“The idea of appearing in Morse without Dad brought tears to my eyes”: John Thaw”s daughter gives emotional first interview
Memories: Abigail Thaw said appearing in Morse without her father brought tears to her eyes
The film, lighting and sound crews pack into one end of a run-down barn. The other has been transformed into a newspaper office with a chaotic jumble of desks, typewriters and towering stacks of paper.
The cameras roll: the paper’s editor becomes increasingly irritated by the questions fired at her by a young detective on the hunt for a missing schoolgirl.
The harassed editor barely looks up from her desk until she asks him to repeat his name. Pausing momentarily, she says: ‘Have we met’ When he says no and walks slowly to the door, she adds wistfully: ‘Another life then.’
As the director shouts ‘cut’, all eyes turn to actress Abigail Thaw. She,like everyone else on set, remains eerily silent, the poignancy of the scene that’s just been played out is unmistakable.
This being rural Oxfordshire, there are no prizes for guessing that the policeman played by 31-year-old Shaun Evans is a young detective constable called Endeavour Morse. But it is the newspaper editor played by Abigail who holds centre stage.
Her father, John Thaw, immortalised the cantankerous detective with a taste for real ale, cryptic crosswords and classical music. His death from throat cancer in February 2002 left her so devastated she left acting to try to cope with her grief. There have been occasional TV parts since but it is this tiny role, nearly a decade after her father’s death, that has reignited the passion for the profession that she shared with her charismatic father.
It is an irony, she admits, that her father would rather have enjoyed.
The original Inspector Morse series ended in 2000 after 13 years and 33 episodes, and more than 18 million viewers tuned in to see the detective’s last moments in The Remorseful Day. But in January, ITV will screen a special two-hour prequel, with the title Endeavour, to mark the 25th anniversary of the first episode.
Abigail, 45, admits she was taken aback when she first heard about the new drama. ‘I was sceptical about how they could bring back Morse without my dad,’ she said. ‘Even though it’s nine years since he died, it seemed too soon. Yet at the same time a bit of me was curious about how they would do it.
‘Then, my agent called and said I’d been offered a cameo role.
‘Seeing the script for the first time brought tears to my eyes. Morse was so much a part of my father’s life, it was special to him.
‘Of course they’ve shoe-horned me in for a specific purpose – my surname. But you know what I think it would put a smile on my dad’s face.
“It feels like a very nice connection and I think my dad would have found it rather fun.’
Happy days: Abigail plays in the garden with her father in 1973
Abigail is Thaw’s daughter from his first marriage to feminist professor of modern history Sally Alexander, who famously flour-bombed the 1970 Miss World contestants at the Albert Hall in London. The couple divorced acrimoniously in 1968 after four years of marriage and Thaw went on to marry actress Sheila Hancock in 1971. They have a daughter Joanna, now 37. He also adopted Sheila’s daughter from her first marriage, Melanie, who is now 47. All three daughters are actresses.
It is clear that the cameo role in Endeavour is important to Abigail. ‘I was really nervous walking on to the set,’ she says. ‘Not only did I feel I had to live up to my father’s name, but I’d basically got the part because we shared the same surname and I didn’t want anyone thinking I was just swanning in. I had this nightmare that people were saying, “Who does she think she is” behind my back.
‘But so many people came up to chat to me because they’d worked with my father. I realise how many people thought he was a great man and I’m incredibly proud of my connection. It’s only a small role but I had a wonderful time and everything about it felt right.
‘When I was younger, directors would often suggest that Dad and I work together. But I think I let pride get in my way. I wanted to stand on my own two feet. I even considered changing my surname when I went to RADA because my dad had gone there too.
‘But I eventually figured the world was big enough to have more than one Thaw.
Famous footsteps: Shaun Evans, left, is stepping in to John Thaw”s shoes to play the younger version of Colin Dexter”s iconic character, Morse
‘You have to be incredibly thick-skinned in this business – rejection is a horrible thing, which is why so many people probably do trade on the family name and work with other members of their family. I totally understand it.
‘But Dad was never the sort who’d pick up the phone and have a word with someone for me, not least because he knew I’d have found it insulting.’
Abigail was brought up in Pimlico, London, by her mother and her then partner, historian Gareth Stedman Jones. She went to Pimlico Comprehensive and would often join her mother on feminist marches.
Thaw was also an integral part of her childhood. Abigail says: ‘He was always there for every important part of my life and was not only hugely supportive but enormously protective as well. He never criticised, he’d just smile and say, “Well done kid.”
“When I was little, before he married Sheila, I remember him taking me to see a production of Gone With The Wind. I was captivated by it and probably got the acting bug from that day.
‘Everyone thinks they knew my dad because he was so familiar to them from his TV roles, but my most treasured memories of him are as a stage actor. He was a great comic and started my love of Shakespeare.
‘But he was disappointed when I told him I wanted to become an actress because he hoped I’d pursue my ambition to become a violinist. Dad was very musical.
Togetherness: Abigail, centre, with Sheila Hancock and Melanie, left, and Joanna, right, at John Thaw”s memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, in Trafalgar Square, London
‘I know he worried that I’d get hurt by the rejection that is an inevitable part of acting. But he’d worked incredibly hard for his success and I wanted to be able to do the same.’
