trying to do, which was create something new and different.

“Also, because Lewis had come back from abroad, I spent part of the story wearing these lurid tropical shirts and suntan make-up,” says the actor with a chuckle. “So it felt slightly surreal to me, and yet I was playing the same character and bumping into other familiar characters like Dr. Hobson [Clare Holman], who had been around in Morse.”

Along with taking charge of a new murder inquiry, Lewis also had to deal with a new partner, DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) and all the responsibilities that that entailed.

“As John Thaw and I did on Morse, Laurence Fox and I never really talked about our characters’ relationship or tried to analyze it too much,” says Whatley. “Chemistry is something that either works or it doesn’t. You can’t force it. Laurence and I went out for a few drinks early on before we starting filming, and then continued to do so when production began.

“The two of us just tried to get on as pals, hoping some chemistry came out of that, and we were lucky that it did. There are some people who are best pals but whose chemistry doesn’t translate to film. Much of the Lewis and Hathaway relationship, though, came largely in the writing, so Laurence and I didn’t have to work too hard at it. Things have seemed to work for eight years, so we must have gotten it right.”

The Lewis pilot proved a hit with viewers, so much so that the ITV Network commissioned a three-episode first season for the following year. Even with all his time on the force, it was hardly smooth sailing for our hero, especially when it came to upper management. Meanwhile, behind the cameras, it was pretty much business as usual for Whately.

“My character was up against—as all TV detectives seem to be up against—a superintendent who wasn’t terribly sympathetic to him and, in fact, was trying to get rid of him. That was Lewis’ main struggle,” explains the actor. “Also, at the same time he was nurturing the Hathaway character, I was trying to get Laurence used to working the way we did, because as I said, it was very much a set with a lot of the same crew and production people from Morse.

“A big part of being a regular on a series like this is making actors who come into it feel comfortable, whether they’re leads and ongoing like Laurence, or someone who’s in for just two days and has to dish out a tremendous amount of very erudite dialogue without any rehearsal. It’s an important responsibility as a lead actor to make everyone feel relaxed and at home as possible, so I was doing quite a bit of that with Laurence as well as the guest artists.”

In addition to Whately’s character, another familiar face to make the leap from Morse to Inspector Lewis is the aforementioned police pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson. While some viewers may have hoped for a bit of romance to develop between the two, that does not appear to be in the cards for either of them.

“Goodness knows, Lewis is a lot older than Hobson, but Morse was much older and there was a slight sort of flirtation between them,” notes Whately. “She and Lewis are both kind of lonely characters and it’s rather astonishing that they never got together earlier if they were ever going to. To be honest, though, that’s something I’ve always sort of resisted because I think it can then become somewhat soapy. I prefer to focus on the mysteries and the dastardly characters as opposed to the home life of the lead character.”

In the States, Inspector Lewis returned to the PBS line-up June 16th as part of MASTERPIECE Mystery! In "Down Among the Fearful," the first of three new episodes, Inspector Lewis and DS Hathaway investigate the murder of a psychic who had been leading a secret double life.

“This episode is the one with all the chase scenes through the covered market,” says Whately. “We did three days of running around, and I’m not as young as I used to be. Luckily I survived all the interior market stuff, but then we went down to Merton and filmed me running towards Christ Church meadow. On the penultimate take, this girl is fatally injected with a drug and falls to the ground. Lewis has to chase after whoever did it, and as I did, I felt one of my hamstrings go.

“We ended up needing another shot of Lewis getting to the gate and realizing that he wasn’t going to catch the killer, but I couldn’t do it because of my hamstring. We had to wait a fortnight until we were in the middle of filming the following episode and back up in Oxford, by which time I thought the hamstring had healed, but inevitably it twanged again.

“So in-between all this I was doing lots of other scenes and trying to hide this pathetic limp. In the last episode we shot, there’s a scene where Lewis has to run along to one of the canal boats on fire. The director, Dan Reed, said to me, ‘Can you do it once more,’ and on the very last take as I get level with the camera, you can see my face contort as my hamstring goes yet again.”

In "The Ramblin’ Boy," Hathaway is off on sabbatical in Kosovo, so Lewis is assigned a temporary new partner, the young but bright DC Alex Gray (Babou Ceesay), and the two investigate the discovery of an elderly man’s body that has already been embalmed. This episode guest-stars former Doctor Who Peter Davison as Peter Faulkner.

“Peter Davison was at the Central School of Speech & Drama [at London University] a couple of years ahead of me, and I was sort of the Peter Davison of my year, if you see what I mean,” says Whately. “Here’s an actor who’s led so many series, and oftentimes when you’re leading your own series you don’t get to work with someone like that. It’s fascinating seeing how they work, and Peter tends to play sympathetic roles, as I do, so watching him create an evil character was fab as well. I really enjoyed shooting those scenes with him. Peter’s character is sort of a foe from the past, although he’s never appeared on the show before, and Lewis is desperate to nail him, whether he’s guilty or not,” jokes the actor.

Laurence Fox had the chance to work with his uncle, Edward Fox, when filming "Intelligent Design," the third and final new Inspector Lewis story to air this year on MASTERPIECE Mystery! In this episode, Hathaway ponders his future as a police officer, while he and Lewis search for a link between the hit-and-run death of an elderly university don and the murder of one of his students.

“We’ve had most of the Fox family in the series by now, and I keep saying that it’s a pension fund for them,” jokes Whately. “Again, it’s fascinating to watch them at work because they’re all different. Edward is very different from James [Laurence’s father], as he is from Laurence. They hadn’t seen an awful lot of each other for a while, so I think Laurence was quite nervous about having his Uncle Edward come on the show, but the two of them actually got on like a house on fire.

“We went out for meals in the evening in Oxford when Edward was up there, and I enjoyed watching them get to know one another all over again. The two of them clicked straight away. They have quite a few similar ideas about the business, and because he’s been a movie star for so long, it was great seeing how Edward puts a character together in his performance.”

Besides his work on Inspector Lewis, TV audiences on this side of the pond can see Whately’s guest-starring role in "Gently in the Cathedral," an episode of another popular British TV detective series Inspector George Gently, which stars Martin Shaw and is currently airing Stateside on PBS.

“Martin Shaw and I had met once before 30 years ago at an Actors Equity union meeting, and, again, it was fascinating to watch how he runs his show and how it’s made,” says the actor. “It’s done by the BBC and shot in the Northeast, so from that point of view it was quite sentimental to me. The episode I did ends in a huge sort of Wild West shootout in Durham Cathedral, and I hadn’t been there since I was a 13 year old and singing in the choir.

“So that was a joy, as was getting to play a baddie. I couldn’t resist doing it because my character is a baddie who you have to believe in for quite a long time. It wasn’t a huge part either, so there weren’t very many scenes to kind of establish him, and I enjoyed that acting challenge.”

Given the changes in how modern-day audiences watch TV, the chance of creating a hit show is harder than ever, and the same is true of playing a character for an extended period of time. Whately knows this all too well, and in the many years he has walked in Robbie Lewis’ shoes, the actor has never once taken any of those steps for granted.

“This character has dominated nearly half my life now,” he muses. “It’s a large chunk of my acting life and really consolidated my career. I learnt almost everything that I know from doing Morse. I’ve traveled the globe and have fans all over the world from Morse and Lewis. So I have many, many happy memories and feel incredibly fortunate to have the connection to both shows as well as the Lewis role.”

Please note, all Inspector Lewis photos copyright of ITV Studios for Masterpiece.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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