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Issue 53— June 2003

Inspector Morse in Jericho

Kevin Whately (Sergeant Lewis, left) and John Thaw (Inspector Morse, centre) during the filming of The Dead of Jericho.

Lucy Sholl recalls Combe Road’s starring role in the historic TV series.

It’s been a few years now since Inspector Morse was a regular feature of Oxford life, and John Thaw’s death last year prompted many Oxford residents to remember him and the series fondly.

When Morse was shown regularly it was compulsory viewing for most of Oxford, as we hoped to catch glimpses of friends and neighbours, and smirked knowingly as Morse’s Jag glided effortlessly from Longwall Street only to end up in Headington moments later.

Many Oxford people were also involved in the filming as extras, or offered up their houses as makeshift film sets. Here in Jericho, residents remember the filming of the first episode of Morse, The Dead of Jericho, which was set in Combe Road, which leads from Canal Street down to the boatyard. The street was renamed Canal Walk, but that was the only change made and the episode was filmed in situ.

Unusually for novels and dramas set in Oxford, Morse didn’t just focus on the university, but came out into the town areas of Oxford like Jericho and Cowley. In an interview for the Jericho Echo, Colin Dexter, the author of the Morse novels on which the television series is based, says he’d noticed that most Oxford detective stories were all about ‘murderous undergraduates and dons’, and wanted to write something which would celebrate both sides of Oxford. People unfamiliar with Oxford, thinking of it as just a university town, must have been surprised, tuning in to the first episode of Morse, to see how little the university featured. Instead they saw the narrow streets and Victorian terraces of Jericho.

The Dead of Jericho was filmed around Canal Street in the hot summer of 1985, and the area was overtaken by the film crews and equipment. Residents remember the Bookbinders filled with actors and crew, and floodlighting on top of a crane at the end of Canal Street illuminated the whole of Jericho. Local children were in their element. Patrick Troughton, who had played Doctor Who, appeared in the episode as George Jackson, and John Thaw spent a lot of time in and around the Bookbinders.

Matthew Broadway, then eleven, remembers it as an exciting time. Apart from star spotting, a fire engine was parked throughout the filming, and the firemen humoured the children by spraying them with water from their hoses as they ran about in the sun. Many were also thrilled to see that they appeared as unofficial extras in a crowd scene outside the Bookbinders. Unusually for an author, Colin Dexter was closely involved in filming. He too remembers the air of anticipation and upheaval in a usually quiet area.

When The Dead of Jericho was first shown on ITV, Colin Dexter was unprepared for the impact it would have. He remembers the phone ringing continuously. One caller was convinced that one of the characters in the book was inspired by his wife, and accused Dexter of having an affair with her.

The line between fact and fiction seems to have been blurred for many. Some years later Dexter spoke to an estate agent who was trying to sell a property in Combe Road. She was having difficulties selling the house because of rumours that the quiet little road had seen both a murder and a suicide—rumours entirely based on the fictional Inspector Morse story.

Reading the original novel The Dead of Jericho now is interesting, particularly for those of us who aren’t Jericho born and bred. It was first published in 1981, and although many features are very familiar —the narrow streets and impossibility of parking—it is also clear just how much the area has changed. Jericho is presented as a bohemian place where tradesmen and private tutors live side by side and front doors were left unlocked. Women spend their days polishing their front door handles and popping down to the corner shops, and the pubs are quiet little places with just a few regulars propping up the bar. It’s a lovely, idealised view of Jericho’s recent past (apart from the murder and suicide) and well worth a read for those who want to wallow in nostalgia.