Murder and mystery behind the college walls of Oxford returns to PBS’s Masterpiece this Sunday with the sixth season of Inspector Lewis. But fans should brace themselves for some awful news. After six years of regular episodes, “it’s the end of seasons,” confirms Kevin Whately, who’s played the level-headed, down-to-earth detective since 1987, when the character started as a lower-ranked foil to John Thaw’s superbly intellectual Inspector Morse.
So after these three episodes are done, Whately and sidekick John Hathaway (Laurence Fox) are moving on. But rest assured, fans will be happy with the ending. “There’s a sort of resolution to certain things, and a false ending,” he grudgingly allows. Though, perhaps not a cliffhanger: “Laurence mentioned he wouldn’t mind being killed. But he was partly joking.”
What Whately leaves behind is a quarter century of beautifully shot mysteries that have built up a devoted following. They’re famous for introducing characters, plots and motivations elliptically. Viewers watch unexplained scenes — dinner parties or family arguments — and only later will those scenes make sense in the overall mystery. “Originally they were always superior whodunnits, made like movies. We never made concessions to the audience,” Whately says. “I watch old Morse episodes and can’t remember who does it.”
The character of Lewis plays a large part in the fan appeal in both series. He’s a working class northerner with a bloodhound face who’s often underestimated by colleagues and suspects — in the first episode of this season one slams Lewis for his “simple questions” and “dumb open face” before realizing the detective Everyman has already figured out his secret. He’s the steady anchor holding down his whirlwind partner. First there was the music-loving, Jaguar-driving Morse. After actor John Thaw died, the series went on hiatus before popular demand called it back in 2006, this time with Lewis in command. His partner, Sgt. Hathaway is a Cambridge-educated intellectual who left a Catholic seminary for the police.
While Whately and Fox are the main stars, the other character is the medieval university town of Oxford itself. Filming there is a joy for the actors. And lately they’ve filmed in colleges not used before. “At moment, because of the austerity, their endowments are in trouble and they’re very welcoming to us,” Whately notes. “We’re there in the summer when the students are down.” So this season the producers used Christ Church, which was previously well out of their price range. And after so many summers shooting in Oxford, the actor has found himself adopted by the academic community. He regularly puts on his tux for college dinners that are replete with well-stocked wine cellars and distinguished dining companions.
As Inspector Lewis viewers contemplate life after more than 25 years of seeing the character on screen, Whately, 62, does have a bone for them. Though regular episodes are over — he’s enjoying his first summer off in 31 years by playing golf and looking after his young granddaughter — he and Fox haven’t shut the door on the odd special or two. So fans can still hope to see another glimpse of Lewis watching the world go by, while holding a pint in an Oxford pub. It may not be enough for diehards, but it will have to suffice.