Oxford's Finest: Interview with Endeavour's Shaun Evans

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Patrick Redmond/ITV/Mammoth for MASTERPIECE

Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse

Classic cars, real English ale, opera and cryptic crossword puzzles — probably not the interests of your typical police officer, but whoever said that Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse was typical? Created by writer Colin Dexter, this often sullen-tempered but still likeable and always dependable police officer was the bane of existence of many a criminal in the city of Oxford, England.

For several years, TV audiences watched the DCI solve cases and put lawbreakers behind bars in the successful ITV crime drama Inspector Morse. In 2011, the network aired the prequel Endeavour, which followed a much younger Morse (then a Detective Constable) during his university days and early police career. When it came to casting the show’s lead role, its producers set their sights on Liverpool-born actor Shaun Evans, who was both surprised and flattered to be singled out.

“I was actually out of town when my agent called me and asked how I felt about playing a young Morse,” recalls Evans. “I told him that it was difficult to say having not seen a script. Also, when you go out for a job, you’re generally one of several people on a list. So I said, ‘Look, I’m away at the moment, but if they [the show’s producer] are serious, I’ll come back and we can organize it.’ That’s when he told me, ‘Well, there is no list and it’s not an open casting call. It’s more or less an offer that has come out of the blue. They’ve essentially sought you out and want to see only you.’

“I knew very little about the Morse character, so I bought all the books and read them before I got back home. That’s when my interest was piqued. I thought, ‘My God, not only is this a fantastic character in his mid-to-late 50s, but how interesting would it be to get him from his mid-to-late 20s to the person that he is in the books.’ In the books, Morse has a bit of an alcohol problem, he’s not great socially, and he ends up dying on his own without ever being married or becoming a father. How fascinating would it be if we could capture a little of what makes him that way.

“So I came back to the UK, read the Endeavour script, and then we all got together. During that first meeting I laid all my cards on the table. I explained that I wasn’t proposing to do a facsimile of what had gone before. If we were going to do this, we needed to create something new. When you say that, it’s getting you off the hook then as well, because you don’t arrive on set the first day with people expecting something that they aren’t going to get. By the same token, I’m not going to be on set or at my place of work and feeling uncomfortable just trying to copy something else. Everyone seemed to be on the same page about it, and then we moved forward. It was really as simple and seamless as that, to be honest with you, so I was very, very fortunate.”

Having quit his Oxford college prior to earning a degree, the young Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) spent a short time as a cipher clerk in the Royal Corps of Signals before joining the police in 1965. He soon becomes disenchanted with law enforcement and decides to resign, but before he can do so, Morse is sent along with other detectives to assist the Oxford City Police on a case involving a missing 15-year-old girl. His new superior officer, Detective Inspector Fred Thursday, sees the potential in Morse and takes him under his wing.

With the late veteran actor John Thaw having left an indelible mark in TV history as the star of Inspector Morse, it was now up to Evans to take the role and put his own unique spin on it in the Endeavour pilot.

“Because it’s the nature of creating a character and telling a story, each and every time you play a new part, it comes with its own set of very unique challenges and amazing joys as well,” says the actor. “This [acting] is such a great job and it’s a real privilege each time you’re given the opportunity to play a new role. Each character is different and you have to find a way to make it your own.

“That was especially true for me with Endeavour because John Thaw had played him before me. I’ve had the good fortune, though, of working fairly regularly over the past ten years, and during that time, I’ve been able to play my own versions of characters. That [creative] process isn’t always clearly definable, meaning what you do could be a physical thing and other times just a feeling or instinct. No matter what, though, it all helps to, again, make that character as unique as possible.”

Thinking back to the Endeavour pilot, is there anything about its filming that sticks out in the actor’s mind?

“It’s funny, what you see onscreen is two hours of story that, in fact, we’ve spent five or six weeks shooting,” he explains. “There’s so much that goes on, and whenever you’re filming, you end up locked in a very specific head space, or at least that’s what I always find. So it’s kind of hard to remember certain things, because all of sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re all done,’ and then you pick back up the pieces of your own life and move on, do you know what I mean?

“I can tell you that it was wonderful to work with Roger Allam [DI Thursday]. Also, one of the highlights was and is the type of guest actors we have coming onto the show. They’re just fantastic, and that’s one of the real benefits of working on a TV series like Endeavour. With each new episode, the producers bring in actors who are at the top of their game and who each bring something new to the table in terms of helping tell these stories.”

Following the success of the Endeavour pilot, ITV commissioned a first season of four brand new episodes, the first of which began airing in the States two weeks ago (Sunday, July 7) on PBS’s MASTERPIECE Mystery! In the season opener, "Girl," Thursday and Morse investigate the death of a secretarial student and the subsequent shooting of a doctor. Despite a keen observational eye and relentless pursuit of what he believes is the right investigative path, the road ahead proves a rocky one for our hero. Some of this professional strife can be chalked up to the arrival of Oxford City Police station’s new commanding officer, Chief Superintendent Reginald Bright (Anton Lesser). Even with Thursday in his corner, Morse has a tough go of it with Bright.

