Inspector Lewis is due for a vacation.
After more than 20 years playing Detective Inspector Robert “Robbie” Lewis, actor Kevin Whately has earned a well-deserved break from investigating murders beneath the Oxford spires. Introduced in Inspector Morse’s first episode (“The Dead of Jericho”), Whately’s Robbie Lewis was the Geordie sidekick of the late John Thaw’s erudite and perpetually cranky Inspector Morse before becoming the lead of his own spinoff, Lewis.
While Whately has a slew of roles on his résumé—he also starred in British drama Peak Practice and comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, as well as countless other projects, including The English Patient—Robbie Lewis is the role still most closely associated with the 62-year-old actor. He has played the gruff detective from 1987 to 2000 on Morse and from 2006 to the present on Inspector Lewis.
The much loved show returns for its sixth (or seventh, if you’re going by the ITV ordering), and possibly final, season on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday, a season that finds Lewis and his partner, Cambridge-educated Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox), grappling with change, uncertainty, and possibly even a happy ending of sorts.
The Daily Beast caught up with Whately earlier this month during his protracted hiatus from Inspector Lewis to discuss the challenges of playing a role for more than two decades, the romance between Robbie Lewis and medical examiner Laura Hobson (Clare Holman), why he tried to turn down Lewis, and what’s next for the Oxford sleuth.
You've been extremely outspoken about your need for a potential hiatus from the series. What are the challenges of playing Robbie Lewis for 26 years?
Kevin Whately: Every now and then, you suddenly realize you've asked the same question probably 50 times before: “Where were you last night?” We have wonderful writers, but you can't think of a different way to do it, or a different corner to come out of, and you do need a break. I've just recently worked out that I haven't had a summer off for 31 years, which is half my life. So I want a year off for real. And it happened to coincide with Laurence [Fox] saying he wanted to come over and do pilot season over here, but he's actually doing a lot of fathering instead.
Why do you think the popularity of the Oxford trinity—Lewis, Morse, and now prequel Endeavour—continues to endure?
Whately: I think it's mostly to do with Oxford. Oxford has a slightly mythical rep, particularly for people who haven't been there. I think it’s a bit like Harvard or Yale over here: that they're seats of great learning and you imagine that there are these genius people that could work out absolutely wonderful murder plots that they could get away with. But it's so photogenic that I think that that plays a much bigger part in it probably than any of the actors. To a certain extent, once a show, or the characters, have been running for this length of time, it's a bit like The Mousetrap, people are so comfortable with it, perhaps, that they just enjoy the familiarity of it.
The chalk-and-cheese partnership is fairly common on TV these days. What makes Lewis and Hathaway’s dynamic so unique? Is it the juxtaposition of Geordie straightforwardness with lofty intellectualism?
Whately: I suspect it's that. It's very similar to the Morse/Lewis relationship: [Hathaway’s] got a quite exceptional brain, where Lewis is the plodding man of the world and knows his way around. There is definitely a bit of father/son dynamic involved with it. But I think that sort of chemistry is always intangible. You can have actors that get on absolutely great and the chemistry doesn't work on screen and vice-versa. Laurence and I are very lucky in that we get on well and the chemistry seems to work. But, if I knew why, I'd be a zillionaire!
One of the most surprising threads from the last seven seasons was the Robbie/Laura romance. Were you resistant to having the two get together, or was it the right time for Lewis to finally stop being the lonely widower?
I was totally resistant to it because I always thought that the minute that happened, it was likely to become soapy! It was something the executive producers said a long time ago: “Oh, they must get together in the end.” But we left it until this year, [and] I think it works quite well the way Lucy Gannon's written it. I was pleased with it.
Is it true that you nearly turned down Lewis?
Whately: I did several times. Eventually, they sent Ted Childs, the old executive producer [of Morse], and Chris Burt, who had produced the last few Morse films, along for lunch. And they both said, “Look, ITV aren't going to leave you alone. You might as well try one.” I didn't think it was a very good idea, to be honest. Of course, once we did one and it took off, we were back on the moving train, and I've been very grateful for it. I've enjoyed it a lot. But, yeah, I was hugely resistant to it.
