After the revelations of police corruption and the inevitable violent fallout at the end of the last series, DS Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) is enjoying a well-earned break in Venice – surely the centre of his cultural universe. DCI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) and wife Win seem reconciled, though Fred’s beginning to feel his age, and increasingly out of place in the space-age 1970s.
This episode, Oracle, marks a major shift in tone, as we move from the 60s to the 70s – expect lots of jokes about Noddy Holder, Space Hoppers, Zoom lollies, Chopper bikes and bin strikes. Or maybe not.
Morse is now quite the man about town, attending the opera and seducing a glamorous beauty, Violetta (Stephanie Leonidas). She references sculptor Michelangelo and French surrealist Magritte (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, “This is not a pipe”), and argues that it doesn’t matter if something’s not real, so long as it’s beautiful, while looking appropriately sultry.
Meanwhile, Fred investigates the murder of a barmaid, Molly, found dead under a footbridge after a boozy New Year party. Strange that this episode isn’t called Bridge of Sighs, as the architectural and maritime link between Oxford and Venice is more explicit than ever (though the Hertford Bridge, as it’s properly known, is more in the style of the Rialto Bridge than the original Bridge of Sighs in Venice. It’s amazing how many characters have to walk past it, even Win on the way to her cleaning job, despite the fact that in real life it just leads you down a back alley).
Fred’s convinced that the towpath murderer is a jealous boyfriend, Carl Sturgis (Sam Ferriday), but other suspects include a surly barman, a sinister bargee, Petrovsky, a creepy maths professor and another barmaid, Jenny (Holli Dempsey) who seems to have a case of the psychics.
Chief Superintendent Bright (Anton Lesser) is his usual desiccated self, and we’re told his cancer-stricken wife is ‘as well as can be expected’ – in fact, she’s putting her trust in faith-healers, while he sits disconsolately smoking on the stairs.
There’s a wonderfully terse exchange between Thursday and Morse on his return – ‘You’re back then – how was it?’ – ‘Well – you know’. Not exactly warm or sharing.
Sometime later – May, in fact – Morse is stripping the wallpaper in his new house, pining for Violetta, and the towpath murder remains unsolved. More distance is put between Morse and Thursday when Bright assigns Morse to reinvestigate the case. Still driving Jaguar KAN 169, he questions barmaid Molly’s grandmother, and consults pathologist Max, who quotes Kipling and raises some questions about the cause of death.
Fred’s daughter Joan Thursday, we learn, is away on secondment – journalist Dorothea Frazil (Abigail Thaw) is investigating a string of cat murders – and Jim Strange (Sean Rigby) is bitten by a rat, while Win has to shoo away rats at her cleaning job – what’s that all about then?
Meanwhile, an educational TV programme is appealing for academic presenters, and parapsychology researcher Naomi Benford (Naomi Battrick) gets the job, to the chagrin of her sexist male colleagues.
She tries to tip off Morse that one of her test subjects has been having premonitions of murders, but she is the next victim herself, thrown down the stairs (in the building Win cleans, for no good dramatic reason).
As her creepy colleagues explain the nature of the psychic research Naomi was carrying out, it becomes clear how she could have had evidence about the towpath murder – from one of her test subjects’ ‘remote viewing’. Morse tracks down the psychic barmaid Jenny Tate, who claims to have had a vision of the towpath killer taking the victim’s necklace, which seems to match the evidence.
Morse has his wallet lifted and bumps into an old college acquaintance, Ludo (Ryan Gage), surely no coincidence – Ludo is a seductive, wealthy art dealer, presumably out to get something from Morse. When he turns up one evening armed with a bottle of wine, he seems interested in the evidence from the towpath murder too – evidence which Strange reminds Morse he shouldn’t be taking home.
The next turn-up is that bargee Petrovsky is found dead of alcohol poisoning, with Molly’s bag on his barge. In it are tickets for a folk concert (with Jake Thackray – anyone remember this lugubrious Northerner, who was a staple of TV in the 70s and ‘80s?) – leading to Naomi’s colleague Kreitsek (Reece Ritchie), who admits to having taken Molly to the club after she also worked as a test subject. But he diverts suspicion back onto Molly’s boyfriend Karl.
Horrid sexist Dr Blish (Angus Wright) gets offered Naomi’s TV spot, so did he kill her for the fame, or out of romantic obsession? When Morse realises his pen was found under her body, it looks that way – Blish lures Jenny to a meeting and tries to silence her, but Morse and Thursday turn up just in time to stop him.
Both Morse and Thursday assume that Blish also killed Molly, but he denies it, and the case is left unresolved. Equally unresolved is the question of Ludo, who invites Morse to a lush garden party – only to reveal that the seductive Violetta is his wife. Gasp!
And in a shock coda, a canalside flasher is killed by a Jack the Ripper figure with a sword-stick – perhaps to silence him too? – so the case of the towpath murder runs deeper yet.
Shaun Evans’ direction of this episode is unflashy and seemingly gone are the cascades of ‘easter eggs’ which somewhat unbalanced the last series (though we think there are references to science fiction writers in some of the character names – Blish, Benford, Kreitsek, Ellison, Sturgis). Also missing is the contemporary music soundtrack – perhaps the licensing just got too expensive.
In fact, though Fred’s starting to look particularly out of place – did anyone still wear a trilby in 1970? – there isn’t a terrific amount to indicate that time has moved on for Endeavour. Certainly, the character is more confident and assured, but his easy seduction of Violetta still doesn’t seem like the later Morse.
So we’re left with more questions than answers at the end of this episode – who killed Molly on the towpath, and why? Who’s the geezer with the sword cane? And what’s happening to all the cats? Human conundrums, we’re sure Endeavour will solve, but we’re not sure if he’s qualified to investigate a feline killing spree.
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