Foyle’s War hits three things I enjoy: detective stories set in the English countryside, World War II, and spies. The series is a guilty pleasure, though. Guilty because while generally good, it’s no Endeavour. Foyle’s War is slow-paced, fairly predictable, and the cast not known for their dynamism.
I watched all of it not too long ago. I’d seen all the WWII stories before – some of the stories more than once – but had not seen the Cold War ones before. In fact, they’d somehow passed me by. I only watched them because they were part of a box set I’d picked up on special, and I’m really pleased I did because I hugely enjoyed them. They had a spark missing from the WWII ones. Actually, thinking about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising given Foyle’s desire from the outset to work for the spooks rather than the plod. It’s a tension always there, but underplayed.
Michael Kitchen underplays Foyle, which is a style that doesn’t engage immediately. It’s tempting to think of the show as sleepy. As full of the English stereotypes of reservation. But, clearly Foyle is an introvert. Clear in an unshowy way. Difficult to pull off, and in unskilled hands would be terrible. Kitchen nails it, and when you know what to watch for it makes the show better than first expected.
I have always liked Honeysuckle Weeks as awkward Sam, the driver. The character is a fascinating one. She’s a young woman born into the cosy inter-war years and village vicarage. I imagine a girl who would have been stifled by that, but yet make do. Because you just did. Instead, the war came with opportunities she takes with a chaotic enthusiasm. Duty is her by-word, but there’s something else there. Bubbling under the surface of conformity is an unstructured intelligence. I wonder what she would have been with a mentor able to challenge the chaos. To channel it. Her role as a London Labour politician’s wife and MI5 employee in the last few stories capture all that. The problem is forgetting her husband was in the Special Operations Executive (SOE)…
That is the thing that irks about the series. Big things like the relationships that vanish without trace when they should be mentioned. Sam’s relationship with Foyle’s pilot son Andrew is beautifully done, and then ditched unconvincingly. A shame.
The other character who I didn’t think quite worked was DS Milner, and he started off as a promising idea. An injured soldier from the start of the conflict forced into a job he doesn’t enjoy and back into a marriage with a wife who rejected him. I think the actor couldn’t quite carry it off, but also it’s a difficult storyline to maintain as a secondary tale.
I took great pleasure in the little chats between Anthony Horowitz, the show’s main writer and creator, and historian Terry Charman from the Imperial War Museum after many of the later stories and included in the DVD box set. I really enjoy learning more about SOE, Bletchley Park, and the general flow of WWII in Europe.
The series didn’t baulk from difficult moral quandaries of class, race, gender, even queerness. Also the politics of the time. In the Cold War stories Communism features – both foreign fights and local socialist fights. As does extreme right wing politics. That latter even more pronounced during the WWII years with a stand out episode featuring Charles Dance as a thinly disguised Mosely.
Of course there are a few thinly disguised historical figures brought to the series. My favourite is Hilda Pierce, heavily modelled on the amazing Vera Atkins. She is in the WWII stories as a wonderful foil to Foyle, who comes into her own in the post-war years. It’s a lovely treatment of some interesting questions, paramount of which is the debate about women in distinctly grubby and dangerous war work. Yes, the real failures of SOE are explored, very much with an eye on the human impact. Those co-opted volunteers had families who mostly had no idea what their family members were up to.
One of the delights of the series was how it was able to incorporate newly discovered facts in its fictional world. Its attention to detail lovely, with only a very few errors. The most glaring of which was the cinema in a coastal town lit up at night while the blackout was still very much in force.
Foyle’s War is a cosy crime drama when all is said and done, but the added WWII and Cold War skulduggery and moral ambiguities lift it.