A cop show for grownups
Foyle’s War has returned to PBS in the Sunday night “Masterpiece Mystery” slot. This is welcome news for fans of intelligent drama.
For the uninitiated, Foyle is Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle of the Hastings, England constabulary. He’s played by Michael Kitchen, now 61, a well-respected actor before Foyle, who reaches the peak of his considerable powers in these finely-crafted stories of Britain in its fight for survival between 1940 and 1945.
While Britain and the allies fight Nazism abroad (and at home), Foyle, a World War I veteran, fights crime in Hastings. But it’s a different Hastings, a different Britain. The war, almost a character in the series, involves everyone, transforms their lives, and is never far from anyone’s thoughts.
The juxtaposing of the big-picture of the war of all wars against the small picture of crime in Hastings, and the interesting way the two intersect and force unique moral questions and challenges on Foyle and his team, makes Foyle’s War far more than just another cop show, more than just a period piece.
In 22 episodes, Foyle, with the help of the series’ other two central characters, Sgt. Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) and Foyle’s driver, Samantha “Sam” Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks — and I’m not making that name up), must, over and above rationing and bombing raids, deal with thievery, profiteers, traitors, black marketers, and of course, the staple of all crime shows, murder. Various of these villains, some of them highly placed, attempt to use the war effort and their own importance to it as an excuse for their common criminality. Foyle, with an admirable moral compass, will have none of this, even when his superiors put pressure on him to go along and get along.
The reserved Foyle, a fine example of England’s long-lost stiff upper lip, is no Javert. He has perspective. With him, justice and tolerance are two sides of the same coin. But he’s intelligent, observant, and relentless in his own way. If I were a bad guy I would not want DCS Foyle on my trail.
Foyle also does not have the soul or the testosterone deficiency of a bureaucrat. I would not want to be a high-ranking government official with a dodgy agenda who tries to bully Foyle into playing a part in his scam. In most episodes there’s the scene where Foyle economically eviscerates a high-ranking, establishment stooge without raising his voice. These scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
Compared to so many overwrought American cop shows, Foyle’s War is quiet, intelligent, and serious. The series is not edgy. (Edgy gives me a rash.) There’s no quick-cut or artsy cinematography, no car chases ending in flames, no gruesome corpses lingered over in close-up, no loud rock sound track (the theme music is a haunting clarinet melody), and no CSI gimmickry in the low-tech England of the forties. No my-gun-is-bigger-than-yours swaggering. In fact, Foyle and his colleagues don’t even pack. But they get the bad guys anyway. On Foyle’s team, Andy Sipowicz (to borrow a line from Raymond Chandler) would stick out like a tarantula on an angel food cake pan.
The good news for conservatives is that Foyle’s portrays an England where traditional values, patriotism, personal responsibility, and respect for the law are still the norm, even reinforced by the exigencies of war. Multiculturalism, shame in all things British, the nanny-state, bands of marauding yobs, and crime rates through the roof are decades off. The heroic efforts and sacrifices Brits made in the war are always respected and honored, though the war itself is never glorified. The me-generation hasn’t been born yet. (Where’s birth control information when we need it?)
Other strengths of the series are its historical accuracy, fine acting by all hands, and riveting scripts. It’s also beautifully filmed. Series creator and writer Anthony Horowitz takes no poetic license with the events of World War II, and uses many of them to base his episodes around.
Many period pieces get the costumes, the vehicles, the appliances, and many of the mannerisms right, but miss the period sensibility altogether, usually in favor of contemporary concerns and ways. Foyle’s War gets the physical stuff right, at great expense by the way, which partly accounts for the show’s hiatus from 2007 to last Sunday. But it also nails the mood and manners of 1940s England.
The central characters of Foyle’s War — Foyle, Milner, and Stewart — are complex and sympathetic. Milner, invalided out of the armed forces because of a injury sustained at Trondheim, must deal with losing a wife who can’t deal with life with an amputee. Sam, the loyal, enthusiastic, and sometimes head-strong tom-boy of a driver, explores the less sappy dimensions of the adjective adorable. (After the series aired, Weeks got fan mail from 80-something vets who had fallen in love with Sam.)
But the center of the series is Foyle. Through this character, Kitchen demonstrates what conservatives have known all along, that stoic doesn’t have to mean stick-in-the mud. Though he’s a man of few words (Horowitz said Kitchen was the only actor he’s worked with who asked for fewer lines), he’s clearly a man with heart. The widower Foyle, very much alone, clearly misses his wife, worries about his son Andrew the Spitfire pilot, and comes to develop a fatherly love for Sam without wearing any of this on his sleeve, as is thought to be required nowadays.
A note on sex: there is no attempt in Foyle’s to suggest that sex doesn’t exist, and there’s an understated romance between Sam and Andrew. But as the stories take place in a time when sex was considered a private business for behind closed doors, it’s not in the forefront. There’s no heavy breathing, little in fact that you would be concerned for your sheltered Aunt Eunice to see.
The Foyle’s War episodes are self-contained enough to be watched alone. But the maximum pleasure would be from watching them in order from the beginning. With this approach, in addition to the fine stories and acting, viewers will get to see the relationships between Foyle and Milner and Stewart develop. And see the war as it proceeded through the eyes of the people of Hastings.
There are plenty of places where the series is available. Many libraries carry it, and there’s always Netflix and the like. Go ahead, treat yourself. You’ve been good lately, right? And there just aren’t that many opportunities to see excellent drama based on a conservative world treated respectfully.
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