He feels the gods have smiled on him and is one of the world’s best-read crime writers. But Colin Dexter is hiding a guilty secret – he confessed all to Sandra Fraser.
Crime writer Colin Dexter doesn’t appear to be a man to make startling revelations. Considered statements, perhaps, but not breathtaking admissions with the potential to leave his Oxford neighbours reeling. He’s saved the thrill of exposé for readers of his books. Not that he is planning to resurrect his much-loved creation, Inspector Morse – he is adamant that he never will. He doesn’t need to confess that he is directly, or indirectly, responsible for making Oxford the murder capital of Europe – that fact has done tourism no harm – Morse fans flock to Oxford and his Lincolnshire-born creator is a freeman of the city. No, Colin Dexter’s secret is dark and has been kept behind locked doors – until now…
Colin Dexter’s mild manner is the first surprise of the day. His mind is razor-sharp but there’s no hint that he has been national crossword champion six or seven times and he doesn’t feel the need to patronise those of us who struggle to complete The Telegraph’s daily offerings. Gentlemanly, kindly and softly spoken, he differs from his creation, Detective Chief Inspector Morse, who is an irascible, mean, intellectual snob. That said, Mr Dexter does admit Morse is part-biographical. Beer drinking, crossword solving, music appreciation and Archers listening are all Morse indulgences drawn from Colin Dexter’s own passions. But where Morse is intolerant and has trouble with personal relationships, Colin Dexter is considerate and has been happily married for more than 50 years. Perhaps his own life trials have tempered his brilliant mind. Deafness forced him to give up his beloved teaching in favour of a job with the Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations in Summertown – hence the move to the city with his wife Dorothy in 1966. Born in Stamford, he’d been a bright student, who had studied Classics at Cambridge University before going on to teach Greek and Latin. There’s no false modesty when he says he was a popular and successful master who managed to get his pupils through exams with better results than they expected for themselves.
“I think it’s truly more satisfying than writing,” he says. “It forms very strong links in your life.”
Before writing fiction he wrote general studies text books, which were published by Robert Maxwell. He slotted his writing in after his day job and in between listening to long-running radio soap “The Archers” and a nightly visit to the pub.
“I found if I wrote a page a day, 360 days a year, it soon built up,” he says.
A wet summer holiday in Wales with two complaining children and a lack of reading material gave him the impetus to write his own detective story. His chosen name for his lead character resulted from his friendship and admiration for a fellow crossword compiler and champion Jeremy, later Sir Jeremy, Morse – who went on to become chairman of Lloyds Bank, a director of the Bank of England and held a chairman of the deputy’s post with the International Monetary Fund.
“He is just about the cleverest man I’ve ever met,” says Mr Dexter. He chose the name Lewis for Morse’s sidekick after another admired crossword compiler. Morse’s forename, which was long kept a secret, is the logical amalgamation of Morse’s mother’s Quaker beliefs and his father’s interest in Captain James Cook. It was given added significance when, after choosing the name Endeavour, he spotted that Sir Jeremy’s car had an Endeavour Garage sticker in its rear windscreen.
Perhaps it was because Morse wasn’t an instant success – indeed the original manuscript was turned down by Collins and eventually published by Macmillan – that made Mr Dexter apply practicality to the whole of his Morse writing career. He kept on his day job for 22 years until he retired.
“I never, ever, had to earn a living out of writing. I was well looked after and paid at the University Schools Examination Board.”
It took a while for the books’ popularity to gain momentum. Last Bus to Woodstock hit the shelves in 1975 and first edition copies now sell for around £1500. His thirteenth and final Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, published in 1999, sees Detective Chief Inspector Morse dying of complications from his neglected diabetes. In the television series a heart attack finishes off Morse in 2000, and in real life, John Thaw, who played the perfect Morse in Mr Dexter’s eyes, died 15 months later from cancer.
Macmillan’s advisers told Mr Dexter to retain the copyright to his character – he’s grateful because despite not writing the television scripts he is still in control of Morse’s destiny. There’s no going back, he insists, Morse will not be restored to life. Twenty years after the character first hit the television screen Mr Dexter still has a say in the spin-off series Lewis, who is played by Kevin Whately, a popular actor swapped in for the television productions – a soft-spoken Geordie family man instead of the sixty-something Welsh sidekick who inhabits the books.
So what does Colin Dexter plan for the future? He’s given up alcohol on medical advice, (he suffers from diabetes) so there are no more nightly pints of real ale or shots of single malt whiskies – his greatest pleasures in life along with crosswords. But he works for charities and is often in demand for speaking engagements, retaining the ordered mind which gave his novels such deft plot lines. He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and has won the coveted gold dagger for best crime novel of the year on more than one occasion and several runners-up silver daggers. He’s a member of the exclusive Detection Club, to which one has to be elected and in 2000 was awarded an OBE for services to literature.
