BATH, ENGLAND - On several occasions I’ve come to Britain in search of the places and locations featured in the many films made in this magical kingdom that provides so many stunning movie backdrops.
Movie tourism is one of the biggest sectors of Britain’s tourist industry and tourism officials have even created maps pinpointing where to find the many film locations.
In the past, I’ve searched out the places where James Bond first had his vodka martini shaken, not stirred; where Harry Potter mounted his broom stick; visited the lovely Yorkshire towns featured in the film Calendar Girls; and combed the backstreets of London looking for the headstones of the Knights Templar mentioned in the Dan Brown thriller Angels and Demons.
Above: A picture of Inspector Morse, played by actor John Thaw, right, hangs in Oxford's White Horse pub.
Now I’m back, and this time I’m on the trail of my favourite TV detective, Inspector Morse, the long-running British series adapted from Colin Dexter’s fabulous novels.
Chief Inspector Morse, who was played so brilliantly by the late and great John Thaw, still has a cult following among Public Television viewers in North America despite the fact the final episode, The Remorseful Day, aired in 2000. Thank goodness for reruns.
I’m quickly reminded of the curmudgeonly detective when our cab pulls up in front of Bath’s stately Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa; while most of the Inspector Morse shows were filmed in nearby Oxford, it was here at the Royal Crescent that one of my favourite episodes, Death Is Now My Neighbour (1997), was filmed.
The legendary Relais & Chateaux property, located in several historic Georgian townhouses (30 in all make up the landmark complex), is also where Thaw and the rest of the Inspector Morse cast stayed while filming in Bath.
Above: Oxford's White Horse pub, Morse's favourite haunt, sits across from Sheldonian Theatre.
The hotel, which just recently underwent a multi-million upgrade, is the perfect place to house the kings and queens of stage and screen because it’s truly fit for royalty. The Royal Crescent’s gardens, well-appointed rooms draped in antique furniture, main dining room (the elegant Dower House Restaurant) and state-of-the-art spa are among the best in Great Britain.
Sitting in the lovely gardens where scents of rose and lavender perfume the air, I ask a long-time employee, maintenance head Bob Park, who has been at the Royal Crescent for 30 years, if he remembers the day Morse checked in.
“I most certainly do,” says Park with a twinkle in his eye. “I was a big fan of the show and still am. The cast were all very polite and courteous to the staff, especially Mr. Thaw, but they pretty much kept to themselves.
“Mr. Thaw stayed in a suite in the Dower House (over the restaurant) and Mr. Whately (actor Kevin Whately played Morse’s sidekick Sgt. Lewis) stayed in the main building,” recalls Park.
While Thaw was a giant of British TV, Park remembers him to be a diminutive figure in real life.
“He was much smaller than I thought he’d be.”
However, Park says it wasn’t Thaw who caused the most excitement during filming here, but rather the car Morse drove in the series, a classic 1960 fire engine red Jaguar Mark II.
“Did you know the car recently sold for millions (of pounds)?” asks Park. “The Jag actually arrived here (at the hotel) in a lorry (truck) and it was all wrapped up. I think people snapped more pictures of the car than the actors.”
Above: Oxford's High Street made an appearance in almost every episode of Inspector Morse.
Staff at the Royal Crescent are used to having famous people walking the grounds of this 1770 establishment. Several films were shot in the hotel and Park says Johnny Depp stayed at the Royal Crescent while scenes for the Academy Award winning movie Chocolat were shot in Bath. Other prominent guests at the Royal Crescent have included Paul McCartney, Bono, the Three Tenors (Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti) and Charlton Heston.
After a few days of walking in Morse’s footsteps at the Royal Crescent and enjoying all the fabulous amenities the classic property offers, it’s time to head to Oxford along the back roads of Cotswolds country, one of the most idyllic and scenic parts of Great Britain.
The route takes us past rolling farmland dotted with sheep and through small towns that trace their history back to England’s beginning.
Just before reaching Oxford, though, I notice a sign in the small town of Woodstock pointing to the entrance of Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill and recall that both the palace and town appeared in two Inspector Morse episodes: the amazing palace was the backdrop in the chilling The Way Through The Woods episode (1995) and the town played a role in The Last Bus To Woodstock (1988).
Blenheim, the family home of the Duke of Marlborough, is a sprawling estate and a joy to wander; the gardens and meadows are especially lovely. Churchill, who grew up in the lavish palace, is buried in the small cemetery at St. Mary’s Church in nearby Bladon.
It seems just as many people visit Oxford hoping to find evidence of Inspector Morse as come to see the great buildings that make up arguably the world’s most beautiful university.
No sooner do I enter the posh Macdonald Randolph Hotel upon my arrival in Oxford when I see my first clue that Morse remains a revered figure in this city of scholars. The lobby bar is named after the TV character and it’s packed with lots of fans.
