"Where to, sir?"
A new war, a new enemy...but not-so-new themes or plots, and less-still reason to exist. Acorn has released Foyle's War: Set 7 (which is really the series' 8th go-around), a 3-disc, 3-episode collection of the Foyle movie-length shows that aired back in March and April, 2013, in the U.K.. Episodes include The Eternity Ring, The Cage, and Sunflower. With the end of WWII comes the beginnings of the "Cold War" between the West and the Soviet Union, so Foyle's War creator Anthony Horowitz drags the mild-mannered, sharp-as-a-tack homefront police inspector into the shadowy fray...with decidedly negative results. Quite a few extras bundled with these razor-sharp transfers should make Foyle's War: Set 7 a natch for seriously-dedicated fans of the series.
A very brief set-up for the uninitiated. Former Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), once employed by His Majesty's government to help keep the peace on the home front--specifically, Hastings, East Sussex, in and around the beaches of South East England--has returned to post-WWII England after a trip to America, where he attempted to "tie up some loose ends" concerning a wealthy, influential American businessman/politician Foyle was convinced was involved in a murder. Met at customs by an insistent Arthur Valentine (Tim McMullan) of England's Security Service's intelligence agency, MI5, Foyle is introduced to Valentine's superior, former Special Operations Executive and now MI5 operative, Hilda Pearce (Ellie Haddinton), whom Foyle had dealings with before, and her superior, Sir William Chambers (Nicholas Jones), the new division head. Curious as to why he's been pulled in, Foyle discovers that MI5 is concerned about the existence of a Soviet spy ring operating within England, a ring that has connections, apparently, to Foyle. It seems that Foyle's former driver, Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), now working for a government atom scientist, Professor Fraser (Stephen Boxer), has been seen passing possible secrets to a Soviet refugee and suspected spy. Foyle is given a choice: help crack the case, or be deported to America where he could be a person of interest in the suicide of that powerful American politician...if MI5 wanted him to be a suspect. Foyle reluctantly accepts, and soon clashes with the professional spies of MI5, who look down on the lowly "amateur" police detective. Meanwhile, Sam's new husband, Adam Wainwright (Daniel Weyman), is running for a seat in Parliament under the Labour Party, a proposition Commie-sympathizer Sam heartily endorses.
I've written a few reviews of Foyle's War over the years (click here), and I've always been a big fan of this well-written, intriguing mystery series. However, this current morphing of the show into a Cold War espionage thriller/Labour Party propaganda piece, is a dicey proposition, at best. To put it succinctly: the central pull of Foyle's War--murder, corruption, and moral turpitude on the seemingly quiet, almost forgotten English homefront, while the world hangs in the balance overseas--has necessarily been lost. As I wrote about the previous incarnation of Foyle's War, creator and writer Anthony Horowitz' largely self-contained mysteries provided a skeleton for dramatized re-examinations of the largely ignored social and ethical issues--and their huge transformations--that cropped up in even the most remote English towns and villages, due in no small part to the pervasive, often-times corrosive impact of the Second World War. Indeed, this emphasis on the ever-encroaching influence of the war on the small seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex, is what originally made Foyle's War so fascinating to me. Having seen countless WWII-themed films, few deal with the issues on the various homefronts (big-scale action is always a "safer bet" with the studios), and yet, Horowitz managed to incorporate into the trim Foyle mini-movies not only the standard English "village murder mystery" framework, but also war-related themes as diverse as espionage, secret reconnaissance installations, the debilitating effects of war on the psyches of returning soldiers, the displacement of home-bound vets, the changed dynamics of husbands and wives after years-long separations, and of course, the never-ceasing parade of profiteers, thieves, crooked politicians and murderers who rarely if ever show up in films that take a usually faux-innocent, rose-colored look at life "back home," away from the actual fighting.
