Morse may have been loved by millions of viewers, but how would his management
techniques be judged in a real workplace situation and how, asks Paul Simpson, would we view him as a work
Chief inspector Morse would never have become an inspector if his bosses had
measured him against any of the usual checklists of the qualities that make a
good manager. He has the people skills of a social misfit, he is often abusive
or offensive when directing staff, his alcohol consumption would trigger
disciplinary action in most workplaces and he hardly leads his team by building
consensus or encouraging input from his employees.
His able sidekick, detective sergeant Lewis, may occasionally chip in, and
the pathologist’s expertise is eagerly sought, but in Morse’s eyes anyone
else’s input is best confined to buying him a pint of beer or making sure the
coffee he is handed at the scene of the crime doesn’t contain powdered milk.
Even John Thaw, who played him to such good effect, spoke of Morse as
"the old bugger", admitting his fictional alter ego was snobbish,
patronising, and "totally sad". Fittingly, for a fictional detective
created in a society where workaholism is a national disease (and whose
government is threatened with legal action over its failure to restrict working
hours), Morse has no personal life. As Thaw once said: "It is the job with
a capital J which makes him sad because his work is his whole life."
Morse is incorrect, not just politically but in the broader cultural sense:
a curmudgeonly, borderline alcoholic, workaholic, upper class snob with Luddite
attitudes who would, you suspect, regard the very idea of human resources as an
intellectual con trick. Yet he became so popular in his TV incarnation, that he
regularly drew 12 million viewers and new episodes were even helicoptered to
North Sea oil rigs.
Steeped in real ale and the classics, Morse is as thoroughly British as
Basil Fawlty was in the 1970s. But while John Cleese’s hotelier was a cruelly
accurate send-up of the flawed, fawning psyche of the British manager of yore,
Morse is a slightly idealised, ennobled version of the kind of employee found
in every workplace. Every company has at least one executive whose talents are
less conspicuous to their superiors than their unfortunate habit of refusing to
toe the party line, yet whose craft and non-conformity inspire those around
Morse isn’t the only curmudgeonly-but-decent workaholic solving the UK’s
fictional crimes. Down the social scale (but also on ITV) is David Jason’s
detective inspector Jack Frost, who may not drink to excess or crack
crosswords, but exhibits the same fine disregard for forms, office politics and
the repercussions of his workaholic habits on his personal life. Morse and
Frost are merely the most visible of their breed.
Anyone who has watched much police drama on TV would probably conclude that
a real maverick cop would be one who, given the chance to rush to a crime
scene, would say: "Oh, no thanks Super, I’ve got these forms to fill in,
the latest home office directives to cast an eye over, and besides, I’m worried
we might be over budget this month."
Nor indeed does the stereotype of the grumpy, middle-aged maverick stop with
Morse and Frost. American movies are full of them, often played by actors such
as Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, for whom middle age is already a memory.
They are designed to inspire us with their refusal to play by anyone else’s
rules, their steady certainty that they are right and the astonishing effect
their wrinkly charisma has on the opposite sex. In part, it is tempting to see
these stereotypes as a fantastic exercise in wish fulfilment by the writers who
may not be fabulously rich, secure, or sexy, and have never had the nerve to
say no or even ‘perhaps’ to their bosses (see above right).
But do the fictional stereotypes they create and we consume matter?
The replacement of Jack Warner’s benevolent play-it-by-the-book Dixon Of
Dock Green with a generation of rogues and mavericks like Jack Regan in The
Sweeney (also played by Thaw), Morse and Frost does reflect a shift in
attitude, especially the demise of deference and our increased cynicism about
authority. Most of our small screen detectives now solve crimes despite the
authorities’ involvement, not because of it.
The most sympathetic authority figure in any of these dramas – Morse’s boss
chief superintendent Strange – is well meaning, but subject to political
pressure, lacking Morse’s imagination and often absurdly impatient for results.
Morse is the hero in an age where our distrust of geographically remote figures
of authority, be they prime ministers or company vice-presidents, is summed up
in the gag about the biggest lie in business being "I’m from head office
and I’m here to help you". If we trust any manager these days, we trust
those on the coalface like Morse or Frost.
Fending off retirement
Morse may seem unique (and even his popularity hasn’t sent his long secret
first name Endeavour shooting up the list of top boy’s names), but in many ways
he is so typical as to be commonplace. Sorry Morse, but by the time the TV
series ended, the grumpy inspector was a 50-something fending off retirement,
hardly untypical in a country where, by 2031, 60 per cent of adults will be
A recent survey in the US found that half the nation’s managers in the
manufacturing industry are due to retire in the next five years, and similar
pressures are already at work in the UK. Equally typically, as Morse’s career
and life peter out, no obvious successor has emerged or been groomed by his
His isolation is increasingly representative of society. A 2002 report by
The Future Foundation found that, for the first time, more Britons live alone
or as a single parent than within a traditional family unit. Even his death is
not that rare: alcohol played a large part in his fatal illness – as it does in
33,000 deaths in the UK each year.
