Forget The Crown, ITV’s Endeavour is the period drama for our time

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This Sunday, Endeavour returns to our TV screens for its sixth series. It is 1969, a year of moon landings, President Nixon, the Krays and Monty Python. For Endeavour Morse and his colleagues, however, it is a time of new beginnings, grief and… moustaches.

We spend a lot of time critiquing and obsessing over historical authenticity, inaccuracies and achievement in period drama. Yet, weirdly, Endeavour seems to fly under the radar. Despite pulling in solid weekly viewing figures and standing on the shoulders of the cultural giant that was Inspector Morse, there have been very few pieces exploring the quality of one of ITV's most successful shows. Glossy big-budget dramas such as Bodyguard, The Night Manager, Sherlock, Luther and The Crown, might soak up publicity resources and dominate conversations, but to my mind it is Endeavour that has been quietly and consistently turning out the best drama on TV. In short, it is excellent.

There are many reasons for this. Not least, the setting. 1960s Oxford looks magnificent – a cityscape of grey and gold, with blue skies, leafy country pubs and a milky brown River Thames. It is a place where the dangerous allure and terrible beauty of a city founded on privilege, hypocrisy, intellectual power and raw talent is overt. Against this backdrop, Endeavour is like an enlarged crossword puzzle – we have literature, class division, sandwiches, ambition, boating, excessive alcohol consumption, opera, mystery, greed, art, and murder. At its heart, however, is the most poignant fictional detective ever created: Endeavour Morse.

He is played as thoughtfully by Shaun Evans as he ever was by John Thaw. Indeed, the genius of Endeavour is the way the repositioning of the “Morse story” into a 1960s period drama has enabled a retrograde metamorphosis of its central character. He has become a tragic hero yearning for love and purpose, failing to realise that what he wants, and what he needs, are under his nose.

In this early incarnation, we see the roots of Morse’s incredibly flawed view of women develop. He places those he admires on unattainably high and unrealistically romantic pedestals. Given these circumstances, it would be easy for female characters to become one-dimensional plot devices that propel the central character’s narrative. It is testament to the consistently brilliant writing of Russell Lewis (the show’s writer since 2012) that the series deftly navigates this toxic side to Morse’s character and offers us some of the most interesting female characters onscreen.

There’s the brilliant newspaper editor Dorothea Frazil (played by John Thaw’s daughter Abigail Thaw), who cannily takes Morse under her wing to swap intelligence; there’s nurse Monica Hicks, whose brief romance with Morse in series one told us much more about her and the cultural prejudices of 1960s Oxford than him; there was the ambitious police constable Shirley Trewlove, whose wit and intelligence made her a standalone character rather than merely a tactic for exposing the period’s chauvinism; and, of course, Fred Thursday’s marvellously complex and flawed daughter Joan.

Running throughout the drama is an exploration of the generational pushback that often follows war. This is manifest in the relationship dynamics between Endeavour and his boss, the World War Two veteran DI Fred Thursday. Thursday (played brilliantly by Roger Allam) is of the generation to have seen things no human should endure. Much of his trauma is implied, but it reverberates loudly for younger characters who display a tacit guilt over failing to match the perceived heroism of the preceding generation.

Endeavour depicts all of life. It is part heart-wrenching tragedy – we know Morse dies prematurely and we know his yearning for romantic companionship is never truly realised – and part flawlessly plotted crime thriller. The show has elevated the TV prequel and brought 1960s England vividly to life. What started as a one-off to mark the 25th anniversary of Inspector Morse in 2012 has grown into a superior drama, with high production values, intelligent scripts, wonderful acting and a bittersweet emotional punch.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian of the Stuarts and Restoration London, and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire. She tweets @Rebeccarideal