John Thaw’s Morse co-star Kevin Whately has paid a huge tribute to the gruff actor, calling him the ‘best TV actor’ Britain’s ever had.

Whately is soon to return on ITV1 in three episodes of Lewis, who was the good cop to Morse’s miserable detective in the original series.

“John carried the weight of Morse and drove it along, so Lewis has a very different dynamic and there’s rather more responsibility on me,” Kevin says of the spin-off.

“Morse was a fascinating character whereas Lewis was a sounding board, an Everyman, and initially I thought it would be quite difficult to make a character like that interesting enough to carry primetime telly.

“In the end I was mostly persuaded by my wife, who said I’d have to drive it, and that it would be a different job to Morse – and that’s what it feels like,” says Whately.

The popular Geordie actor, who has also starred in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The English Patient, eulogised Thaw, who died from cancer in 2002. “I’m not just doing myself down for the sake of it, but there was a quality that John Thaw had in his voice, an attack, which I’ve never, never got, so you just have to find a different way of driving it along.

“He just had this extra gear that was really impressive. Nobody ever mentions it because he was such a fine actor and the voice was all part of it, but it was really important for Morse – he could steam into somebody and reduce them to wreckage with one sentence.”