Inspector Lewis: The Quality of Mercy on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Quality of Mercy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Masterpiece Mystery will air another encore episode of Inspector Lewis from season II, The Quality of Mercy on Sunday, August 15th. The new season begins on August 29th with Counter Culture Blues guest starring Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous), a great British comedian who has yet to disappoint. Her recent performance in Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was hilarious.

This week’s episode is immersed in Shakespearean literary references as a group of Oxford students produce The Merchant of Venice, containing some of the Bard’s most memorable lines:  “If you prick us do we not bleed”, “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see.”,  and “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath…”, which the story draws its title from. As with most Inspector Lewis scripts there is usually one major plot line and two minor ones interlaced. In this instance themes and characters in the play parallel real life involving DI Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whatley) and his partner DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) in a double murder motivated by ambition, deceit and revenge.

In the play, Jewish moneylender Shylock is famous for demanding a pound of flesh as collateral for a loan. Ironically, Richard Scott (Daniel Sharman) the talented young actor portraying him is the one borrowing from his fellow thespians to pay for his expensive life-style. When he is found backstage after the second act with a prop knife in his chest, none of the students seem upset or grieved by his death except Isabel Dawson (Abby Ford – Tipping the Velvet) who is portraying Portia in the play. A note found by the body quotes from Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

The overly ambitious director Emma Golding (Daisy Lewis) is determined that the show must go on. Important agents and reviewers will be in attendance and this play is her ticket out of Oxford and into professional theater. One of the group Philip Beaumont (Bryan Dick – Bleak House), an Oxford dropout looks upon his ensemble of friends and his former college with cynical contempt, while the handsome and egotistical Barham Rezvani (Tariq Jordan) who plays Antonio loathed Scott, but loaned him money never expecting repayment. His Iranian family’s wealth bought him access to Oxford and he uses the same attitude to make connections.

As Lewis and Hathaway begin interviewing the students they quickly learn that Scott not only owed money to the male cast members, he also slept  with many of the female cast. All of the students seem to be self-centered and on the make, stepping over each other to work the system and get ahead. Could this be a crime of jealousy, passion or revenge? As the investigation progresses, there appears to be many possible motives and suspects to consider in the cast and audience – namely, a suspicious out-of-town theater-goer Simon Monkford (Ronan Vibert – The Scarlet Pimpernel) who is eager to offer an alibi, two feuding Professors Denise Gregson (Maureen Beattie – Bramwell) and her ex-husband James Alderson (Nicholas Pritchard – Place of Execution), and Joe Myers (Geoff Breton- Diary of Anne Frank) a young man who may have killed his rival to take over his part.

Later, Lewis and Hathaway are called to a local luxury hotel where the assistant manager Graham Wilkinson (Shaughan Seymour – Wuthering Heights) reveals that they may have been victims of an insurance scam. A guest had left his luggage with the front desk to retrieve later and while he was away, a woman arrived to pick it up at his request. When he returned to claim it, he was furious to discover his luggage had been given to his non-existent wife, in-turn reporting it to the police. The man was the very same theatre-goer that Hathaway had interviewed that day, Simon Munkford. The coincidence interests Hathaway and he investigates the man’s past, discovering a long history as a con-man with a five-year gap while he lived in Canada. When Hathaway interviews his sister Christine Harper (Annabelle Dowler – The Six Wives of Henry VIII) she reveals that he left England after killing a woman in hit and run in London five years prior.

The next day a freelance journalist Amanda Castello (Shereen Martineau) arrives to review the play, but finds a much more intriguing story in the murder, reporting it to a national scandal rag. In an interview with Lewis she reveals that Scott was suspected in the theft of playwright Phil Beaumont’s laptop earlier that year. Lewis is suspicious of Scott’s motive. What was on the laptop that was worth stealing for, and what does Amanda gain by sharing this?  Shortly after, yet another death connected to the troupe turns the investigation into a double murder, coupled with Hathaway’s pursuit of Simon Munkford’s past life of crime reveals a shocking connection to his boss that he is hesitant to immediately reveal – sure that it will test the quality of mercy.

On first viewing, this multilayered story by Alan Plater is both intriguing and perplexing. The large cast did not make matters easy either. There was a lot of detail packed into ninety minutes that would have been better served as a two hour movie. The themes of ambition, money and mercy where nicely interwoven throughout the three plots, which I have omitted full descriptions of to avert spoilers. There is a twist at the end that Hathaway discovers that clever viewers will put together before it is revealed, but is none-the-less daunting for him to inform his boss of and in turn for Lewis to hear. It leads to a great scene between them involving trust, respect and a lot of yelling.

The guest casting was adequate, but not exemplary. Understandable in some respect because of the young cast members, but the more mature roles that should have been filed with a bit more of the “spurious glamour” that Hathaway jokes about to his boss in regard to his non-alcoholic tonic water would have kicked it up a notch. Director Bille Eltringham chose instead to make this an ensemble piece like the play that it was mirroring.  Happily, our cerebral Sergeant got to show off his Cambridge education by identifying  Shakespearean quotes from multiple plays from total recall. He was also given the best line in the script when on a late night phone call to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police  he was questioned if they (the police force) ever slept? “No we never sleep. We always get our man, or except when it’s a woman, or an occasional transsexual.” If you missed the inside joke, watch the episode Life Born of Fire.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE