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‘Masterpiece Mystery’ series ‘Inspector Lewis’ returns Sunday

Kevin Whately returns for a new season of the British series "Inspector Lewis" Sunday on "Masterpiece Mystery."
(ITV / Granada International)

The popular British mystery series “Inspector Lewis” begins its sixth season Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery.” Set in the quaint university town of Oxford, the series stars Kevin Whately as the down-to-earth detective Robbie Lewis and Lawrence Fox as his cerebral young partner Hathaway.

Guest stars this year including Fox’s uncle, Edward Fox, and former “Dr. Who” Peter Davison.

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Whately, 62, has been playing Lewis most of his adult life. In 1986, he began filming the acclaimed series “Inspector Morse,” based on the Colin Dexter novels. The late John Thaw starred as Morse, the brilliant, Oxford-educated classical musical lover and longtime bachelor. Lewis, who was a working-class family man, was Watson to Morse’s Sherlock Holmes.

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“Inspector Morse” ended in 2000 and Thaw died two years later. “Inspector Lewis” began on “Masterpiece Mystery” in 2007.

A new series, “Endeavor,” which explores Morse’s early career, begins its second season on “Masterpiece Mystery” on July 1.

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The affable Whately recently chatted about his life as Lewis over the phone from London.

Q: So the last episode intimates that this is the swan song for “Inspector Lewis.” Say it isn’t so!

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A: It isn’t really -- we are just trying to bring people in slowly to the idea that I don’t want to be doing it forever. I don’t think Lawrence does either. The idea is that we would have this year off. We said we will probably be doing two [shows] next spring. That is all being sorted out, but we are not saying it’s the end.

Q: You have been playing Lewis on and off since 1986. Not that many actors get to inhabit a character for nearly three decades. So have you become Lewis or has Lewis become more like you over the years?

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A: At first, he was a sounding board for Morse. Morse was like a Sherlock Holmes to my Watson. I pulled him very near to me from the get-go, so it’s like playing myself. I am not sure where he ends and I begin, but we are both getting a bit gray around the edges. I love playing him.

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Q: Do you shoot every episode in Oxford?

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A: We shoot probably seven or eight days per film in Oxford and a good two-thirds in and around London.

Q: Does the university let you film anywhere on campus?

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A: They are fabulous. They allow us places the public never goes -- fellows common rooms, libraries that are not public at all. All of the colleges have different traditions and secrets that go back forever.

Q: You worked for 14 years with John Thaw, who had problems with alcohol. Was it difficult working with him?

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A: He loved to drink. He was of the generation of actors who did all drink -- the generation just ahead of me. I think since his death, it has been slightly exaggerated, all the alcohol. He was a shy man who loved working. We always shared a caravan and if he had been as big a drinker as they make out now, he wouldn’t have been able to sort out that workload. I thought he was a wonderful and great actor.

Q: You and Thaw had such great chemistry together and the same is true with you and Fox.

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A: I seem to have gotten the credit over here for casting Lawrence. I actually wanted a Muslim female sidekick. I thought that would be interesting to explore. The producers said no. When I got the script for the pilot I was trying to think of young English actors who would fit. I happened to spot Lawrence in a film about prisoners escaping from the prisoner-of-war camp Colditz. I literally caught the last two minutes when he went mad and allowed himself to be shot by the guards. I thought he had an interesting face and the producer knew who he was. They interviewed five or six lads and he got the part.

Q: “Inspector Morse” aired for over a decade, “Lewis” is in its sixth season and the second season of “Endeavor,” which follows Morse as a young inspector is starting on “Masterpiece Mystery” next month. Why do you think these characters have resonated with audiences over the decades?

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A: If I could put my finger on it, I would be a zillionaire. It is a mixture of everything -- luck with the casting. I think Oxford has a huge amount to do with it. It looks just so quaint.

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