Ten months ago we sat down to watch the revival of Doctor Who, a combination of excitement and fear gripping the innards. I was hoping it would do the show's heritage justice without being a slavish copy, somehow updating the TV classic for a new audience and a new generation. In Doctor Who's case, the show had effectively been off-air for 16 years, barring the 1996 TV movie. There was an awful lot at stake. Happily, the show proved to be a ratings and critical hit, earning itself two more series and two Christmas specials. Job done.
Last night we sat down to watch Lewis, the pilot for a potential spin-off series from Inspector Morse. It's only five years since Morse concluded its phenomenally successful TV career. The lead character was dead and, sadly, the actor who protrayed him so wonderfully, John Thaw, died two years later from cancer. Now Morse's sidekick was getting his own show - and his own sidekick. The one-off special was effectively a backdoor pilot for a potential series. It brought back he massively underrated Kevin Whately as Lewis, along with many of the creatives and crew who'd worked on Morse. But could they breathe fresh life into the embers of that beloved series?
Put simply, yes. There were no shortage in tips of the hat to the ghost of Morse, but he didn't overwhelm the programme. Whately has aged visibly since his days on Morse, but the script wisely played upon that world-weariness, burning it into the character's soul. The tragic, senseless loss of his wife to a hit and run accident, the inevitable splintering of his family as the kids had 'grown and flown', the feeling that his experience was merely seen as evidence he was too old for the job - all were well woven into the fabric of the script.
The character of Detective Sergeant Hathaway appeared abrasive and unlikeable at first but as we learned more about him, so we grew to like him. By the end he and Lewis were a partnership, Lewis taking the mentor role while Hathaway was akin to a young Morse - a neat reversal of the old Morse and Lewis partnership. The programme looked gorgeous, as Morse always did, and Barrington Pheloung's score had all the flourishes so familiar and welcome from Morse.
The murder mystery was perhaps the weakest link, with much of the plot focused on a massive misdirection. The identity of the killer was somewhat telegraphed by having such a strong actor in such an apparently irrelevant role - you just knew they had to have more to do with the murders that was obvious. But the motivation for the killings was an unexpected twist in the tale, adeptly set up earlier in the script. 'Lewis' also boasts one of the biggest bodycounts in the Morse canon, with at least five bodies heading for the mortuary by the closing credits (to be honest, I was starting to lose count).
All in all, I think 'Lewis' has to be considered a success. There's no question a short series of two or three such stories each year would neat snugly into ITV's schedules, plugging the gaping hole left by Morse's absence. There's certainly plenty of mileage in the new partnership of Lewis and Hathaway, along with their somewhat patrician boss, Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent. The only question now is how well 'Lewis' did in the ratings...
UPDATE: Overnight ratings are in and it seems 'Lewis' was a big hit with viewers. Estimates put the averages viewing figure for the two hours it was on air at 10.7 million, peaking at 11.3 million. Some 46% of all viewers watching TV in Britain last night between 9 and 11 were watching 'Lewis'. While the figure of 10.7 million isn't that high compared to Morse's peak of 18 million back in the early 90s, it's an outstanding number in 2006's multi-channel digital age. It's also not the final figure - that comes later and more be larger, when it takes into account people who recorded the show to watch later.
Here's two more relevant comparisons: a week ago in the same slot Foyle's War averaged 7.3 million (31% of viewers). In all of 2005, only one drama programme rated higher than Lewis did last night: Doctor Who with 10.81m - and it only had 45% of all viewers during its much shorter timeslot. Conclusion: I'd be amazed if ITV wasn't on the phone this afternoon, commissioning at least two or three episodes of Lewis to be filmed this summer in Oxford and broadcast next January. Time will tell...