Friday, August 26, 2016

Movies In History: Foyles War

This excellent British television series premiered in 2002 and concluded just last year in 2015.  It's available in the United States via NetFlix, and its very worth watching.

Foyle's War follows British police Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, played superbly by Michael Kitchen, from 1940 into the immediate post World War Two period.  While its one single series, the series might be regarded as being divided into two halves, one dealing with wartime Britain and the second half dealing with the post war period.

The series starts off immediately after the evacuation of Dunkirk and finds Foyle working as the DCS in Hasting, a town that's obviously quite familiar to students of history.  Foyle seeks to obtain a place in the war effort and we learn that he served as an officer during World War One. For various reasons he isn't able to obtain the position and he's therefore stuck in his position in Hastings.  Early on we are introduced to certain other principal characters, including Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) who is assigned to be Foyle's driver from the British Motor Transport Corp. 

The World War Two years go along in a sort of real time, in that each season is a single year in the war.  Each episode (they are about 1.5 hours long) involves more than one crime and also deals with various aspect of wartime Britain, all in a highly entertaining and engaging manner.  The crime plots are quite involved in the best British style and are often quite difficult to predict a resolution to.  Often more than one crime plot is resolved in an episode.  The explorations of various topics and features of wartime Britain are excellently done.  Because each season takes place in a different year of the war, things evolve in a sort of real time that's appreciable, and the conditions that exist in each year of the wartime episodes vary a bit from the prior episodes, just as they would in real life.

Also, particularly like real life, the series is highly unusual, at least for an American audience, in that it introduces characters that are significant but, in some instances, they disappear for long periods of time or entirely based upon what is occurring in the show.  This might be frustrating to some viewers, but it is actually very reflective of real life in which life's events remove significant people from each other lives, an event that is exaggerated in wartime conditions.  This contrasts, for example, remarkably with American shows like, for example, M*A*S*H which featured the same characters year after year, removing them only occasionally, something that definitely doesn't reflect wartime conditions. This can occasionally be a bit shocking or disappointing in the show, but it makes Foyle's War that much more realistic.

The war years are also subject, and it seems realistically, to a sense that everything is changing for the UK, which makes the series a bit bittersweet.  It is not done heavyhandedly, but you can see the Britain the characters live in is passing away, which it actually was.  If the characters seem cognizant of that slightly, the  British at the time did as well.  As this is a British series, there's a sense that the British are looking back a bit at themselves at a time at which perhaps they were happier with themselves as a people, even if the war itself was horrible.

The second half of the series, as noted, involves immediate post war Britain.  Production values actually changed a bit for the second half, although they were always high, and the second half is filmed with a bit more of a rapid pacing, more typical of American productions, compared to the first half of the series.  The second half starts with Foyle out of the police force and investigating, unofficially, a crime prior to going to the United States to resolve an unresolved matter that comes up during a prior wartime episode.  That episode is a bit of a bridge to the second half, which really commences when Foyle returns and is invited into MI5 by Hilda Pierce, a character who showed up from time to time in the wartime episodes.  The show then shifts to investigations that involve matters being resolved in early postwar Britain and often involve plots concerning the early Cold War.

The shift in Foyle's role in the second half of the series somewhat suggests that the producers weren't quite prepared for the series to last as long as it did or perhaps they would have doubled the episodes for each war year.  Indeed, the series was indeed cancelled in its third year in, making for a short season for 1943, but as it was hugely popular it was brought back the following year.  Nonetheless the series was still excellent in the second half  Indeed, in the second half, for students of the Cold War some of the topics dealt with are highly recognizable which shows how close to reality the show was.  One episode deals with the British return of captured Russian citizens in German uniform, a tragic story that really did occur.  The final episode is so closely based on the story of the capture of Violette Szabo that a person familiar with the real story will recognize whom the various fictional characters are based on.  Indeed, that episode confirmed for me that the character of Hilda Pierce had been based on Vera Atkins all along.

The entire series is simply excellent.  It was widely praised while running, and it can clearly be seen why.  

Whenever these reviews are done, I always include material details as an item, and a few odds and ends.  This series scores very high in these regards, and indeed the very high cost of production is what finally caused the BBC to cancel the series. The clothing and look of things is almost all correct.  The BBC managed to include correct vehicles and even Spitfire aircraft where they appeared.  British television sometimes cuts corners in these regards, but that was not done here.

Which isn't to say everything is perfect.  Where failures are noted, however, they are small and understandable.  The series included some American characters in some episodes during World War Two, and the producers had a hard time getting American uniforms correct, but then they aren't always done correctly in American series either.  Every American soldier shown in the series in in the 1st Infantry Division, even when this doesn't make sense.  Americanism aren't caught quite accurately and American speech is obviously not quite right to an American audience.  The depiction of American food items in one episode will catch Americans as bizarre.

Still, overall, this television series was simply excellent.  It would legitimately qualify as one of the best television series ever done, anywhere.  For students of the 1940s, its a must.

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