“They named the bar after Inspector Morse and (author) Mr. (Colin) Dexter still comes here from time to time and signs autographs for fans of the show. Several episodes of the series were also filmed here,” says the lady on the reception desk of a hotel that opened in 1864 and keeps getting better with age.
After freshening up, I start combing Oxford looking for places where Morse hung out. Because the grumpy inspector was such a notorious beer drinker who contemplated most cases over a pint with Lewis, I naturally head for pubs near the university and hit the jackpot when I enter the 18th century timber-framed White Horse Pub on Broad Street across from the Sheldonian Theatre. Pictures of Morse, Lewis and Dexter line the walls of the quaint pub which appeared in three episodes: Last Seen Wearing (1988), The Dead of Jericho (1987) and The Secret of Bay 5B (1989).
“Oh yes, Morse loved coming here for a pint and episodes of Inspector Lewis (Morse’s sidekick got a promotion and his own show when the Inspector Morse series ended) and Endeavour (a prequel to the Inspector Morse series starring Shawn Evans playing a young Morse which is currently the rage of Public Television) are still being filmed here,” a barmaid tells me.
Left: Dark alleys is where Morse found many clues. Right: Oxford's famed Bridge of Sighs.
“But most of the people who come in just want to know about Inspector Morse and always ask what John Thaw was like,” she says before rushing off to serve the dozens of Morse fans packed in the tiny property.
The White Horse was just one of Morse’s favourite pubs. The others were the Turf Tavern down St. Helen’s Passage, The Kings Arms on Holywell Street, The Bear Inn in Alfred Street and the Victoria Arms in Old Marston. Research demands I experience them all, of course.
Of the 38 constituent colleges that make up Oxford University, 16 appeared in episodes of Inspector Morse. And while many are off limits to the public, you can still poke your head through the gated entrances and see where Morse walked on lawns so groomed they’d make a lawn bowling club green with envy.
I’m especially intrigued by St. John’s College, where the great inspector attended classes before joining the Thames Valley police force, and Exeter College, where sadly Morse collapsed and later died from a heart attack in the series’ finale, The Remorseful Day. Less than two years later, the great Thaw died of cancer.
I find Morse’s footprints everywhere in Oxford:
• Along High Street where Morse and Lewis are often seen driving his beloved Jag in the show.
• Down narrow back alleys like Wheatsheaf Yard where the great detective searched for clues to help solve so many murder cases.
• In the Covered Market that has been open since 1772 and where he interviewed witnesses and suspects.
• On the Magdalen Bridge that spans the Cherwell River — it was featured in The Secret of Bay 5B episode.
• Under the Bridge of Sighs (a.k.a. Hertford Bridge) where Morse and Lewis are seen walking in the episode Service of All The Dead (1987) — Oxford students also pass under the bridge on graduation day.
• Radcliffe Square, which features the great Radcliffe Dome, St. Mary’s Church, which dates back to the beginning of Oxford, and some of the city’s most stunning architecture.
• Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christopher Wren and guarded by the famous “Stone Heads,” where the classical music loving Morse attended lectures and concerts.
• Along the banks of the Thrupp Canal, which is lined with lovely cottages and was featured in the chilling 1989 episode, The Last Enemy.
As I comb the backstreets of Oxford, I bump into a group of Morse fans taking an Inspector Morse walking tour — the organized Morse tours are just as popular as tours of the university.
“This way you get to see both the university and the places I see on TV in the Inspector Morse show,” one American tourist gleefully tells me.
Finally back at the Morse Bar in the Randolph Hotel, I order a pint of the inspector’s favourite brew, a British ale, and tell my server I wish Thaw was still alive so more shows could be made.
“Mr. Thaw may be dead, sir,” he says, “but Inspector Morse lives on — these fans won’t let his memory die.”
Many of the colleges and buildings featured in the Inspector Morse series are open at designated times for tours but access is limited during the school year. / The Oxford Information Centre on Broad Street offers Inspector Morse walking tours. Contact them at www.visitoxford.org
/ Getting to Oxford from London is easy — trains leave Paddington station on the half hour. / The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa is Bath’s premier property and its rates are very reasonable considering the hotel’s history, elegance and amenities. It’s located in the most prestigious area of the old Roman city but close enough to all the historic baths and attractions. It’s an easy walk down to the tourist area but you’d be well advised to take a cab back to the hotel after sightseeing. For rates and information, go to www.royalcrescent.co.uk/
/ The Macdonald Randolph Hotel is an exceptional property and in close walking distance to Oxford University, most of the city’s historic sites and museums and very close to the main shopping district. For information on rates, go to www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk
/ Air Canada, British Airways and a number of Canadian charter airlines offer direct daily flights to London from most major Canadian cities. / For information on Bath, the Cotswold, London or Oxford, go to www.visitbritain.com