When Kevin Whately shot his first appearance as Detective Sgt. Robbie Lewis of Oxford, England, neither he nor anyone else knew that one of television’s most enduring characters was being born.
That was more than a quarter-century ago, in the first episode of the much-loved British series “Inspector Morse” (1987-2000), in which Whately played the working-class foil to the hero, the cultured and egotistical detective inspector played by John Thaw. After 33 feature-length episodes of “Morse,” followed by a five-year break, Whately and a higher-ranking Lewis returned in “Inspector Lewis,” which has run for 27 episodes across seven seasons.
Both ITV network shows are at best cult favorites in the United States, where they have been shown as part of PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!”, and most viewers wouldn’t know that the 26-year connection of Lewis and Whately exceeds anything in American prime time. The closest competition is the voice cast of “The Simpsons,” at 24 years and counting. Among flesh-and-blood characters, Whately’s Lewis has six years on James Arness’ Marshal Dillon (“Gunsmoke”) and Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane (“Cheers” and “Frasier”), although those were uninterrupted runs.
All good things come to an end, however, even dependable detectives. The current season of “Inspector Lewis,” which begins Sunday, may be the character’s last call, although Whately has referred to his decision to walk away from the show as a sabbatical and left open the possibility of more episodes.
Character and actor have aged gracefully together, from fresh-faced 35-year-olds to boyish 62-year-olds. During that time Whately and his writers have managed to let Lewis grow — from the sidekick on “Morse,” whom Whately has called “a donkey,” to the wise veteran of his own show — while staying remarkably true to the conception of the role.
To balance the mercurial and overbearing Morse, Lewis was a plain-spoken Everyman with a sneaky, sardonic wit. He was stubborn but principled and compassionate, arriving at the answers more slowly than Morse but with less collateral damage to the feelings of others.
As a detective inspector — with a high-strung intellectual, Hathaway (Laurence Fox), for a sergeant — Lewis has remained quiet and solid, if a bit cranky, an oasis of calm in a television landscape crowded with obsessive detective-geniuses derived from Sherlock Holmes. He’s a type himself, the born copper whose utter reliability hides his doubts and weaknesses, but he’s unusual for being defined not by his competency or his demons but by his decency. The qualities that Morse mocked (but eventually honored, with his dying words, “Thank Lewis for me”) defined the very different kind of lead character that Lewis would become.
The three episodes of the current season are typical “Inspector Lewis”; the mysteries are convoluted and not so interesting, but the picturesque environs of Oxford and the comfortable byplay among Lewis and Hathaway; their boss, Chief Superintendent Innocent (Rebecca Front); and the winsome pathologist Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) more than compensate.
The excruciatingly slow courtship of Lewis and Hobson progresses while cases involving murderous psychics and a dodgy funeral parlor are solved, and the former theology student Hathaway continues to have doubts about his fitness for police work.
Knowing that this might be the last hurrah, the writers and directors have given these episodes a valedictory quality that edges up to but doesn’t cross the line of mawkishness; the final, silent fade-out is both moving and appropriately modest. And Lewis is always Lewis.
In the first episode of “Inspector Morse,” he begged off a trip to the pub with his alcoholic boss because it was his night with the kids. As “Inspector Lewis” comes to a close, he’s ready to give up the whole grind to spend more time with them. You never really believe it when American TV cops say that, but after a quarter-century, we can trust Lewis.