REPEATING AND REARTICULATING SPACE: INSPECTOR MORSE'S HOUSE by Lucy Fife Donaldson
Watching a large amount of Inspector Morse (Zenith Productions, 1987-2000) over the last couple of months, I’ve come to find great pleasure in the way the series presents the titular character’s home. My enjoyment is two-fold: both a facet of the consistency of the space (in terms of constitution and design) and any breaks in the pattern. Morse’s domestic space is a common feature of the series, and appears in most episodes. It is clearly an important space for establishing character, especially in a police drama series that places limited emphasis on the police station as a site of detective work – it is rare for the programme to present any extended sequence of detection or discussion in Morse’s office or to present any kind of incident room. As with any other character, through visits to his home we gain further insight into Morse, his way of living, with décor and props (even the house itself) confirming and developing a range of details, for example of class and temperament, as well as his interests in opera, crosswords and real ale. His home is also a place for work, serving as a space for him, and Sergeant Lewis, to think about the current case which they are investigating. Morse and Lewis often meet in the house to go over events or catch each other up on different aspects of a case. It can be a place for contemplation, frustration and even revelation.
What follows is a short exploration of Morse’s domestic space which arises out of watching series 1-4 (1987-1990). The final episode of series 4 offers some developments which I want to consider in a little more detail, making it a good place to cut off investigation for the time being. My approach is informed by Billy Smart's article on watching all of a TV series, a methodology that nurtures attentiveness to how space is treated, including: spatial restriction, the formations of patterns, embellishment and their interruption. I’ve recently enjoyed Amy Holdsworth’s writing on repetition in television, the subject of the chapter ‘Haunting the Memory: Moments of Return in Television Drama’ in her book Television, Memory and Nostalgia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 32-64). While Holdsworth’s writing considers moments of return that are perhaps more prominent – reflective moments, repetitions through memory, deliberate echoes – the repetitions involved in encountering Morse’s home are part of the fabric of the programme more broadly, an element of its serialized nature.
One of the most striking decisions concerning the way Morse’s home is handled, are the limits placed on our access to it. Despite the fact that he lives in a sizeable house, experience of it is typically restricted to the sitting room and hallway. Considering that the space is frequently used for moments of relaxation for Morse or discussions between Morse and Lewis, this is a relatively straightforward decision. The sitting room is certainly the place where we might expect Morse to sit while he completes the crossword, listens to opera and drink beer (which we see him doing on numerous occasions).
It is also an entirely appropriate setting for conversations between him and Lewis, or receiving a visit from Chief Superintendent Strange. The hallway is likewise an expected setting for phone calls and door answering. Yet, there are various exchanges that offer a possibility of visiting another room, which are resisted. When Morse brings Dr Jane Robson to his for a cup of tea in ‘The Settling of the Sun’ (2.3), there is no cut to the kitchen. Morse’s visits to the kitchen, in this episode and others, are elided. (In fact the interior of Morse’s kitchen is not revealed in any detail until the first episode of series 5.)
Consistency and embellishment
Such consistency in the representation of Morse’s domestic life allows for familiarity through repetition. The layout of the sitting room remains the same throughout series 1-4, allowing knowledge of where key props are (the drinks cabinet, for example)
and enabling the programme to make a range of decisions about how to present this space. Knowledge of the space through return means it doesn’t need to be continually re-established. We don’t need to be shown all of it each time and there are several occasions where bodies are allowed to block the detail of décor and furnishings or extreme close-ups remove surrounding details without disturbing any sense of where we are. Consistency in one respect therefore breeds embellishment or innovation in the strategies of representing space. Our familiarity with this particular space facilitates play with light, composition and blocking.
Another result of consistency is that changes to the pattern register more sharply. The moments when we see a space typically outside of our experience become more prominent. This extra force behind the interruption of consistency is drawn upon, and put to dramatic effect. In ‘The Masonic Mysteries’, the final episode in series 4, Morse is placed under arrest on suspicion of the murder of the woman he was seeing. While Morse is held at the police station, Lewis and Morse’s replacement, Chief Inspector Bottomley, go to Morse’s house. Bottomley intends to search the house for clues, while ever-loyal Lewis has instructions to collect clothes for Morse. After moving through the familiar hallway and sitting room, Bottomley leads the way upstairs. While he goes into the bedroom, which we only see through the open door from the hallway, Lewis is sent in search of the bathroom. At this point there is a cut to a view of the bathroom, the door open a crack so that Lewis is visible as he passes in the hallway. The revelation of the bathroom, an eventful moment in itself for being a room we have seen briefly only once before in the programme, is made all the more dramatic by the decision to present it in an unusual framing: the camera is placed in the corner at a high angle. The result is that most of the bathroom is in view, but that feels off-kilter, as though the image is the wrong side up. The framing thus further exploits the strangeness of seeing the bathroom, making the moment register more sharply than if we’d seen it from eye-level. That a dead body (Morse’s former Chief Inspector, Desmond McNutt) is then found by Lewis in the airing cupboard, continues the strangeness of the space, developing a moment of sharpness into a more forcefully violent experience.
This particular episode continues its attack on the familiar as Morse’s sitting room is later set on fire. Although the destruction of the home inevitably marks a shift for any character, here underlining the personal nature of the attack being carried out in this episode’s case, it carries greater poignancy through the fire being situated in the very place where the character is most comfortable. By extension, the comfort we might take in this familiar space is attacked. Without having watched all the episodes of Inspector Morse up to this point, I wouldn’t have felt the full force of the shock in this moment, or been able to recognise the extent to which the programme makers have taken advantage of the particular impact of placing the body in the unfamiliar space and situating the fire in the room most familiar.
The number of times we see Morse in his pajamas/dressing gown in the sitting room adds to the sense of its everyday comforts.
While the issue of our familiarity with domestic spaces might be a more common issue of concern in relation to soap opera, I am struck by the way that Inspector Morse invests such an interest in a domestic space, despite there being little apparent need to do so. What makes Inspector Morse stand out against contemporaneous crime series, such as Cracker (ITV, 1993-1995) and Prime Suspect (Granada Television/ITV Productions, 1991-2006), is that his home is not occupied by a family or partner, and thus unlike both of these other programmes, it is not a space in which the tensions between work and relationships are brought to the fore. The possibilities of the sitting room as both a lived-in environment and dramatic space are explored. On the one hand, Morse can be seen to sit in the same place on his sofa a number of times, just as one might in everyday life. On the other hand, strategies for presenting numerous conversations between Morse and Lewis are continually revised and played with.
Taking a detailed approach has fostered an attentiveness to space and the ways in which it is presented, enabling appreciation of patterns and their interruption across the series. It has also revealed a programme that is invested in exploring possibilities of how to present its spaces, one that is much more experimental visually than I had remembered, or is generally recognised by writing on it.
Lucy Fife Donaldson is a post-doctoral researcher on the AHRC-funded project ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’ at the University of Reading. Her research focuses on the materiality of style and the body in popular film and television and she is a member of the Editorial Board of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism.
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