The TV Series:
Enjoy enthralling mystery with a touch of wartime intrigue and lots of local British flavor? Foyle's War will fit your needs like a stylish brown fedora.
Acorn's multi-DVD The Best of Foyle's War compiles six episodes of the acclaimed UK detective series set in the Southern coast of England during World War II. These episodes, one to a disc, were selected as the personal favorites of actor Michael Kitchen, who plays series protagonist Christopher Foyle with an understated grace. Although the show is still going strong with its seventh season having aired in 2010, the episodes on this set are confined to the first four seasons, which were originally shown in 2002-2004. Actually, to call them "episodes" is kind of patronizing, since each installment, in which Kitchen's Detective Foyle unravels a complex, diabolical crime in the coastal hamlet of Hastings, functions as a sort of mini-movie in itself. Yep, they're that good.
Not being too keen on mysteries (doesn't it seem like every other British TV series is a whodunit?), but loving World War II history - particularly as it relates to the home front - I wasn't sure what to make of Foyle's War at first. UK detective shows are usually top-notch in terms of quality production, but would it turn out slow and stodgy? In reality, I found myself getting sucked in by the thoughtfully crafted and atmospheric first episode, The German Woman (the clear highlight of this set), and ended up hooked. Much of that watchability can be attributed to the carefully researched historic background that series creator and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz puts into every installment. Each episode is based on a real-life event affecting domestic life in WWII Britain, whether its internment of foreigners (The German Woman), the shortage of fuel (Among The Few), or the covert testing of chemical agents (Bad Blood). The time period and setting gives Horowitz a lot of material to work with, evidenced by the fact that less than three years pass between this set's first (May 1940) and final (August 1942) episodes. The comprehensive attention to detail even extends to small things, like the distinct whirring sound of a falling German bomb or the texture of the paper used on the prop letters and newspapers. For history buffs, it's pure catnip.
Another positive asset in Foyle's War lies in how the 90-plus minute format allows for the mystery to unfold organically, building a mood of careful consideration that mirrors the character of Foyle himself. As portrayed by Michael Kitchen, Foyle is a quiet, unassuming man whose keen intelligence and observational powers enable him to get the job done, eventually. Cool as a cucumber, that guy. Solving the case usually finds Foyle slyly dropping in with the accused, Columbo-style, to reveal his findings in a way that is completely logical. Indeed, the way these episodes manage to tie together multiple loose ends without straining plausibility is quite amazing. The cases get solved not just with Foyle's handiwork but with the help of his loyal driver, Samantha Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks), an enthusiastic young woman who is eager to assist in the detective work and eventually find a place on the force. Kitchen and Weeks have a terrific camaraderie going here, with Samantha's quiet spunk serving as a good contrast to Foyle's gravity. The Sam character somewhat recalls a less conceited version of Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I'm Going, a driven, fully nuanced woman given a terrific personification by Weeks. Other recurring characters include Foyle's assistant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), and his handsome son Andrew (Julian Ovenden), a pilot in the R.A.F. Andrew's involvement in the military has him figuring into several of these stories, such as Among the Few, which has Andrew and a fellow pilot dating women who work at the fuel supply company that Foyle & co. are investigating. Anthony Howell as Milner is another good addition to the ensemble, although to be fair he doesn't seem to have as much to do -- at least in these particular episodes.
The Kitchen-approved The Best Of Foyle's War would make a good gift for a British mystery fan or World War II buff. For those wanting to check it out piecemeal, the first six seasons are currently available for download at Amazon.com as well as streaming on Netflix. Another option to see it comes via Acorn's own streaming service, AcornTV.
The Best of Foyle's War's six discs contain the following episodes (all episodes run 93-98 minutes in length):
Disc One • The German Woman (Series One, Episode 1, 2002)
After a gruesome murder, Foyle's seemingly peaceful town is full of suspects.
Disc Two • Eagle Day (Series One, Episode 4, 2002)
Foyle uncovers a plot to steal art treasures from a local museum.
Disc Three • Fifty Ships (Series Two, Episode 1, 2003)
The discovery of a body on a deserted beach puts American aid donations at risk
Disc Four • Among The Few (Series Two, Episode 2, 2003)
The investigation of an illicit fuel racket turns personal for Foyle.
Disc Five • The French Drop (Series Three, Episode 1, 2004)
Foyle gets caught up in the rivalry between British spy agencies.
Disc Six • Bad Blood (Series Four, Episode 1, 2006)
A biological warfare experiment goes wrong, threatening the life of Foyle's loyal driver.
The six discs in Acorn Media's The Best Of Foyle's War come packaged in a standard-width keep case with a light cardboard slipcover. Sure, the bland design doesn't adequately convey the hours of intrigue inside, but it's classy and the photo of Kitchen captures Foyle in a rare jovial mood.
Presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, the image is generally pretty good - it's filmed the old-fashioned way on 16mm stock, which gives it a warmth appropriate for the period. The only flaws I could find was that the picture on the series 1 and 2 episodes sport an excessive amount of softness. The last two discs in this set have a sharper, more robust picture more in line with most current TV shows.
The only audio on all six episodes is a clear, non-showy stereo track that serves its function without being too off-kilter. The sound strikes a pleasant balance between dialogue, sound effects and an unobtrusive music score. Although the packaging states that closed captioning is included, I didn't see that option on any of the episodes.
All six discs come with a fair amount of thoughtfully prepared extras, exactly the same bonus content that appeared on the original issues of sets One, Two, Three and Four in 2003-07. Granted, it is a bit puzzling that the 24-minute Making-Of Documentary on disc 5 covers an episode which isn't included in this set (Enemy Fire from Series Three), but the film is interesting enough to stand on its own. This standard behind-the-scenes featurette reveals the intense craftsmanship that the filmmakers put into this endeavor. Other filmed extras include a 24-minute, two-part Interview with Writer and Creator Anthony Horowitz which is spread across the first two discs here, and A Conversation with Anthony Howell and Honeysuckle Weeks (13:43), a casual sit-down with the supporting actors appearing on disc three. That same disc also includes a minute-long photo gallery. All six discs come with text-only production notes and cast filmographies.
No doubt about it, Foyle's War's low-key mix of compelling whodunit and evocative history can become addictive. The six episodes chosen by actor Michael Kitchen on The Best Of Foyle's War serve as a terrific introduction to this beautifully made, utterly watchable series. Acorn's set is a repackaging of previously available stuff, making it redundant for longtime fans - but for curious newbies (like this reviewer), this nifty "highlights reel" will undoubtedly lead to further exploration. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.