What were your initial reservations?
I just thought that my character wasn't a sharp enough character to lead a series. He’s quite a downbeat character and he was invented more as a sounding board for an extraordinary character, the Morse one, as Morse's Dr. Watson, really. And I was a bit worried that it would be laughed out of court. But I do like the character. I do respect his morals.
Did you ever anticipate that Lewis would run as long as it has?
Not at all. As I say, it feels like a moving train, because we kept a lot of the crew from Morse and our crew has stayed almost the same throughout the seven or eight years we've been doing it. You feel a responsibility for all of them, as well as to ITV, who are selling it round the world and viewers everywhere, to keep going.
How much has Robbie changed since you first started playing him in 1987?
Another thing that I found difficult, starting with Lewis, was that he had always been a fairly happy-go-lucky, down to earth character and they wanted to turn him into more of a curmudgeon like Morse, I suppose, and I thought that was slightly forced onto me. I'm not that at ease playing a grump. But I did enjoy the last couple [episodes] where Robbie was more fun-loving and getting back into real life.
VIDEO EMBED: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__8xiMWLOTU
It appears as though Robbie will leave the police force at the end of the season. Can a copper like Robbie Lewis ever truly retire?
I don't know, but it's difficult. There was a very popular series [in the U.K.] with a 70-year-old actor playing a cop, and I don't want to be still playing [Robbie] when I'm 70, because you have to retire at 60 and everybody knows that. So, at some point soon, he's got to stop. To be in the regular police force at 70 isn't really on.
Is this the end then, or do you think you could possibly come back to the character in 2014?
I think we might, as we did with Morse, do the odd one or two [specials], but I don't want to go on spending six months each year filming it, and I don't think Laurence does either. I think Laurence wants to do different things, and I remember exactly how I felt at his age with Morse and I think it's probably healthy if we do some, as ITV wants them, but not keep hammering them out. It is quite difficult to get 90-minute stories together each year, four of them, and to find writers with the ideas. Possibly, two would be a lot easier.
Looking back at the last 26 years, what is your fondest memory of working with John Thaw on Morse?
Mostly just sitting with John. We always shared a caravan from the word go, because that's what John had done in his previous series, The Sweeney, with Dennis Waterman. John was quite a shy man, and I was very shy myself at the time. So it took us two years to become pals. But he was the best company, John. He was a great storyteller and I learnt everything from him, about screen acting and technique; he was a wonderful actor. He had the most fantastic voice, which was another reason why I didn't really want to spin Lewis off. My voice isn't half the voice that John Thaw's was, and it was a really important part of his makeup. He could do extraordinary things with it.
With Lewis and Hathaway, you stepped into the role of sort of the wise elder, a reversal of the Morse/Lewis dynamic. How is your partnership with Laurence different than with John?
Laurence isn't nearly as respectful of me as I was of John. In fact, quite the opposite! He's a completely different character. He's a live wire, Laurence: very, very intelligent and he can keep a whole unit bubbling along. He's very good at keeping a running gag going, a different one with every single member of the crew. He keeps everything sparky, which is very useful. But, yeah, he has no respect for me whatever.
What are you doing this summer, now that you finally have some time off?
Mostly whacking golf balls into bushes. I'm the captain of the Variety Club over in England, and so I'm playing golf for them once a week but doing odd bits. I've done a stage show up in Newcastle and the odd day of filming, dramatized documentaries. But I'm not doing any drama filming at all. I'm not going to.
If this does end up marking the end of Lewis, what do you hope that fans take away from this character's journey these past 26 years?
People talk about it to me a lot. You suddenly realize that you have been a part of their lives for 26 years in the corner of their sitting rooms and it's quite touching how much it means to people, how much they've enjoyed your work. You're very aware in the theater by the response you get, but not so much on television, obviously. People are very appreciative, and I'm always thrilled at how long the Morse films have lasted. They seem to have an afterlife that goes on and on for decades, which is touching.