Three PBS staples attempt a risky comeback

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When Britain's ITV recently announced that it planned to resurrect three dormant series, "Sharpe," "Rumpole of the Bailey," and "Inspector Morse," there seemed to be some slight obstacles.

To reconvene "Sharpe" (1993 to 1997), the action drama set in Napoleonic times, the producers had to lure lead actor Sean Bean - now a big-screen star in films such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Troy" - back to the small screen.

But the other two series face a trickier hurdle: The principal actors of both "Rumpole" (which aired from 1978 to 1992) and "Morse" (1987 to 2000) are no longer alive. And in the case of Morse, the character also died in the final episode.

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ITV's solutions are, to say the least, risky. Albert Finney has been chosen to play Rumpole, the character indelibly embodied by the late Sir Leo McKern. "Morse," meanwhile, will shift the focus to the detective's sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, played by Kevin Whately.

One can rehire actors, and cast new ones, but it's hardly a guarantee that audiences will buy into TV series that are fundamentally different from the incarnations they knew and loved. If ITV's venture succeeds, it may set a precedent for the revival of other well-remembered characters in an age when original programming seems at a premium because of the risks and costs involved.

"We're making a two-hour film of each," says Nick Elliott, controller of ITV drama, on the phone from England. "Once we see how they are received, there could be more. It will be something like 'Prime Suspect' - one or maybe two every year or so."

The incentive to ITV to revisit these characters is clear. All three shows were extremely successful domestically and internationally. "Inspector Morse" was ultimately sold to 200 countries, making it one of British television's most widely seen exports; a documentary that accompanied release of the final episode in 2000 claimed that the show had been seen by 1 billion viewers worldwide.

In the US, the series became staples on public television. It's hardly surprising that PBS is receptive to airing the new shows.

"Albert Finney and John Mortimer - that's blue-chip," says Rebecca Eaton, a renowned producer from PBS flagship station WGBH, which has been a co-producer on many of the British series PBS has presented. "And, since 'Sharpe,' Sean Bean's star has risen."

Fans, too, seem eager for new installments of their shows. In an unscientific poll at www.morse mania.co.uk, a fan site of the detective series, 56 percent of respondents favored the idea of reviving "Morse" with Lewis.

Devotees of "Sharpe," the gallant British soldier, are also eager for fresh episodes. "The prospect of more 'Sharpe' films is the most exciting thing to happen to 'Sharpe' fans in a long, long time," says Christine Clarke of Nottingham, England, who is secretary to the 1,300-member Sharpe Appreciation Society. "It is important that they are setting the new film in 1817 [in India] so we can have the return of Sean Bean - no one else could take this role on and be believable."

If anyone could reconstitute Rumpole, the beloved barrister and disgruntled husband of "She Who Must Be Obeyed," it's Finney. With the embonpoint in his maturity that McKern made a necessary part of Rumpole's character, one can picture Finney ambling to court mumbling lines of Wordsworth to himself. The new episode will be based on three Mortimer short stories. "In one, he has been away, recovering from an illness, which could [explain] the new-look actor," Mr. Elliott says.

Audiences are used to the idea of replacing the actor who plays James Bond every few years, but there aren't too many precedents (outside daytime soaps) for role swapping on television. "Recasting a character is becoming rare in television, though Finney is clearly a good choice for Rumpole, and it is over 12 years since the series ended," says Don Truckey, a writer whose credits include Canadian TV's "Street Legal."

Ms. Eaton agrees. "In television, a 'generation' is 10 or 12 years; there will be a new audience who [doesn't] know Leo McKern's Rumpole."

The British, apparently, are more open to the idea than American television, where recasting Miss Ellie on "Dallas" was a spectacular failure. "Dr. Who," the iconic British sci-fi series, is about to return after a decade's absence with Christopher Eccleston becoming the ninth reincarnation of the title character. (It helps that the premise is that the Doctor is an extraterrestrial who occasionally undergoes appearance-altering regenerations.) ITV is presenting a new "Miss Marple" series this season, with Geraldine McEwan taking on the role played by the late Joan Hickson in the BBC version in the 1980s.

There's no thought of finding a new actor to play Chief Inspector Morse. The character was so much the preserve of John Thaw - and the series too recent for a remake - that producers are taking a different tack. "The project is known as 'After Morse,' " says Elliott. "It will focus on Lewis, who has probably been promoted now. It will take Lewis forward from where we last saw him."

Lewis was the more pedestrian, albeit the more likeable and grounded, of the original partnership. The relationship between the grouchy, opera-loving detective and his protegé, as well as the use of the detective's favorite music, gave the programs much of their texture.

Longtime Morse fan Ken Ross of Ottawa welcomes news of the Lewis project. "But he's going to need someone to bang up against; the tension between Morse and Lewis was the core of the series. Can they replace the chemistry?"

The central question is, will Morse's presence haunt Lewis? Will his voice be in his head? ("Think, Lewis, think...!") ITV could presumably introduce the device of voiceovers or flashback scenes but, says Mr. Ross, "Lewis will have to make it on his own."

Ross recalls a scene in an episode in which Morse was being set up for a murder, when, in shock after a fire at his apartment, trusting no one, he muttered, "Where's Lewis? I want Lewis!"

The producers must be hoping that fans everywhere will be saying the same thing.

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