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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 21:28 GMT
John Thaw: Forever Morse
John Thaw: Britain's favourite television actor
John Thaw: Disliked the glare of publicity
Whether gunning for criminals in The Sweeney or patronising his loyal sergeant as the eponymous Morse, John Thaw was one of the most familiar and well-loved actors of the British small screen.

Thaw was certainly a beneficiary of the nation's long love affair with romanticised television policemen. But with his world-weary integrity and barely concealed sensitivity, he became a favourite with audiences, whatever role he took.

During the 13 years he played Inspector Morse, viewers warmed to the cognitive curmudgeon with his love of classical music, his vintage Jaguar and spates of melancholy.

As Inspector Morse with co-star Kevin Whately
As Inspector Morse with co-star Kevin Whately

Thaw always confessed to similarities between himself and his best-known character, although Morse benefited from a university education.

Thaw's Manchester upbringing was not so privileged. In what he always called "the awfulness", his mother left home when he was seven and his father, a long distance lorry driver, left young John and his brother to fend for themselves much of the time.

His uncle drove 16-year-old Thaw to his Rada audition in a van, where the young actor lied about his age to get in.

Once at Rada, Thaw excelled, making friends with other such budding thespians as Tom Courtenay and later graduating with honours.

But he consistently felt like a working-class outsider, with a self-confessed "inferiority complex" that no amount of success would ever completely dispel.

Thus classically trained, Thaw made many successful forays into theatre where he was heralded as a new talent and befriended by Laurence Olivier.

John Thaw in The Sweeney
He was the rough-and-ready DI Regan in The Sweeney

But the large fees and huge audiences of the small screen soon lured him.

After an initial role in Z Cars and Redcap, it was as The Sweeney's belligerent Detective Inspector, Jack Regan, that Thaw fully entered the public consciousness.

His leather jackets and screeching tyres would form a prototype for many a worldly TV detective.

But it was really Morse which sealed John Thaw's place in that part of the nation's heart reserved for television heroes.

In the 13 years of playing the irascible Inspector, Thaw displayed all the depths of empathy and troubled morality lurking behind Morse's tough exterior.


With his minimalist technique, he was able to convey hidden depths to the character, and, in the process, became the thinking woman's television crumpet.

When Morse author Colin Dexter finally killed off his popular creation in November 2000, 13 million people watched his television demise.

John Thaw with his wife, the actress Sheila Hancock
With his wife, the actress Sheila Hancock

In contrast to his deprived childhood, John Thaw found security, both emotional and financial, in adulthood.

He was married for the second time to actress Sheila Hancock in 1973, and their three daughters are all actresses.

The secret of his happy marriage, he said, was "being able to see the silly side when it was all in danger of getting a bit too serious".

The spoils of a lucrative contract to play Morse and other characters for Carlton TV subsidised Thaw's own passions for fine houses and wines.

The role of the Inspector also brought the actor two British Academy awards, as well as a Bafta Fellowship in May 2000.

His bankability withstood such hiccups as A Year in Provence, and the roles of Kavanagh QC and The Plastic Man further cemented his position as the leading player in British television drama.

Kavanagh QC brought Thaw back to the familiar territory of a law-upholding figure, this time reconciling working-class roots and a highly-paid profession.

John Thaw
John Thaw: "Just a chippie"

Off screen, he remained, too, a committed socialist, but was unrepentant about his high earning, claiming "I only get the rate for the job, just like a chippie."

Thaw never forgot the poverty and isolation of his childhood, and this was perhaps the key to his success. He said that acting was just "a way of making money, the way others make it from football".

But behind this pragmatic exterior, John Thaw dared to show a vulnerability, fragility and sense of all that had gone before. He was a master of bruised optimism.


Picture gallery John Thaw's career
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