The parallels between Morse and non-fictional mortals deepen when you
examine his managerial style. He does not tolerate fools gladly, regarding
almost anyone as foolish if they disagree with him; yet (in his own eyes) is firm
but fair. He is so shocked when Strange suggests that he speaks to Lewis
"in your way – dismissively" that he spends the rest of the episode
complimenting Lewis on his work. After the second "well done Lewis",
his sergeant is worried enough to ask: "Are you feeling alright,
sir?" Nor is he especially sympathetic when Lewis’ family commitments
prevent him from buying Morse a pint after work, although he does try to wrap
up one case quickly so his sergeant can attend his son’s sports day.
Morse is a guru, not a mentor. The idea that Lewis might want promotion,
albeit in the traffic division, fills him with distaste. And when Morse does
try to instill values in his colleagues it is to try to turn them on to opera.
He inspires – as Lewis does intermittently, by example – in the sense that (as
Lewis says in one episode) "he’s the best there is", not by his
tuition or advice.
He solves crimes through a quasi-mystical process more akin to an artist creating
a painting than a manager making decisions. While, Frost arrives so often at a
crime scene being pored over by constables and forensic scientists and still
manages to spot the vital clue everyone else has missed that you almost suspect
him of planting evidence, Morse often relies on gut instinct – a method that
research shows may drive as many as a quarter of the decisions real managers
make. For instance, a chance remark by Lewis will often put him on the right
course and, like many real life managers, the inspector is frequently wrong.
Hard to handle
Morse’s isolation and arrogance mean he doesn’t build consensus as much as
destroy it. This makes for great television, but research from Cornell
University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management finds that when real life
mavericks are introduced into groups trying to make a decision, other members
of the group find this hard to handle and complained that the decision-making
process has gone awry.
Morses may have remarkable minds, but before you hire one remember that, as
this research suggests, they can be a real pain in real life.
When Thaw was first approached about playing Colin Dexter’s detective, he
made it clear that although he liked the "old bugger", the character
would need to change. Although Thaw’s Morse usually develops a crush on at
least one female character in every story, he doesn’t (as Dexter’s does) scan
newsagents for the right porn magazines.
The change is crucial, Morse the lonely romantic is infinitely more
simpatico than Morse the lecherous old man. When he strays ethically – as he
does bending the rules to try to convict a car dealer he believes guilty of
double murder – he does so not for personal gain or pleasure.
His habitual grumpiness and iconoclastic approach to life, are a refreshing
change in a workplace where compulsory corporate euphoria is all too common.
Researchers are only just starting to understand the emotional complexity of
work, but Morse is the sulky antidote to the ‘have a nice day’ school of
corporate life where employees are encouraged to behave in certain predictable
(yet emotionally wearing) ways in the name of efficiency.
Not for Morse, the masks many of us wear in the office: he is what he is –
nonconformist, socially awkward, tightfisted, often hungover, resistant to
change and immensely gifted. All of which somehow makes it more believable
when, in the very first episode, he is passed over for promotion to
The final irony of the Morse cult is that, while 12 million of us happily shared
two hours of our valuable time with him on our TV screens, none of us, frankly,
could bear to work for the "old bugger" for as long as Sergeant
Up close and corporate: Redford epitomises work dilemmas
Robert Redford’s turn as Nathan Muir, the retiring CIA spymaster in Spy
Game, is merely the latest in a long line of roles in which Hollywood’s best
blond since Marilyn Monroe has played a tough, ethical maverick. The difference
being that in Spy Game Muir is successful: he bluffs, deceives and cheats his
CIA superiors while achieving his goal of saving his old prot‚g‚ Brad Pitt from
a Chinese prison.
Normally when Redford comes over all hard-bitten and virtuous,
everything goes awry. In Brubaker, he played a reform prison governor whose
very decency is such a threat to the powers that be they have to fire him. In
Up Close And Personal, he plays a television news producer called Warren
Justice whose moral standards (and habit of telling the damning truth about
anyone who doesn’t meet those standards) leaves him with only one career
option: death. Redford/Justice is as distrustful of new approaches as Morse is
of new technology, turning to one boss and asking him bluntly: "Did you
ever have an idea you didn’t get from a focus group?"
In Out Of Africa, Redford’s individualism and understandable
desire to escape from Meryl Streep’s Danish accent lead his character Denis
Finch-Hatton to a similarly tragic end. In The Horse Whisperer, he nurses a
sick horse back to mental and physical health, but has less success whispering
sweet nothings to his latest squeeze Kristin Scott Thomas.
When a Redford character does succeed, there’s usually a price.
In The Candidate, where he wins a California Senate seat, he abandons his
principles so completely that, by the time he gains power, he is powerless to
think without his spin doctors. Redford suffers from the gain the world/lose
your soul equation as the writer who never fulfils his promise in The Way We
Were and as the arrogant skier in Downhill Racer. He is most successful (and
pays the smallest price) when he is organising a con with Paul Newman in The
Sting or stealing a drugged horse in The Electric Horseman.
Redford is rather liberal for an American actor in this day and
age, but even so his films represent a rather stark message about survival in
the capitalist corporate environment. The message, in simplified tabloid form,
seems to be that having principles can, at best, condemn you to a lonely life
whispering to sick horses and, at worst, lead to the termination of your career
or your life. Just the kind of bleak world view Morse would approve of.