She adds: ‘I know exactly when Dad came round to my decision to be an actress. I’d gone to Italy for a year after leaving school and had a car crash and broke my nose. My dad called me and told me that if I was going to be an actress, I’d better get home and get someone to have a look at it.
“My only regret, looking back, is that having inherited a great big nose from him, I didn’t have plastic surgery to change it.’
Despite Thaw’s marriage to Sheila and the fact he had a second family, Abigail says she always remained close to her father.
She adds: ‘Dad never made me feel left out. Wherever I was performing, he’d come and see me. He could never be remotely objective, though.
‘I remember having dinner with him one evening after I’d been appearing in a play and a man came up to me and told me I wasn’t as good in it as I’d been the last time he’d seen me perform. I just laughed it off but my father was so angry on my behalf and couldn’t believe anyone had been so rude.
“He never criticised my work, whereas if my mum didn’t think I was any good she’d tell me straight out.
‘It’s ironic that I’m finally appearing in Morse now my father is dead,’ Abigail laughs. ‘I actually auditioned to play a baddie when I was about 30. I didn’t get the part. I never told my father anything about it. At the time, I imagined we’d have plenty of time to get round to acting together. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.’
Star couple: John Thaw and wife Sheila Hancock at the BAFTA awards
Though she is on good terms with her half- and stepsisters and her father’s second wife, Abigail admits she was shocked and embarrassed when Sheila wrote an uncompromisingly honest book about her marriage, in which she detailed Thaw’s severe depressive moods and the alcoholism which she says blighted their family life.
In the book, The Two Of Us, she told how Thaw could be viciously cruel both to her and his daughters.
When the book came out, Abigail said that her memories differed from Sheila’s.
‘I may have blocked out all sorts of horrendous things but my memories as a child are all lovely,’ she says. ‘Don’t get me wrong, she wrote what she needed to write, but I have many memories which I want to keep private.
‘In our business, with Dad’s generation of men, drinking was a social thing that got out of hand.’
While Sheila’s candour may have jarred in the aftermath of her grief, Abigail says she and her step-family are incredibly close and enjoy family get-togethers – a situation that would have pleased her father, who adored his children and grandchildren.
Thaw, who had been a heavy smoker since the age of 12, was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June 2001 and died seven weeks after his 60th birthday on February 21, 2002.
His death had a devastating impact on all the family, but for Abigail the grief was compounded by the fact that a few months earlier she had suffered a miscarriage.
‘You have to be incredibly thick-skinned in this business – rejection is a horrible thing, which iswhy so many people probably do trade on the family name and work with other members of their family.
“I totally understand it.
‘ButDad was never the sort who’d pick up the phone and have a word with someone for me, not least because he knew I’d have found it insulting’
The actress, who lives in Muswell Hill, North London, with her partner of 23 years, actor Nigel Whitmey, says: ‘I was in Cymbeline at the Globe Theatre when Dad became very ill. I remember having to sing Fear No More The Heat Of The Sun, the great funeral speech, while holding another actress in my arms. I couldn’t get through it, I was in tears. It was the only play he never saw me in.
‘Towards the end, I would spend my time telling him silly stories, trying to make him laugh because he was terribly ill.’
After her father’s death, Abigail was offered the chance to work in America. ‘My career was at the point where it was really beginning to take off,’ she recalls. ‘I thought throwing myself into work would be a good thing.
‘But whether it was a mix of exhaustion and fear, I knew I couldn’t go on. I wanted to take stock and think about having another child. Months later I was pregnant with Talia.
‘The overwhelming sense I had in the days after Dad died was that it was a shared grief. It felt as if the nation was mourning with us, but it was a double-edged sword.
‘Travelling on the bus four days after his funeral, I saw a woman reading a piece about Dad and his cancer. It was very presumptive and slightly blaming because he was a smoker. I was very indignant.’
Abigail felt her father’s loss so keenly that she even took to wearing his clothes. She admits: ‘I had a couple of pairs of his socks that I wore all the time and would think of him.’
Having given up her career, Abigail tried her hand at writing, and composed a poem for her father’s 60th birthday, which she read at his funeral. But after Talia’s birth in 2003, she decided to return to acting – because, she admits, she was trained for nothing else.
Now Abigail is determined to make sure her daughters – Molly-Mae, 13, and Talia, eight – know all about the talents and achievements that make her so proud of her father.
‘They both know who John Thaw is and I am collecting all the work he has ever done on DVD. It’s important that they know their roots,’ says Abigail.
Endeavour, set in the Oxford of 1965, will join the family archive. It explores the forces that created Morse – and TV executives are hoping that the new Morse will be a hit and evolve into a series to rival the original.
Abigail says: ‘I think it must be very tough for Shaun to be playing a young Morse – he certainly has big shoes to fill.
‘But because it centres on Morse’s early career, it does feel like a completely different show. I hope people like it and that it does have a life beyond this one film.
‘Everyone, including my stepmum and sisters, watched the last Morse together and I’m certain we will be together again to watch this.’
:: Endeavour will be broadcast on January 2 at 8.30pm on ITV.