Fair Warning: Watch One 'Foyle's War' Episode, And You'll Want To Watch Them All

Feb 24, 2015
Originally published on February 24, 2015 2:41 pm

The satisfying thing about TV crime shows is that they offer a sense of closure. The unsatisfying thing is how much of life they must leave out to do it. Like, history. Whether you're talking CSI or Sherlock, crime shows tend to take place in a weirdly hermetic universe where the characters may change — like in True Detective — yet the historical moment in which they live remains largely irrelevant background.

One exception is Foyle's War, a terrifically entertaining British series about a masterful policeman, detective chief superintendent Christopher Foyle, that's set during and shortly after World War II. The eighth and final season just ended in the UK and is now available — on disk and via streaming — from Acorn TV, where you can also see the preceding 25 episodes. I should warn you. If you start at the beginning, you'll probably find yourself watching them all.

Michael Kitchen stars as Foyle, a widowed police superintendent in the small coastal city of Hastings. Foyle spends the show's first six seasons tackling crimes connected to the war — murder and spying, black markets and profiteering. His ongoing sidekick through these adventures is his enthusiastic driver, Samantha Stewart — known as Sam — a vicar's daughter played by the sublimely named Honeysuckle Weeks.

As season eight begins, the war is over and Foyle and Sam are working in London for military intelligence, MI5. While he's still solving crimes, Foyle's post-war mysteries now involve problems of the Cold War era — the special treatment given to certain "useful" Nazi war criminals, the presence of Russian spies in British intelligence, the West's attempt to secure Iranian oil.

Foyle's War was created by Anthony Horowitz who knows how pop culture can examine uncomfortable truths. He uses Foyle's cases to poke holes in the romanticized mythology of Britain's heroic war effort. It's not that the show is cynical, but Horowitz shows how, even under mortal threat from the Nazis, not everybody was pulling together. Crooks keep doing crooked things and the class system keeps reinforcing inequality, be it the elite moving to their country houses to avoid the bombing in London or toffs talking down to Foyle, their superior in every important way, because he's their social inferior.

The same is true after the war, when Foyle keeps bumping up against the reality that the British government isn't very, well, moral. Although the show is no history lesson — its motor is always Foyle solving a crime — it presents us with thorny historical conundrums no detective could ever solve.

Now, a more ambitious version of Foyle's War would not only show us history unfolding but take us inside Foyle's psyche to see how he's changed by his experience of war and its aftermath. You know, the kind of thing Mad Men does with Don Draper. But sometimes too good is no good, and to deepen things in that way would cheat the series of its appeal: the pleasurable balance between historical reality and the classic crime story with its fantasy of the perfect detective.

Such fantasy is precisely what you get in the honest, fearless, reticent Foyle, a reassuringly stolid hero who embodies old-fashioned values but whose innate decency makes him the only one to oppose creating a segregated bar for black American GIs stationed in Hastings. Played with quietly barbed charisma by Kitchen, Foyle is clearly an idealized version of British manhood, from his tamped-down emotions to his bone-dry wryness to his innate loyalty and sense of honor. This is a man so square you could play checkers on him. And given the duplicitous world Foyle's War conjures up, I mean this as a compliment.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Perhaps even more than Americans, the British of a mania for mystery shows, from "Sherlock" and "Midsummer Murders" to all those of adventures of Hercule Poirot. One of the most acclaimed and popular series has been "Foyle's War," starring Michael Kitchen as a policeman in World War II Sussex. It began in 2002 and finished in January. The show runs 28 episodes in all, and most are available on disc or streaming through Netflix, Amazon and the British TV specialists at Acorn TV, the only place you can currently see the final season. Our critic-at-large John Powers is a big fan. He says the show offers something more than the usual tales of detection.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The satisfying thing about TV crime shows is that they offer a sense of closure. The unsatisfying thing is how much of life they must leave out to do it, like history. Whether you're talking "CSI" or "Sherlock," crime shows tend to take place in a weirdly hermetic universe where the characters may change, like in "True Detective." Yet, the historical moment with which they live remains largely irrelevant background.

One exception is "Foyle's War," a terrifically entertaining British series about a masterful policeman, Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, that's during and shortly after World War II. The eighth and final season just ended in the U.K. It is now available on disk and via streaming from Acorn Media, where you can also see the preceding 25 episodes. I should warn you - if you start at the beginning, you'll probably find yourself watching them all.

