This beloved British detective series does just about everything right, all of the time. Featuring charming characters, ingenious and complex plots, meticulous historical reconstruction, engaging performances, careful attention to gender and class politics, and an utter refusal to treat its audience like passive viewers, ITV’s Foyle’s War is simply a triumph of artistry and entertainment. This set collects all six series – in the US, when aired on PBS, these were condensed to five seasons – and is, basically, something you have to watch.
As the title implies, the show is set during the Second World War, a device which offers myriad plot opportunities for its writers (chiefly series creator Anthony Horowitz). Detective Chief Inspector Foyle (a deliciously enigmatic Michael Kitchen) is stuck policing the whole of rural Hastings – which would essentially be the front line if the Germans were to make landfall – and feeling like he is being left out of the big story. Yet, as we can clearly tell, and as he slowly begins to realize, his role as provincial police officer is, at least symbolically, integral to the survival of Britain. As he tracks down a succession of murderers, each one using the war as an opportunity of sorts, as an explanation for their deeds, we begin to understand that Foyle is the last line of defense against the final crumbling of British society in the face of total war.
For everyone involved, this is the world turned upside down: women in factories and uniforms, the rich losing their estates, Americans invading like a horde of barbarians, food scarce everywhere but on the black market, lovers failing to remain true, men disfigured by fire and metal, men blemished by fear and horror, families collapsing, Germans literally dropping out of the sky and blending into the crowd, politicians looking for a winning slant, businessmen angling for a way to capitalize, and bombs nightly falling with a grotesque indifference about where they should land. Foyle, picking his way through the relative insignificance of provincial murder amid all of this world historical chaos, is a constant reminder that beneath it all there is a basic morality and a certain civility that must remain intact.
Flanked by his crack team (a disarmingly wooden Anthony Howell as his right hand and the plucky Honeysuckle Weeks as his trusty driver, Sam), Foyle makes his way through four episodes per season (at 1.5 hours each they are basically low budget but high-quality movies), each one following a complex series of storylines and narrative possibilities to an always satisfactory resolution. Adding to the general excitement is the persistent greyness of the ethical context: more than once Foyle is faced with the awful decision between arresting a man whom he knows to have committed a murder, or letting him go because his arrest would compromise the war effort in some way.
For a generation of mystery-watchers who’ve grown up with CSI, Bones and other such twaddle – shows that are to mystery as Nickelback is to rock ‘n’ roll, using the template but leaving out the reason why that template was worthy to begin with – these well-crafted programs will likely feel a bit of a bore. They do not rely on musical montages to avoid exposition or plot development, and they never find the solution to the problem by pressing a magic button on a computer keyboard under sexy lighting. No, they come across more Merchant/Ivory than Bruckheimer/Bay.
Indeed, they keep at the heart of their construction the simple premise that solving a mystery is an exercise of the mind. Above all else, this was for me their greatest charm: swept up in the historical detail, the languid pacing, the clever complexities, the winning dialogue, I was never asked to just sit back and stare. Here, one feels compelled to keep up, to try and untangle the right strands, to disregard the red herrings, to remark on the occasional Chekovian gun. It’s thrilling to be treated like an adult.
This slim and manageable 19-disc set (some 30 hours of entertainment) retails at about $150, and is a steal at twice the price. It includes hours of extras (none of which are essential, in my estimation, but may be worth it to the utter fanatic) and interviews with the principals. Cancelled following the sixth series (to massive public outcry in Britain and among PBS viewers), Foyle’s War was recently renewed for a seventh go around, its episodes set in the immediate postwar years. Here’s to that.