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Originally published Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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PBS brings back beloved Inspector Morse — as a young man

On July 1, PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery" will air "Endeavour," a prequel to the wildly successful "Inspector Morse" series, starring Shaun Evans as a young Morse.

San Francisco Chronicle

ON TV

'Endeavour'

9 p.m. Sunday on PBS.

Tonight in Prime Time

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Few would ever call PBS especially courageous, but it took real guts to tamper with the near-sacred memory of John Thaw as Inspector Morse by airing a prequel on "Masterpiece Mystery."

Twenty-five years ago, the late Thaw appeared on British TV in the first "Inspector Morse" mystery, based on the novels of Colin Dexter, and made the role his own over the course of 32 episodes until Thaw's death from cancer in 2002. He had already filmed the final episode, "The Remorseful Day," in which the character dies.

Sad as Morse's death was, at least it prevented anyone from thinking they could continue the series with someone other than Thaw in the title role.

But it makes perfect sense to create a prequel, which is exactly what Britain's ITV has done in "Endeavour," a charming "Masterpiece Mystery" episode airing Sunday night on PBS and starring Shaun Evans as a young but gifted constable with an obsessive curiosity that earns him enemies among corrupt members of the local constabulary but the respect of his mentor, Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam).

In the adaptation of Dexter's story by Russell Lewis, Endeavour Morse and other young coppers arrive at the Oxfordshire Constabulary to aid in the search for a young girl who has gone missing. Almost at once, Morse suspects murder and, showing little concern for whose feathers he ruffles, proceeds to go about grilling an Oxford don, Professor Rowan Stromming (Richard Lintern), and his wife, Rosalind (Flora Montgomery), a retired opera singer whose 1954 recording of "Madama Butterfly" is Morse's favorite.

The mystery is suitably complicated and all but devoid of the kind of obvious clues that every member of the audience should be able to figure out long before the hero does. That's the sign of a good TV mystery, and "Endeavour" is that.

But beyond solving the mystery, the enduring pleasure of "Endeavour" comes from the small character touches that presage John Thaw's older Morse. There is, of course, Morse's love of opera, although in time, the character would develop a greater fondness for Wagner than Puccini.

We also know the older Morse drove a vintage red Jaguar. While his younger incarnation can barely afford his room in the Oxfordshire boardinghouse, Inspector Thursday allows him to drive his own black Jaguar. And do we see a glimpse of longing in Morse's eye when he passes a red Jaguar in a used-car lot?

The older Morse had a particular fondness for wine, but as we meet his younger self, Morse doesn't drink until he's pressed to try a glass of ale and finds it to his liking.

These and other details obviously create a tangible link between the Morse we know from the Thaw years and the younger Morse played by Evans. But the details alone wouldn't be enough to make the connection stick if it weren't for Evans' performance. It's logical that his Morse isn't as irascible as Thaw made him in later life, but we see definite foreshadowing of that trait in Morse's brash indifference to others telling him how to solve the crime or keep him in his place.

But no one who ever saw the John Thaw "Morse's" can watch "Endeavour" without feeling a bit nostalgic and maybe a little, well, remorseful as well.

There is one scene in "Endeavour" that may perplex viewers at first. Morse pursues a lead by speaking to the editor of the local newspaper. As the interview ends and Morse stands to leave, she asks him if they have perhaps met before.

No, Morse says. He doesn't think so.

You may think the scene is some kind of a MacGuffin, a false clue, but it isn't. The actress playing the editor is Abigail Thaw, saying good day to a young actor essaying the role that will be forever identified with her late father.

"Endeavour" is wonderfully entertaining on its own, but what puts it over the top is its loving respect for John Thaw. In that regard, it is a just tribute to a great and beloved actor.

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