Blightyvision: “Foyle’s War”

Created by Anthony Horowitz
Starring Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks, and Anthony Howell

I didn’t learn a hell of a lot in college, to be honest.  I was an English major, and that pretty much meant (at least at my alma mater) reading books and telling the professors what they wanted me to think they were about.  There was, however, one fantastic modern and postmodern lit class that took a sideline into wartime and ‘tween-war literature, and one thing I learned was that the best detective stories really are from before and during the Second World War.

It was a product of necessity — in the midst of losing family members overseas, people wanted stories with logical results, a definite villain to point a finger at, and a sense of “justice neatly executed” (to quote a different period detective).  The genre really took off and thrived at that point in time, and with a few exceptions — many of which I’ve endeavored to review in previous Blightyvisions — the more successful TV mysteries tend to either be adapted from the period or at least take place during it.

And now that I’ve flailed my BA around, on with the review.

The titular detective (played by Michael Kitchen) is, in fact, not as close to the war as he personally desires.  While he wishes to do more for the war effort — having served in the previous World War — his superior keeps him closer to home, saying he’s far more necessary to the police.  Despite not being where he’d truly like to be, however, Christopher Foyle does find himself doing a fair bit for the war effort: the cases he takes on almost invariably have to do with people affected by or taking advantage of the state of the nation.  To that end, the episodes draw from a variety of issues of the time, placing the fictional crimes against a real-life backdrop.

Rounding out the main cast are Foyle’s two assistants, though in decidedly different capacities.  Sgt. Paul Milner (played by Anthony Howell) has recently rejoined the police force after losing a leg in battle, and now backs up Foyle on his various cases.  More prevalent, though — and arguably more memorable — is Honeysuckle Weeks as Samantha Stewart, Foyle’s driver who occasionally goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to giving advice or sticking her nose in.  Sam is endearing almost immediately, and alternates between an admirable gutsiness and a “bless her heart” obliviousness.

Like most mystery series, “Foyle’s War” does have its own plot threads running underneath the cases of the week: Milner’s difficulties with his wife after returning home, Sam’s relationship with Foyle’s son Andrew (Julian Ovenden of “The Forsyte Saga”) and her own family struggles, and Foyle coming to terms with his past and the loss of his wife.  Rather than all happening continuously, though, these elements take it in turns to come to the surface throughout the course of the series.  Unfortunately, the most interesting — Foyle’s reflections on his past — doesn’t come out quite as much as suited this blogger in the first few seasons.

While the show is interesting and the characters are likable, it is far heavier than most detective series you’re going to find.  In order to truly get into it, you need to be either a serious mystery fan or a major history buff.  Myself, I’m more the former than the latter, and so while I can’t necessarily line myself up with the how each plot line was influenced by specific battles or political events, I can still get behind the structure of the crime drama itself.

If you’re one of the latter — the sort who can cite battles by name and date, do victory rolls, and tell me everything I’d ever need to know about the rationing of butter — this is absolutely perfect.  And I don’t say that in a sarcastic way.  This show was made by people who clearly both studied and understood the time period fully, and can be appreciated even more by viewers who have done the same.  (And if, like me, you like the mystery but don’t quite grok the history, the DVDs are very good about supplying extras explaining the real-life elements of each episode.)

If you’re not one or the other, though — if you’re a casual mystery fan who likes something light and amusing — this is likely not the sort of thing you can dig into.  It has its upbeat moments, usually courtesy of Sam (bless her heart), but a “three episode rule” might not do it for you.  Give it a try anyway, granted; one never knows.  But it has a very specific demographic, and at a grand total of seven seasons long, it’s something of an investment.

The first five seasons of “Foyle’s War” are available in a box set, completely with nifty extras that will make you smarter.