Monday, September 11, 2017

Endeavour: “Harvest” (British TV/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was the final episode of the 2017 series of Endeavour, the interesting British TV production created by Russell Lewis, who seems to have been the one to conceive of doing a prequel to Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter’s creation, an old, dyspeptic, recovering-alcoholic opera-buff police inspector in the university town of Oxford, England. In Lewis’s recounting of Morse’s origins, the time is the 1960’s — this episode, “Harvest,” begins with a prologue showing a car being run off the road in September, 1962 (after we hear on its radio an all-too-timely today warning about impending nuclear war: the time is just before the Cuban Missile Crisis and we hear a BBC reporter announcing that Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev has announced that any attack on a Soviet vessel shipping supplies, including missile parts, to Cuba will be considered an act of war against the Soviet Union); the prologue is in black-and-white and then we flash-forward five years later to the series’ present, September 1967. We learn that the man whose car was run off the road was a botanist named Dr. Matthew Laxman (Alex Mann) and his murder was never solved. We get the impression why his murder was never solved was that the county police, not the Oxford city police, were given jurisdiction, and the city police have so low an opinion of their county counterparts that Morse’s immediate superior, detective chief inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), tells him, “County couldn’t find its arse with both hands and a map!” 

A body turns up in the wild Branford Meer country outside Oxford, and the police at first hope it’s Laxman’s, but the remains turn out to be 2,000 years old — though there’s a grimly funny scene in which the police securing the crime scene find a pair of eyeglasses that are, of course, considerably less than 2,000 years old and which turn out to be Laxman’s. The script by Russell Lewis (who seems not only to have come up with the concept of an Inspector Morse prequel but to have written all the episodes himself instead of just being a show runner and turning the actual scripting over to other writers) is one of his usually convoluted jumbles, in which modern-day attempts to re-create a pagan harvest festival (which reminded both Charles and some of the contributors of the film The Wicker Man) exist cheek-by-jowl with a nuclear power reactor already operating at Branford and another, the “Branford Goldenrod,” about to open. The “Goldenrod” is one of the nuclear industry’s sickest inspirations, the so-called “breeder reactor,” which was supposed to produce more fuel than it used because it was designed so that the uranium that was not consumed in actual fission reactions to produce the power would be bombarded with neutrons and turned into plutonium, which could be used to power future reactors even though it’s also one of the most preposterously toxic substances known to man: just inhaling one grain of it can give you cancer. As you might guess, not all is well in Nukeland: though the British government has a tight rein on secrecy at the plant (so much so that Morse is turned away and not allowed on the plant grounds even though his police badge has always got him into secure places before), the plant is leaking radioactive coolant all over the countryside and Dr. Laxman (ya remember Dr. Laxman?) was a volunteer with a local anti-nuclear group who went to the grounds around the site with a Geiger counter to document the sheer amount of radioactive material the plant was dumping and the extent to which it had spread. 

As if that isn’t enough plot for you, there’s also a long-haired man with a peace-sign button (Charles reminded me that the original meaning of this symbol wasn’t peace in general, but specifically nuclear disarmament — indeed the peace symbol was actually formed for the semaphore signals for “N” and “D”) — who stands around on streetcorners reciting the Book of Revelation (he begins with the famous quote, “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour,” which not only supplied the title of Ingmar Bergman’s 1956 film The Seventh Seal but also its overall theme. There’s also a romantic intrigue involving Fred Thursday’s daughter Win (Caroline O’Neill), who’s in a relationship with a married man who’s putting her up in a nice but unassuming house, paying her bills and promising to leave his wife for her (“Yeah, right,” we groan, at least if we’ve seen more than about three or four movies in our lifetime before) — only Fred discovers that she’s living this way and reacts by cornering her paramour in a parking lot and beating the shit out of him. When he threatens to go to the police and file a claim for assault, Fred says, “I am the police,” and leaves him in the Kafka-esque situation of having to take being assaulted and beaten with impunity because his assailant is the chief of the local cops. And as if that weren’t enough for you, there are also a group of shepherds working the local land, one of whom has adorned his scarecrow (which, alas, does not come to life and take us down the Yellow Brick Road) with the coat Matthew Laxman was wearing when he disappeared, complete with a radiation dosimeter he had got at the nuclear power plant. There are also an “American” couple named Tristan and Selina Berger (Sam Hoare and Joanna Horton, both of whom are unable to do a convincing American accent to save their lives — though I’m sure American actors trying to do “British” accents sound as risible to genuine Brits as these two do to us) who were brought in to help run the plant — at least he was, and apparently her immigration status cleared before his did because she was there alone, waiting for him, and not contenting herself to wait alone. She attracted the amorous attentions of one of the local shepherds, but it was Dr. Laxman she had an affair with — which of course leads the police to suspect her husband Tristan of Laxman’s murder with jealousy as his motive — only they also discover an ongoing cover-up of the problems with the nuclear power plant and they suspect Laxman might have been murdered so he wouldn’t figure out what was going on there and report it. 

The final twist in the melodramatic knife of this show concerns a former nuclear physicist, Donald Bagley (Michael Pennington), who abruptly renounced nuclear power and joined the anti-nuclear movement after his wife died of cancer she had contracted from exposure to radiation at the various places they had lived and worked. He joins with the street preacher — who was a hitchhiker who was the last person to see Laxman alive before his disappearance — to hold the workers at the nuclear plant hostage, China Syndrome-style, until Morse manages to talk Bagley out of using the gun. Bagley was convinced people from the plant killed Laxman, and it turns out he was indeed run off the road by a trucker working with the plant — but his actual killer was the crofter who had the hots for Selina Berger, who came across Laxman in his car after the trucker ran him off the road, still alive. The two men had an argument, the crofter hit Laxman, thought he had killed him, then started to bury him, only when Laxman started stirring — indicating he was still alive — the crofter finished him off once and for all. Morse deduces all this from noticing that the man’s croft (the hooked stick with which traditional shepherds controlled their herds) has the same teeth marks (from his dog) as were found on Laxman’s glasses, and in the end they unearth Laxman, his widow gets closure, Laxman’s killer is shot by an old woman who reads Tarot cards and was angry with the plant owners for wanting to seize her property (she reminded me of Margaret Hamilton’s character in the 1951 Abbott and Costello vehicle Comin’ ’Round the Mountain), and both Thursday and Morse get decorations personally authorized by the Queen, though a condition of receiving the decorations is that the grounds for them remain totally secret and the recipients are permanently forbidden from talking about what they did to deserve them — which implies that the cover-up around the nuclear plant and its issues will continue indefinitely. “Harvest” seems too diffuse, with too many different characters and agendas, to be on the level of some of the other Endeavour shows they’ve aired lately (particularly “Game” and “Canticle”), but it’s still an unusually literate show for a policier, albeit a British policier with their usually more decorous and genteel attitude towards crime.