He’s lived near the Banbury Road for 41 years, has been married for 51 years and has two grown-up children, Sally and Jeremy, who are in their mid-forties. If he was going to move away from Oxford it would have been when he retired from the exam board, he says.
“I thought then, I could have gone to any place in the world,” he says. “I didn’t want to go anywhere. Oxford’s a wonderful city and I’ve enjoyed being here.”
It’s not all sweetness and light, with its own proportion of yobbos and oiks, he says, but he feels the city’s residents have been very kind to him.
“My only claim to fame is to make it the murder capital of Europe,” he says. “The body count before Lewis started recently was up to 87, now it’s up to 93.”
There have been occasions when Morse was filmed away from Oxford, in Italy and Australia, but viewers clearly preferred the city’s distinctive backdrop, and said so.
With his East Anglian connections, and the rivalry between the two Universities, Mr Dexter has been asked why he never sought to write books set in Cambridge and raise the profile of the city where he gained his degree.
“Of course, it’s a very beautiful place as well… but I could not have written about a place in which I wasn’t living. In Oxford I could walk around – visit Jericho, Summertown, the heart of Oxford – and if I wrote that you turned right into a street from a location, you did,” he says, adding that the need to film in a condensed time frame rather than inattention to detail was responsible for the apparent lack of accuracy in the television series.
And it’s this potentially divided loyalty that produces Colin Dexter’s long hidden and dark secret – one that he has managed to conceal from Oxfordshire’s finest despite 40 years in the city. Keen to extract the truth I ask the crucial question. Surely Morse himself was never more, well, remorseless. Which university does he cheer for during the annual Boat Race?
“Cambridge,” he admits rather sheepishly and a touch defensively. “It’s about the only thing I feel very strongly for. If I watch the Boat Race I’ll be very, very strongly wishing that Cambridge win.”
Morse might turn in his grave, but the rest of us should allow Mr Dexter his aberration. But for his ill health back in the 1960s, it could be the Cambridge streets that formed the backdrop to this world-famous series. And that, for Oxford and its many proponents, would be a fate far worse than death.
Five facts about Colin Dexter
- Colin Dexter’s first name is Norman.
- Colin Dexter was a Morse operator during his National Service in the army – but that’s not how Inspector Morse got his name.
- Like his creation, Colin Dexter loves the music of Wagner, the paintings of Vermeer, the writing of Charles Dickens and the taste of real ale.
- In true Hitchcock style, Colin Dexter appears in all but three Morse episodes. He was “the man in the wheelchair at Magdalen Bridge” and “the man with crutches in the hospital waiting room” he often appeared at the bar of the pub where Morse was drinking. In 1993 he achieved his ambition and played a small speaking role.
- Colin Dexter was awarded the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding services to crime literature in 1997.
More Morsels about Inspector Morse
- Morse’s car, in the original books, was an old Lancia. It was swapped for an iconic 1962 Jaguar during filming because the production company couldn’t find a Lancia to suit.
- The Morse code for MORSE (– — •-• ••• •) features in the background of the famous Morse theme and incidental music, written by award winning composer Barrington Pheloung. He occasionally spelled out the name of the killer in his music using Morse code.
- Top-name guests who have appeared in Morse include Sir John Gielgud, Richard Briers, Anna Massey, Keith Allen, Barbara Flynn, Michael Hordern, Simon Callow, Peter McEnery, Robert Stephens, Cheryl Campbell, Geoffrey Palmer, Lionel Jefferies, Adrian Dunbar, Rupert Graves, Jason Isaacs, Zoe Wanamaker, Frances Tomelty, Richard Wilson, Sheila Gish, Frances Barber, Joanna David, Sean Bean, Sorcha Cusack, Jim Broadbent, Diana Quick, Amanda Burton, Philip Middlemiss, Martin Clunes, Charlotte Coleman and a young Elizabeth Hurley, who appeared as a schoolgirl.
- The first-ever Morse screenplay was written by Anthony Minghella (who wrote and directed Truly, Madly, Deeply and won an Oscar as director of The English Patient). Other screenwriters have included Julian Mitchell, Charles Wood, Peter Nichols and Malcolm Bradbury.
- Other behind-the-scenes stars have included John Madden (director of Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting fame. The first producer was Kenny McBain.
- Inspector Morse has a global audience of a 750 million people in 200 countries.
- The late John Thaw received a BAFTA for best actor for his portrayal of Morse.
- The name of the killer in all but one of the books is based on the winner of the Observer Azed crossword.
- John Thaw and the Mark II Jaguar appeared on a Royal Mail stamp to celebrate 50 years of classic ITV in 2005.
- Inspector Morse walking tours take visitors around the murder sites and haunts of the tv series and books.
[This feature first appeared in the May 2007 edition of Oxfordshire Life magazine]