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Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
When the Morse finale aired 16 years ago, we said “farewell” to John Thaw’s Inspector Morse and his sidekick, Kevin Whately’s Robbie Lewis.
And though we were saddened when Inspector Morse died on screen and the show came to an end, we weren’t starved of new Oxford mysteries for long.
In 2006, ITV announced that Kevin Whately would get his own spinoff as Detective Inspector Lewis.
But some had reservations, including Kevin Whately himself.
Kevin Whately: I didn’t think it would work as a character on its own, or as a leading character.
Jace: But Inspector Lewis did work — and the show ended up running for five more seasons before it was rumored that the sixth season would mark Lewis’s retirement from the screen.
But it didn’t happen.
Kevin Whately: We just wanted a year of to do other things really and and have a summer at home (laughs), but I think that this time, definitely, we’ve finished, yeah.
Jace: And even though Kevin Whately promises the eighth season is Lewis’ last, we can’t help but wonder: is this ACTUALLY the end of Robbie Lewis?
In this episode, Kevin Whately reminisces about playing Robbie Lewis for the past 30 years, and recalls the dramatic series finale…bombs, “goodbyes,” and all.
Jace: This week we are joined by Kevin Whately. Welcome, Kevin.
Kevin Whately (Kevin): Hi, Jace.
Jace: You’ve been very outspoken about your desire for a break from Lewis. What are the challenges of playing Robbie for 3 decades, and is there any trepidation about having that sort of longevity in a role?
Kevin: No trepidation at all. I’m very proud of what we did, but the reality is that in this country we’re meant to retire at 55 — the police are — and I’m 10 years (laughs) beyond that age, and so I didn’t want to be a 70 year old TV cop really that’s the basis of it.
Jace: Why do you think the popularity of Lewis, Morse and Endeavour continues to endure? And why do you think these series hold such a fascination for viewers?
Kevin: I think originally when we started making Morse exactly 30 years ago now, in June 1986, it was quite a risky thing; a 2 hour TV program was unheard of, and and having that amount of time to tell a story was great. And it took off immediately and set a good standard for drama, I think, TV drama, which we’ve tried to stick to ever since with the Lewis spin-off.
Jace: How much of a role does Oxford, as a setting, play in that affection do you think?
Kevin: It’s huge. Oxford’s just great wherever you point a camera it looks good and unusual. And the fact that it is a university town like Boston with all its universities means that you have these weird and wonderful academic characters, and you can get away with all sorts of outrageous stories (laughs) as a result, with these big-brained people.
Jace: What has it been like filming in Oxford over the last 30 years? And do you miss the “city of dreaming spires” now?
Kevin: I would always miss it, but I live quite near it — 30 miles away — so I get to go over there quite regularly. It’s become very much more of a tourist destination since we started doing it, possibly as a result of the popularity of the shows.
We were welcomed very much when we first went there, and then the colleges realized that we were causing a lot of traffic jams (laughs) and they weren’t so keen on the tourists in academe, so we weren’t so welcome for a while. But then, as time’s gone on, they’ve come to appreciate us again, I think.
Jace: Did you ever anticipate that Lewis would run quite this long?
Kevin: Not at all, Jace.
Kevin: No. Once the pilot took off I thought we might get another couple of seasons out of it. But as I say, it’s like a moving train, and then the crew become close pals and family, so you feel you owe it to them to keep going as well, because it’s a lot of people’s livelihood. So we might have run it a bit longer than it should’ve done, but it felt about right — 10 years to finish.
Jace: Unlike the end of Morse it’s a far happier ending for Robbie Lewis here as he sets off with Laura for a 6 month trip to New Zealand. Can a copper like Lewis ever truly retire and was that meant to leave the door open for a potential return or just to give Robbie a a sort of happy, fulfilled ending?
Kevin: Yeah. I think it would’ve been difficult to kill him off in the same way as we did with Morse. I didn’t want him to die.
To be honest we we didn’t know, when we got that last script and a bomb goes off at one point in the story, we didn’t know if one of us was going to be killed (laughs). But it… I’m glad that it finished the way it did.
Jace: I think it does offer a nice counterpoint to Morse in that unlike Morse, Robbie doesn’t end up alone. He does end up with a new wife, with a new chapter to his life, and I thought that was a fitting way to distinguish the ending as being different from that of Morse.
Kevin: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean when we began Lewis, I was slightly concerned that they wanted to turn him into another Morse; they killed off his wife and made him a bit of a lonely, glum character. But, by the end he was back more like his old self.
Lewis: Val’s slipping away.
Hobson: Time’s passing. There’s nothing you can do about that. Doesn’t mean that you can’t…
Lewis: Yeah I know. First it felt like a betrayal, but no. I’m just turning over the page on a new chapter.
