Roger Allam revisits all his yesterdays in Inspector Morse prequel

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Roger Allam has looked into the heart of darkness many times during his 46-year career. The actor has played every villain from Adolf Hitler and Javert — nemesis of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables – to that arch-scoundrel Robert Maxwell in the forthcoming film Tetris.

The consummate chameleon, he has also played a vicious, fork-tongued politician alongside Peter Capaldi’s foul-mouthed spin doctor in The Thick Of It and earned a whole new female following for his womanising author in the film of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel Tamara Drewe.

Like John Thaw and Alan Rickman before him, Allam has become the discerning woman’s crush with that youthful mane of hair and a distinctive silky baritone that makes him recognisable even under a ton of make-up. Like Thaw and Rickman, he also seems uncomfortable with adulation and sets out to live as normal a life as possible. You won’t get flouncy stardom from him.

But it’s the essential decency of the battle-hardened, trilby-wearing Detective Chief Inspector Fred Thursday in ITV’s Endeavour that has finally made Allam, now 67, a household name, and which seems to resonate with him most of all. Actors can relish playing detectives, those hawk-like observers of human nature as thespians themselves have to be. Allam sees Thursday, the seen-it-all-before mentor to the young Endeavour Morse in this Inspector Morse prequel, as a homage to his parents’ hard-pressed, hard-working generation that had been through immense poverty and two world wars.

Roger Allam (right) as DCI Fred Thursday with Shaun Evans, who plays the eponymous Endeavour Morse in the ITV crime series.

Roger Allam (right) as DCI Fred Thursday with Shaun Evans, who plays the eponymous Endeavour Morse in the ITV crime series. Credit:ABC

The eighth and latest season of Endeavour begins 50 years ago in 1971 to a soundtrack of Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who, which ushers in a subversive new decade. At that time, Allam was in his last year at school: Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, which he has described as strange and odd and an “Eton for paupers”, where the pupils wore (and still wear) Tudor uniforms. Born in the East End of London, where his father was vicar of the Hawksmoor-designed church St Mary Woolnoth, Allam would play on bomb sites before becoming a scholarship boy at 10. His parents were “education obsessed”, seeing it as the way to better yourself.

There he enjoyed “a great tradition of music — I was in the choir — and remarkable facilities”, although the events of the world outside seeped through only in newspapers in the school library, with no television allowed. He first fell in love with theatre, he says, when he saw a Christ’s Hospital house production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. “The play seemed just like the school itself then: strange rules and always the potential for violence, so it made perfect sense to me,” he says. From 1970, he started going to see Laurence Olivier at London’s Old Vic in school holidays for 15p — “the price of a Tube ticket,” recalls Allam, who has won three Olivier Awards.

There were, he recalls, “good sides as well as bad sides to the school, like everywhere. And the atmosphere seemed to relax and change in the 1960s. “But if you didn’t address a senior boy as ‘sir’, they hit you — that was the punishment. I was terrified when one boy got hit on the head with a wooden boot brush by another. It was culturally allowed, if you like.

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“We used to get caned by the teachers as punishment; your housemaster could make you change into your pyjamas so that it hurt more.” Yet such corporal punishment was rife in many, if not most, boarding and day schools then, memorably captured in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If.