Michael Kitchen stars as Foyle, a widowed police superintendent in the small coastal city of Hastings. Foyle spends the show's first six seasons tackling crimes connected to the war - murder and spying, black markets and profiteering. His ongoing sidekick through these adventures is his enthusiastic driver, Samantha Stewart, known as Sam - a vicar's daughter played by the sublimely named Honeysuckle Weeks. As season 8 begins, the war is over, and Foyle and Sam are working in London for military intelligence - MI5.

While he's still solving crimes, Foyle's postwar mysteries now involve problems of the Cold War era - the special treatment given to certain useful Nazi war criminals, the presence of Russian spies in British intelligence, the West's attempt to secure Iranian oil. One episode centers on the creation of Israel and finds Foyle attempting to solve the murder of a Jewish shipping magnate, Sir David Woolf, by somebody, but who - English fascists who still linger after the war, Palestinian terrorists, Jewish terrorists? As ever, Foyle proceeds methodically while his MI5 handlers want results now. Here, in the run up to a big conference on Palestine in London, Foyle tells them about a possible suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOYLE'S WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Oh, Mr. Foyle...

MICHAEL KITCHEN: (As Christopher Foyle) Yes. There's a man here in London identified by Sir David Woolf, evidently, who is apparently a senior member of a terrorist organization, The Defenders of Arab Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Who is this man?

KITCHEN: (As Christopher Foyle) Well, the name he's using - the name I been given is Amin Al Arif. He has a suite at the Royal Imperial Mayfair.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Have you had him checked out?

KITCHEN: (As Christopher Foyle) Well, I just put in a request for whatever we've got. There's nothing back yet, of course. According to the hotel, he seldom leaves his rooms and is guarded day and night.

TIM MCMULLAN: (As Arthur Valentine) We should talk to him.

KITCHEN: (As Christopher Foyle) Well, I thought we might at least wait for the information.

MCMULLAN: (As Arthur Valentine) I don't think we can wait. We're already two days away from the start of the conference. Delegates are already arriving.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) I have to say I agree with Valentine. Whitehall's (ph) getting very nervous about this.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) I think we should at least talk to him, find out who or what he is. So let's get over that now.

POWERS: Needless to say, Foyle is right to urge the slower path. "Foyle's War" was created by Anthony Horowitz, who knows how pop culture can examine uncomfortable truths. He uses Foyle's cases to poke holes in the romanticized mythology of Britain's heroic war effort. It's not that the show is cynical, but Horowitz shows how even under mortal threat from the Nazis, not everybody was pulling together. Crooks keep doing crooked things and the class system keeps reinforcing inequality, be it the elite moving to their country houses to avoid the bombing in London or toffs talking down to Foyle, their superior in every important way because he's their social inferior.

The same is true after the war, when Foyle keeps bumping up against the reality that the British government isn't very, well, moral. Although the show is no history lesson - its motor is always Foyle solving a crime - it presents us with thorny historical conundrums no detective could ever solve. Now, a more ambitious version of "Foyle War" would not only show us history unfolding, but take us inside Foyle's psyche to show how he's changed by his experience of war and its aftermath - you know, the kind of thing "Mad Men" does with Don Draper.

But sometimes too good is no good. And to deepen things in that way would cheat the series of its appeal - the pleasurable balance between historical reality and the classic crime story with its fantasy of the perfect detective. Such fantasy is precisely what you get in the honest, fearless, reticent Foyle - a reassuringly stolid hero who embodies old-fashioned values, but whose innate decency makes him the only one to oppose creating a segregated bar for black American GIs stationed in Hastings. Played with quietly barbed charisma by Kitchen, Foyle is clearly an idealized version of British manhood from tamped down emotions to his bone-dry wryness to his innate loyalty and sense of honor. This is a man so square you could play checkers on him. And given the duplicitous world that Foyle's work conjures up, I mean this as a compliment.

DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed the final season of "Foyle's War," now streaming on Acorn TV. The DVD will be available in the spring. On tomorrow's show, after the train derailment and explosion in West Virginia, we look at the dramatic increase in the transportation of crude oil in America's railroads and the risk it poses with investigative reporter Marcus Stern. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.