Foyle's War (2002-2015) is an excellent, unusually intelligent detective drama series produced by Britain's ITV in the wake of its landmark Inspector Morse.* That series ended in 2000 and actor John Thaw, who played him, died soon after at the age of 60.
Similarly literary, Foyle's War was created by novelist Anthony Horowitz (two Sherlock Holmes novels, The House of Silk, and Moriarty, as well as the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis), also one of the main writers of the television series Poirot. In Foyle's War, Horowitz ingeniously intertwines the investigations of Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) with historical events on the south coast of England throughout the Second World War and immediately after. (The first season begins during the spring of 1940 while the final episode takes place in early 1947.) Integrating innumerable historically accurate details about daily life on the Home Front, it also reminds viewers of the complex, sometimes chaotic politics and concerns of the English (and Allies and foreign refugees) during a time when Britain's future was anything but certain. These, in turn, likewise enhance Foyle's War as a mystery series, as characters' behavior are often motivated and suspicions are drawn based on concurrent events within Britain at large.
Coincidentally, I happen to be re-watching the fine Thames Television documentary series The World at War (1973), and am continuously amazed by how much material discussed on that series likewise turns up here, often in the form of little background references never otherwise discussed. In one show, for instance, workers at a train station are shown taking down the sign identifying the station. Fearing an impending German land invasion, the British forces removed such signage from stations hoping to confuse the Germans, at least until everyone realized it was equally confusing for British commuters. Both series cite the Imperial War Museum as advisors, while Horowitz credits Angus Calder's The People's War and Norman Longmate's How We Lived Then as his "bibles."
Foyle's War: The Complete Saga gathers together all 28 feature-length episodes, each running between 90-100 minutes, along with more than six hours of supplementary material and a 24-page booklet.
For most of the run of the show, Foyle finds himself investigating criminal cases, typically murders, connected to the chaos and confusion war brings to the Home Front. Early stories include the inequitable internment of German and Italian immigrants and war refugees, and the difficulties faced by conscientious objectors. In both instances, Britain's titled class pulls strings to protect their loved ones while often doing precious little themselves to aid in the war effort. Indeed, an excellent early show, "The White Feather" deals with anti-Semitism, suggested by the British Union of Fascists, a view embraced by many of Britain's wealthy.
Almost from the start, Horowitz and others utilized the genre conventions of the British mystery series as a framework for these intriguing dramatized history lessons, the mystery aspects, though often clever, taking a back seat. Over the course of Foyle's War's long run, it grappled with subjects ranging from homosexuality in the military to the deployment of biological weapons.
Secrecy abounds, making for an ideal setting. With his status as a high-ranking police officer, Foyle has access to some but not all closed doors. In one episode, for instance, a suspect in a murder investigation is reportedly working as a machine operator at a high-security munitions factory, but Foyle notices that the man, with a carpenter's background, has clean hands (no machine oil) nor do any of the buildings there have chimneys. Eventually gaining access, Foyle learns that the plant is secretly building coffins, thousands of them, in expectation of the bombing of London. Secrecy, it turns out, was maintained to avoid a panic.
Assisting Foyle are his driver, Samantha "Sam" Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), and Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), who as the series begins is recovering from the amputation of his lower left leg, lost in the disastrous British efforts in Norway during Operation Weserübung. He's bitter about his life-changing injury, and unlike many Watsonites and Captain Hastingses in other British mysteries, there's a lot more shading here; in "The White Feather," he's even drawn to its charismatic, Oswald Mosley-like villain.
A widower, Foyle also has an adult son, Andrew (Julian Ovenden), a student who joins the RAF near the beginning of the first episode. As the senior Foyle, Michael Kitchen is singularly courteous and circumspect when questioning suspects, keeping his own views about various wartime issues close to his chest. Moderately progressive, he's sympathetic to those usually scorned by the British of the period, and in that sense similar in character to Martin Shaw's popular police detective George Gently. Weeks's Sam character, more spontaneous and gregarious, is clearly there to add a bit of humanity to Foyle's investigations; she's quite charming.
The careful planning put into Foyle's War was thrown asunder when ITV's programming director unexpectedly cancelled the program after five seasons (or, "series" as they are called over there). To wrap up the overall story arc, i.e., World War II, Horowitz was forced to abandon plot ideas set during most of 1943 and 1944, and in the last season five show, "All Clear," the war (at least in Europe) came to an end.
However, such was the outcry over its cancellation (combined with high ratings for the last season five shows) that Foyle's War just as unexpectedly resumed, with three more seasons, three feature-length episodes apiece, with Foyle and Sam joining MI5 and becoming involved with early Cold War activities.
The cream of the British crop guest-starred during its run, too many to list here but notably including Michael Jayston, Corin Redgrave, John Wood, Charles Dance, Bill Paterson, Edward Fox, Laurence Fox, Peter Blythe, Robert Hardy, Rosamund Pike, James McAvoy, Kenneth Colley, Tamzin Outhwaite, Emily Blunt, David Troughton, Peter Capaldi, Phyllida Law, Cheryl Campbell, David Tennant, Eleanor Bron, Alan Cumming, Ronald Pickup, Sophia Myles, and, in one episode, Frasier star John Mahoney. (Paul Giamatti appears unbilled in another.)
Video & Audio
Foyle's War: The Complete Saga comes in an impressively sturdy box that contains four DVD cases with 6-8 single-sided DVDs per case, with one episode per disc. The show, at least initially, was shot in Super 16 and may originally have been broadcast in 4:3 format, though all are presented 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen. (Later episodes where, presumably, shot in HD.) However, even the (possibly) cropped ones are framed comfortably; heads are chopped off at the brow, for instance. Early seasons are in Dolby Digital Stereo with closed-captioning, while later ones have 5.1 mixes and optional English subtitles. Even the first season shows, however, make great use of directional audio.
Supplements include "Foyle's War Remembered," a 57-minute retrospective; on-camera interviews with Horowitz, Kitchen, Weeks, and guest star John Mahoney; making-of documentaries and behind-the-scenes material; production notes and photo galleries. The booklet offers a forward by Horowitz, an episode guide, character bios, and other material of interest.
An often superb, uniquely informative and dramatically intriguing program, Foyle's War is excellent, making this a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
* The series is commonly known as Inspector Morse but the onscreen titles always read "John Thaw as Detective Chief Inspector Morse."
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available while his commentary track for Arrow Video's Battles without Honor and Humanity will be released this month.