Old School Ties was the first episode of Inspector Lewis I ever watched, having somehow overlooked both the pilot and the first regular season episode. I’m not sure how this episode, in which they’re still building the tone of the series, led me to annual binges of this show, because I don’t remember it having made much of an impression on me. I’ve rewatched it just now with a more critical eye and found a few things to analyze. As always, due to being set in Oxford, the plot is sprinkled with literary references.
Like Inspector Lewis, I thought the key to this mystery was a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but it turns out that it’s an offhand remark about the Greek dramatist Aeschylus that probably gives us our biggest clue. I think Aeschylus was best known for Agamemnon (and I think I read that play in college) but I think the secret here is in the sequel to Agamemnon, Orestes. Orestes takes revenge for the killing of his father, and that’s also why the big murder happens here. But first we have to get through a lot of side trips, including a visit with someone who is on hand once again to remind us of Morse.
At the beginning of the episode, Lewis is given the bad news from his boss, Innocent, that he has to provide security to a visiting hacker, turned bestselling author, who has been receiving death threats. The hacker/hack author, Nicky Turnbull, was invited to Oxford by a couple of woman students who are notorious for trying to use scandals to get ahead in the prestigious world of British journalism. But first one of the students turns up dead, alone in a hotel room that was rented under Lewis’s name, and then Nicky Turnbull is picked off by a sniper from the roof of the hotel while talking with Lewis.
When Turnbull’s wife Diane comes to Oxford to identify the body, she is revealed to be a woman Lewis dated briefly when they were teenagers in the north of England. That would make you think that the title referred to ties as in connections Lewis had from school. But the truth is that the word “ties” is probably more of a reference to the striped necktie as part of the uniform worn by those at posher schools than Lewis and Diane would have attended. And therefore to the students and alumni of such schools.
The murdered student, Jo, was in the process of trying to ruin a professor for supposed exam fixing, I think. While Lewis and Hathaway are interviewing that professor, he mentions Aeschylus, which prompted me to look in summaries of his plays for the right reference. I never read Orestes, only Agamemnon, but it seems to fit. Both plays do have a theme of revenge.
I had misremembered before rewatching that the key would be in Julius Caesar, because there is a scene that stands out in my mind in which Lewis visits the prison where Nicky was held and where Nicky and Diane met. Diane was there teaching the inmates as a form of drama therapy, hence the prison production of Julius Caesar that sends Lewis looking for associates of Nicky’s from prison (which leads to a red herring of a criminal who is “sorry to hear about Morse”). But now I realize that the only reason I liked the prison scene so well is that the helpful warden is played by Cathy Tyson, who I remember from 80s movies such as Mona Lisa and Serpent and the Rainbow. And if you don’t want this episode spoiled, stop right here.
However, now that I’m still writing this article two hours later, I think it’s possible that Julius Caesar was important for a couple of reasons. I remember my high school teacher going on and on about “honorable men” when we read that play. But I think the repetition of the word “honorable” was supposed to be ironic. When Lewis finally does catch the killer, who is a punchably-faced piece of work, Lewis tells him what a piece of crap he is because he’s willing to hurt Jo, a woman. Lewis compares the killer unfavorably to the red herring criminal who knew Morse, because that guy was asked to teach Jo a lesson for her yellow investigative journalism, but refused because he would not beat up a woman. The true killer was not only willing to kill one woman, he was also willing to use another woman as an accomplice to his crimes. And just as Julius Caesar was killed by his friends, the killer in this episode was a friend of Jo’s. Also, the killer was supposed to be a sports hero and of course he is an Oxford student, which would gift him with the quality of “honorable” in the universe of this show, except that he’s really just a thug.
Attitudes towards technology figure heavily into this episode due to it being about hacking. But remember: yeah, you can steal money with a computer, but you can brag about it in a good old fashioned book, and someone can still also strangle someone with their bare hands. And although the professor of Greek drama complains about students using technology, it’s an iPod (the height of tech at the time of this episode) that represents Lewis and Hathaway’s growing relationship as the episode concludes, with Lewis and Hathaway sharing an iPod and a pair of earbuds to listen to Hathaway’s recording of himself playing in a band.
P.S. Now that I think of it, Hathaway was embarrassed to tell Lewis back at the beginning of the episode that he was even in a band, but ends up witnessing an obviously fake attempt on Nicky Turnbull’s life while walking home from his band’s performance, and that leads the detectives eventually to focus on the right killer. A killer who, spoiler, earlier taunted Hathaway about having been a musician back in high school.
P.P.S. The professor who may or may not have been fixing exams (which was also a major plot point in the second episode of Morse BTW) was called Sam in the tabloids because of the character of Sam in the Pickwick Papers, we are told. Sam was a Cockney but was the smartest person in the story. In this story, the smartest people are Lewis himself, not a Cockney but a Geordie and therefore looked down upon by snobs, and probably the guy who pretended to try to kill Nicky. That guy was an ex-con who got an English degree on the Open University while in prison appearing in Julius Caesar, which is a plot point that would get right up the nose of his betters at Oxford.