Jace: How much of a formative moment was the hit and run death of his wife, Valerie?
Kevin: I think that was huge and it was sprung on me rather that idea. Maureen who played my wife originally had been at drama school with me, so we were old friends. And when I got the the pilot script I had to phone her up and say, “Maureen, there ain’t a job for you here.” And it took a bit of adapting too, because he was very much in mourning throughout the first 6 or 7 films, and it’s very difficult to energize anything when you’re being down beat and slightly depressed it makes the job more difficult.
Jace: Looking back, how has Robbie Lewis evolved since you first started playing him 30 years ago?
Kevin: I think he’s pretty much the same character. I’m very reticent to change a character once it’s established. I’ve done 3 long running series now, and I always think you’re cheating a bit to suddenly bring some very different characteristic in. But he has, obviously, aged a lot (laughs). But, I think basically, he’s as diligent and honest, and pretty much the same character as he was 30 years ago.
Jace: Now, taking a look back to 1987’s “The Dead of Jericho,” the first Morse episode, what was it like stepping foot onto set that day? Did you have any inkling that this would be the start of a 30 year run as this character?
Kevin: Yikes. No. If I can remember back that far, we … that was the only film, “The Dead of Jericho” where we we actually used a studio, which was unusual for me. I’d done quite a lot location stuff, but not much studio. And I didn’t know John at all, so I was getting used to working with John, who was much more experienced than me. We were sharing a caravan. I learned more in the first 2 weeks I think, working with John, than I had in 8 or 9 years as an actor before that.
But yes, I can remember the feeling and the trepidation. I had no idea. I thought, “Well, we’re doing 3 films here,” and I recognized it was a great script and that John had a magnificent voice, but that’s all I remember thinking about it.
Jace: And what was that first meeting like with John?
Kevin: I’d been asked to come down from the Northeast. I was on my brother-in-law’s farm helping with the lambing. My agent had sent me to a library to to read one of Colin Dexter’s books, and the Lewis character was this 60 year old detective who ate egg and chips.
Kevin: And I (laughs) I couldn’t quite work out what they wanted. But when I got to the the audition John was there with his amazing blue, gimlet eyes staring across the room at me, watching me, and not saying much. And luckily it worked out.
Jace: Do you think that those changes — making him a younger Geordie cop — is one reason why his and Morse’s partnership worked so well on television?
Kevin: Yeah. I think Anthony Minghella and the powers that be on the first few films… Anthony wrote “The Bible” for it and he realized, “John Thaw always looked much older than his age. He died at 61 and he always looked 80,” he said, “from the the minute he left RADA.” But…so to have a 60 year old sidekick would’ve been slightly odd, I think, and it gave it a nice counterpoint, as you said, to to have a younger Geordie.
Jace: And what is your fondest memory of John Thaw?
Kevin: Just, hours and hours, often if … the best days were if it was pouring with rain and we couldn’t work. We’d just sit in our little caravan and chew the fat. And he was a wonderful raconteur, John. Yeah. Very shy man, but he told stories like an Irish storyteller, and he would have you howling with laughter, and he was just great, great company you know, and a very loyal friend, and great to work with.
Jace: And it was his decision that you two share a caravan to sort of initiate that bonding process, correct?
Kevin: It was. He’d had this huge success with a series called The Sweeney, a different cop thing, very high energy thing, and had a partnership with Dennis Waterman. And he and Dennis had shared a caravan. They were a similar age, and they were both heavy smokers, and drinkers, and things (laughs) and they’d palled up so I had to live up to Dennis a bit, which wasn’t easy.
Jace: Now, I can’t think about the the “Goodbye Sir” scene in Morse, “The Remorseful Day” without a tear springing to my eye. What was it like shooting that particular scene in which Lewis says “goodbye” to his mentor?
Kevin: Yeah, it wasn’t easy. There’s a hospital near Pinewood Studios called St. Peter’s and they had a disgusting old Victorian mortuary at the back, which has been knocked down now. We’d used it a lot for mortuary scenes, and it always gave John the creeps just to be in there in a suit, but to be actually lying on the slab was much worse for him obviously. And I think I was trying to lighten (laughs) the day and try and make fun of it, send it up a bit, but John wasn’t having that at all because it was such a disgusting place to be. So that’s my main memory of that, because it wasn’t the last scene we shot obviously; it was in the middle of the shoot so after that we sort of celebrated and and sent it up a bit.
Jace: Do you remember what the final scene was that you shot on Morse with John?
Kevin: Um… Do you know I don’t at all, Jace. I can’t remember. I have no memory of of finishing at all. Nope. Gone. Isn’t that strange?
Jace: Now, is it true you nearly turned down Lewis when it was offered to you? What were your reservations about stepping back into Robbie’s shoes?
Kevin: Several. I mean originally, I think, in 1988 after I’d done two years in Morse and I thought, “Ah! That’s time to quit. You know, I’ve done 7 films. Probably time to go and do something else.”
But the reservations I had about spinning the the Lewis character off were just that he was very much just a counterpoint to Morse, and I didn’t think it would work as a character on its own, or as a leading character. But because they were clever with introducing Laurence’s character, Hathaway, it took off immediately, so then we were back on a moving train, and 10 years later we were still going.
Jace: Now, looking back at the pilot, what was it like to film the first episode of Lewis, which was filled with so many winks at Morse?
Kevin: Yeah, I think we did that for the first 2 or 3 years that there was a little Morse reference in almost every film. But it was strange.
In some some ways it was very familiar because we managed to get a lot of the original crew together and the way of working was very similar, but Laurence and I were getting used to each other, I was getting used to carrying the show, so it is a very different job to being the sidekick, the second banana, and that took some getting used to.
Jace: On the topic of sidekicks you told Radio Times a few years back quote, “When this whole thing was being set up I said, ‘I wanted a young, female, Muslim sidekick …’
Jace: “‘I just thought it would be more interesting.'” (Laughs)
Kevin: Yeah, I just thought that a woman would be more interesting and then maybe a Muslim as well because that was was starting to hit the headlines and I thought it would give us a lot of story– potential story lines, but they’d already decided at ITV that they wanted a sort of young Morse prototype. And they were right. It fitted the bill and Laurence was great.
Jace: How was working with Laurence Fox different than with John? And and what have you learned from each of them?
Kevin: Well as I say, John was very shy and hugely experienced as a film actor, so I learned any technique that I’ve got from him very quickly. Laurence is exactly the other extreme: very self-assured, incredibly bright, and could keep a running gag going with every single member of the crew. He would needle away until he found your Achilles Heel and then play on that with with 30 or 40 people at once. But again, a very loyal friend, hugely talented.
His concentration… John had a fierce concentration. Laurence can– his concentration can be everywhere and just having fun, and then “click,” switch it on as soon as the camera rolls and give a much better performance than me so… It’s a bit galling really.
Jace: It does beg the question, because he is so infamous for his running gags, what was his gag with you?
Kevin: Well one of them was my name. He bumped into an American tourist down in Mexico about 3 years ago, who said, “Oh, what a fine actor that Donald Whately is,” and this tickled Laurence, so from then on I was Donald, and (laughs) he was delighted with that. Me, not so much.
Jace: What do you think makes Lewis and Hathaway’s dynamic so unique? Is it the juxtaposition of Geordie’s straightforwardness with lofty intellectualism?
Kevin: (Laughs) I think you hit the nail right on the head there, Jace. Yeah, and it’s a… largely a lucky thing. A pure, pure luck if… We know of screen chemistry where the actors don’t get on. I’ve been very lucky working with John Thaw and then Laurence, and I adored both of them, I thought they were great fun to work with, and the chemistry worked both times.
Jace: Now, Clare Holman joined the Morse universe in 1995 at the start of the specials as pathologist Laura Hobson. What has it been like working with Clare?
Kevin: Yeah. I was just going to add Clare to that list. I thought I ought to so you’ve asked the right question.
Kevin: Clare’s been great. I mean since she came on board. She had a difficult job because she was meant to be quite sort of flirty with Morse and then (laughs) transfer her affections to me when Lewis spun off.
Hobson: No this is a social call, I’m having a party. It’s a special sort of birthday. Think of a number, then forget about it immediately.
Lewis: Thank you.
Hobson: Oh, if you’d like to bring anybody.
Lewis: Well, I haven’t really got anybody.
Hobson: You can always bring the dishy Sergeant Hathaway.
Kevin: But a difficult job really coming in for 2 or 3 days on each film and trying to make a character sparky and original, and she did a great job. She was always great fun on set as well, and made a real character out of Laura and a believable one.
Jace: One of the most surprising developments over the last few seasons was Robbie and Laura falling in love. Were you resistant at all to having the 2 get together?
Kevin: I thought the the whole thing it could’ve become a bit soapy so in the end I said, “Look we’ve done enough of this ‘Will they? Won’t they?’” And and asked if they could get together, and so I was glad when they did, and then you’re exploring a slightly different relationship.
Jace: Now, their relationship is made public in the episode “The Ramblin’ Boy” when Laura kisses Robbie at the pub in front of Hathaway and Innocent. What did you make of how that reveal was handled?
Kevin: I loved it because– the actual occasion was quite good because the every beyond the set was waiting for it. And I said to Clare, “We should practice the kiss in the caravan,” but she wasn’t having any of that so…
Jace: Why was Lewis so torn between going with Laura to New Zealand and staying? What was he afraid of? And what did he acknowledge by finally turning up?