“In terms of our story, or any story, really, in order for there to be something compelling to watch and for the plot to advance, each of the characters has to come with conflict,” says Evans. “So what we essentially have with the character of Bright is someone who wants things done in a very particular fashion, and whilst he can admire or at least acknowledge the positives that Endeavour brings to the job, that certain way of thinking how the police force should move forward is first and foremost in his mind.

“Now, that’s not to say that Bright and Endeavour are enemies. Again, like I said, for things to be interesting, there needs to be conflict on every level. Internally, you need conflict when trying to find out who killed this person this week, and there also needs to be something that stops Morse from moving forward. Let’s face it, if after this first case, which is a huge success, he then comes in and immediately everything is rosy in the garden, then it’s going to get boring, right? So I think the relationship with Bright and Morse is an important one, and Anton Lesser, who is a fantastic actor, has created someone very real and very alive with his performance as Bright,” praises the actor.

“When it comes to Thursday, it would be quite easy to say that his and Morse’s relationship is much like that of a father and son, but I don’t necessarily feel it is. I think Thursday represents an older generation and in some respects a dying way in which the police operated at the start and middle of the 1960’s, before we had computers, cell phones, texts and so forth. Morse, on the other hand, sort of represents a new way forward that we should think about.

“So on one level they very much represent both those sides, but relationship-wise, Thursday is definitely someone who my character looks up to and is influenced by. However, one of the beauties of Endeavour is that he’s very much his own man, and whilst there is a hierarchy in the police force that has to be bowed down to, I feel like my character truly believes that it’s still worth the risk, even if it means alienating those closest to him, to come up with the goods, and not for anyone else’s benefit, but for his own.”

In the aforementioned "Girl," Morse manages to crack the case, but not without making the mistake of dismissing a key suspect. This is the final straw for Bright, and it falls to Thursday to assign the young man to general duties, at least until he takes the sergeants’ exam. While he is a brilliant detective, he is not yet seen by some to be a good police officer. Morse forges on, though, and as the character surmounts each new hurdle, he grows and develops that much more.

“With these four episodes, we need to get Morse from ‘A’ to ‘B,’ and the ‘B’ that we need to get him to is closer to where it begins in the books,” notes Evans. “There are a few specific things story-wise that, I think, the seeds of which need to be sown. The sooner we do that, the more fascinating and darker the character becomes and, in my opinion, even more interesting to watch.

“In season one of Endeavour, you can see Morse moving forward and witness the various life challenges or life beats that he’s experiencing. Oftentimes that’s kind of separate from the specific case that he and the other detectives are working on, but still important, as are the character’s interpersonal relationships. By the end of the first season, we definitely find out more about who Morse is, and in the season finale ["Home"], he goes though another major sort of life beat. Where we end that story with him is a place of like, ‘Oh, crap, now what?'" teases the actor with a chuckle.

It was back in 2002 that Evans first grabbed the attention of TV viewers playing gay French teacher John Paul Keating in season two of the comedy/drama Teachers. His other small screen credits include the made-for-TV movies The Project and Come Rain Come Shine along with the miniseries The Virgin Queen as well as guest spots in such shows as Murder City, Inspector George Gently, Ashes to Ashes and Whitechapel.

The actor also played recurring roles in The Take, Silk and The Last Weekend. His feature film work includes The Boys & Girl from County Clare, Being Julia, Sparkle, Dread and Telstar: The Joe Meek Story. He may consider himself a bit of latecomer to the acting business, but Evans has not wasted a second of any time spent honing his craft.

“I didn’t really start working as an actor until I was in my early 20s, but I always felt that this was the career I was going to move towards,” he says. “I’m not sure why, though, because there’s no experience of it in my family. However, it’s like many things in that doors can open for you and it then shows that you’re kind of on the right path to some degree. I went to drama school here [London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama], and when I left I just began working. I’ve since had the amazing good fortune to play a wide range of roles and tell lots of different stories in a variety of mediums.

“So it’s been a good progression, and, at least for me, what makes this job rewarding is the people that I get to interact with. These are people who have common interests, are more often than not at the top of their game, have something to offer and are willing to ask themselves sometimes difficult questions. I’ve always believed that, even from one of the very first jobs that I had. I thought, ‘God, these people are incredible.’ Aside from the actual work, it makes you want to be sort of the best that you can be.”

Endeavour fans can look forward to seeing more of the actor’s work as the young Morse when the series returns for a second season. What are his hopes for the show going into a second year?

“There’s never a guarantee that you’ll make more of something, you know, so at the end of Endeavour’s first season it was like, ‘Okay, we’ve had a really good run here, thanks for that. I hope it goes down well with audiences,’” says the actor. “When you’re then given the opportunity to make four more episodes or take the show further, I think you have to ask a little more of yourself.

“With hindsight and with the lessons you’ve hopefully learnt, you have to tell even better stories and tell them in an even better way. What’s the point of having done it if you haven’t learnt anything about what you feel might have been better played in terms of story, performance, etc?

“I think each of these episodes builds on the prior one, and each story has its own specific style because we have fantastic directors, each of them with a very individual and slightly competitive edge. So that lends itself to trying to make the next episode better than the last one, which is great for the show, and, of course, the viewer.”

Please note, all Endeavour photos courtesy/copyright of ITV/Mammoth 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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