So...where is all of that here in Foyle's War: Set 7? The small, tight, interconnected village of the previous Foyle has been replaced with amorphous metropolitan London, while the circumstances of war on the civilian, and the use of those pressures as excuses for illegal activity, have largely been replaced with overly-familiar spy plots involving atom spies, spooky "good guys" who may not be so "good," Nazi collaborators, and ridiculously enough, large, large chunks of screen time devoted to--wait for it--romanticized mid-to-late 1940s Labour Party politics (Horowitz' uncritical approach to "Super-Labourer" Adam Wainwright would be risible if it wasn't so monstrously dull). Yes, the opening episode does feature a telling little subplot about one of Foyle's former constables, Frank Shaw (Corrie's Joe Duttine), coming home to an England, a social order, and a household he no longer has a place in. And in the concluding episode, Sunflower, there is a character suffering from the as-yet-unnamed PTSD (although the episode doesn't specifically revolve around that element). But for the most part, this supposedly "new war/new world" that Horowitz pulls the old Foyle's War into...is decidedly all-too-familiar "John Le Carre-world." It's entertaining enough, I suppose...but we've seen all of this too many times before. What made the original Foyle so special--that unmasking and debunking of a nostalgic view of English homelife during WWII'--is gone now, in favor of tired espionage machinations grafted onto Horowitz' latest round of sifting through old history books (in one of his rather uncomfortable episode introductions here, Horowitz sounds almost defensive about his practice--or crutch?--of lifting now-obscure historical events and transforming them into mysteries, as if this effort alone is deserving of praise, regardless of how makeshift the construction, or easily-discernable the mysteries' solutions).Even more troubling than the warmed-over spy plotting in Foyle's War: Set 7, is the loss of the Foyle character himself. Perhaps the most quiet, still, laconic detective you'll ever see on television, Foyle's M.O., when he was a DCS, never varied: quite observation, desert-dry wit, zero reaction to even the most extreme provocation, and carefully chosen, clipped, spare sentences that summed up much, much more than one first assumed. Nothing seemed to ruffle Foyle, although it's clear he felt deeply about his duty, particularly as it serviced his observation of moral law. That dedication to duty, and even more, his dedication, love, and utmost respect for the law, both official and ethical, kept Foyle constantly at odds with others who saw the war as yet another excuse to flout the conventions of the legal system--as well as a convenient bypass for committing morally questionable actions. And so I ask again...where is that Foyle here? If we go with the first episode's set-up--that Foyle is basically blackmailed into joining MI5 on the basis of helping Sam...along with the vague threat of deportation--then fine: that works within Foyle's moral universe. He's doing this shadowy spy world stuff to help his friend Sam, and also so he isn't sent back to America as a possible murder suspect. However, once this threat passes (we never hear another word from his superiors threatening deportation), why, exactly, is Foyle doing what he's doing? Why is he compromising his principles to help a system he doesn't believe in: deadly, double-dealing, no-holds-barred international espionage, with no "right" or "wrong" in sight?
If Foyle's moral compass is everything to him, why is he plodding through this ghostly, spectral espionage realm where there are no morals (there's no mistaking the fact that Kitchen, when you can find him on-screen here--I bet he agreed to continue this series as long as his shooting schedule was light--looks either ill-at-ease...or bored)? We have to guess the "why," because the writers never have Foyle articulate why, exactly, he's doing what he's doing here. And the reason for that is because they don't really have an answer. His character, as written for the previous series, wouldn't allow himself to continue on in this duplicitous domain, and they know it. And yet this popular series is too established, and far too lucrative, to let go when its raison d'etre--the WWII framework--has been necessarily concluded in the show's timeline. Why else does Horowitz and the other writer here, David Kane, just have Foyle ultimately shrug off untenable situations we're made to infer he finds deeply objectionable, such as the "torturing" of prisoners in The Cage (in his intro, a fatuous Horowitz implies a rather pathetic connection to American interrogation techniques), or Western collaboration with Nazi murderers in Sunflower? If Foyle, faced with these realities of high-stakes espionage, stated such situations were intolerable, then the writers would have to find a way to bail him out for the next episode. And if he stated he didn't really care, then the character would lose what's left of his integrity. So...Foyle remains silent here, time and again. It's a wishy-washy compromise that the filmmakers are hoping we won't notice, but it's clear as day to the viewer whenever a character talks out of both sides of his or her mouth about the inevitable ethical pros and cons of spying...and Michael Kitchen pulls one of his expert "read anything you want into my expression" grimaces, before the cameras politely cut away.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.