Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Inspector Morse: “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn” (Central Independent Television, 1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a 1987 Inspector Morse story KPBS had recently rerun. The show was called “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn” and the reason for the title is that Nicholas Quinn (Phil Nice), the junior professor at Oxford University around whom the story centers, is deaf. The show opens with the most creatively staged scene in it: a party at which Quinn is in attendance, desperately fingering the controls of a malfunctioning hearing aid so he can hear the conversations around him — and the soundtrack gives us a point-of-hearing perspective on the jumble of indistinct noises, occasionally recognizable English words and feedback from the hearing aid that make up Quinn’s not-so-silent-but-still-pretty-miserable world. Alas, Quinn is quickly found dead — originally he’s believed to have killed himself (a smell of cyanide is found in a drinking glass in his room) but Inspector Morse (John Thaw) and his sidekick (Watson to his Holmes, as it were), Detective Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whately), soon establish that it was murder. (By coincidence, the only Inspector Morse episode to precede this one, “The Dead of Jericho,” also used the murder-faked-to-look-like-suicide gimmick.)

I can readily see what has given Inspector Morse the character, created by novelist Colin Dexter (who has a cameo appearance in the opening scene as a man having a drink in the “syndicate,” one of the governing boards of Oxford’s various colleges and also the location where they meet — and the members of the “syndicate” are called “syndics,” a word that hasn’t survived in the language — or at least the American version of English — even though “syndicate” has), his cult following (so much so that when the finale to the series was filmed about 20 years later people were literally in mourning over Morse’s death in the final story). But to me, despite Morse’s famous mania for classical music in general and Wagner in particular (during this story he’s shown listening to the prelude to Die Meistersinger as well as the overture to Der Freischütz by one of Wagner’s role models, Carl Maria von Weber), the story as a whole just seemed like one of these overly respectable British mysteries, woefully lacking in the high-intensity action I expect from Law and Order and similar American shows. At the end they finally revealed the murderer — or rather the murderers, plural, since Quinn was killed by Philip Ogleby (Michael Gough), who was himself then killed by Don Martin (Roger Lloyd Pack).

There were side issues in the plot, including an adulterous relationship at the college and a scheme to steal the answers to tests so well-connected students like the family of the Sheik of Al-Jamara (Saul Reichlin) — the party at the beginning of the story was being thrown in the sheik’s honor — can have the satisfaction and prestige of an Oxford degree without having earned it — but none of them were especially compelling, and though the murderers were revealed at the end their motives were kept pretty hazy — at least I can’t recall them with much clarity. It’s not that I don’t like British mysteries — Josephine Tey and Ruth Rendell are among my all-time favorite writers, and though I’m not a big Agatha Christie fan I’ve liked And Then There Were None as well as Billy Wilder’s marvelous film of her play Witness for the Prosecution. But this one just didn’t have enough action, enough “oomph,” to appeal to my jaded American sensibilities — though I did like the running gag that throughout the story the movie theatre in the area has been playing Last Tango in Paris, only by the time Inspector Morse has solved his case and wants to see the film, the program has changed … to 101 Dalmatians.