Kevin: I think he was afraid of being put on the scrap heap, that if he went he would never get back into the job; they would never use him as a consultant again, which they probably wouldn’t actually, but he obviously came to realize that the relationship with Laura was much more important.
Lewis: I think I’ve been a bit of a fool. Well, actually I’ve been a lot of a fool. I’m really sorry.
Jace: And that final episode of Lewis features, as you mentioned earlier, a quite spectacular explosion, which is a real rarity for the show. Were you happy to go out with a bang as it were?
Kevin: We were, yeah. I love doing stunts the… We’ve tried to burn Morse alive. And actors tend to be very gung-ho and foolish, so when they were setting that up, we’re very aware as well that special effects boys, we call them special defects, tend to overpower these explosions, make them much bigger than they’re meant to be, and that’s what happened (laughs) in that shot.
We’re expecting quite a big bang, but we said to the stuntman, “Look, we’ll just watch you and as soon as you start to turn away from the blast, we’ll go as well.” Well, the blast went off (laughs), I think I’d moved about a millimeter in my nose before the blast hit us and knocked us over. And it was so big it actually– a piece of shrapnel, a piece of balsa wood actually cut Laurence’s face.
Jace: So those little… those little butterfly bandages are not just for show then maybe?
Kevin: No, no (laughs). But they’re good fun. As I say, it’s always quite exciting when there’s a stunt in in the middle of a shoot, we look forward to it.
Jace: It’s a brilliant call back to the pilot episode that Hathaway turns up to drive Robbie and Laura to the airport, complete with his Lewis sign and …
Kevin: Yeah (laughs)
Jace: …you’re even in the same shirt you wore in that pilot episode.
Kevin: Yeah Michael Chris, a dresser at at one of the costumiers in London, searched for 3 days to find that same shirt. We knew where we’d hired it from the first time, and he managed to find it in amongst all the junk at the back. It particularly disgusts my wife, that shirt. She really hates it, but it didn’t bother me.
Jace: Now, their farewell scene is so understated.
Hathaway: You’ll be missed.
Lewis: Better be.
Jace: What was it like filming this final scene for the series in which there’s so much left unsaid between the two men?
Kevin: I think that was exactly it. We we we tried to make it that in saying nothing they said a huge amount to to each other, but filming it in Heathrow Airport like that isn’t too conducive to any sort of subtlety, but we were very lucky.
There was a, I think, a Korean Airlines being checked in behind us — well they were certainly from somewhere that didn’t see the program anyway — so they weren’t really interested in the feelings, so we got to film it without too many people, what we call, rubbernecking the camera and what have you but…Yeah. Difficult to film in a big public place like that, to try and get some subtlety into the into the scene.
Jace: The final shot of the series is Hathaway turning and walking away alone. What do you feel viewers should make of that shot?
Kevin: I think, whatever you like.
I’m pretty sure they won’t spin Hathaway off; I hope they’ll find something totally different for Laurence to do in his own series, but we’ll see what happens.
Jace: What was the final scene that you shot for the series and and what went through your head when they said, “That’s a wrap for Kevin Whately?”
Kevin: We were in the studio, and I think the whole day had sort of built towards it, again because for some of the crew it was 28 years of work, for me it was 30 years of work finishing.
I never feel that that it’s “goodbye” to anyone. Actors always bump into each other again. Laurence and I see each other regularly now and talk on the phone, and it’s never goodbye, so in that way it’s not a sad occasion at all, I don’t think. We didn’t feel sadness.
Jace: And finally, what do you hope that fans take away from Robbie Lewis’ journey these past 30 years?
Kevin: As I say, I’m immensely proud of the the films, and I’m already thrilled with the fact that those Morse films from 30 years ago are still doing the rounds on cable telly, and people are still enjoying them. I hope that in 20 years time people will still be watching the Lewis films as well.
Jace: Kevin Whately, thank you so much.
Kevin: Thank you, Jace.
Jace: The summer of mysteries may be over, but on Sunday, September 11th at 8 pm, MASTERPIECE returns in full force with the two-hour historical drama Churchill’s Secret.
Then, the Monday following the film’s premiere, actor Sir Michael Gambon who plays powerful Prime Minister Winston Churchill and powerful wizard Albus Dumbledore, sits down with us here on MASTERPIECE Studio.
Michael Gambon: I was terrified at the beginning when I read it, and I met the director because it’s a, you know, it’s a famous role, isn’t it?
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MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Rachel Aronoff. Kathy Tu is our editor. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Nathan Tobey. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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Jace: Now, do people assume that you either love crime dramas or instinctively know whodunit because of your work as Robbie Lewis?
Kevin Whately: (Laughs) They do, and I don’t.