Weekend Watching: Foyle’s War

foyleIt has been very quiet around here, I know. It’s a combination of re-adjusting to the start of term and having been hard at work on my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch for the next issue of Open Letters Monthly, which has taken up the couple of hours each day when I have both time and energy for writing. I’ve been getting up pretty early (for me, anyway) a few days a week to get in some regular exercise, and that has meant I fade sooner at night, too.

In that faded state, when I don’t feel I can be particularly articulate anymore, or attentive enough to do serious reading, I’ve been working my way through Foyle’s War (I’ve also been watching it during my workouts, which helps me look forward to them rather than dreading them!). Other shows I’ve watched recently include ER (I started it from the beginning a couple of years ago and bit by bit have made my way up to Season 11)  Homeland (we’ve seen through Season 2 – I’m not sure how much more I want to watch), and Hostages (which we started watching because Toni Collette — who really deserves better — we only stuck with it out of curiosity about how they were going to get everyone out of the implausible tangle they’d created).  Compared to these (or to MI-5, which I have now seen twice all the way through!) Foyle’s War is very slow-paced, and it took me a while to adjust to that. I have occasionally felt that they could have tightened up the plots and told the story in one hour rather than over their more leisurely 90 minutes, but most of the time I appreciate the care with which different strands are introduced and then woven together into the case. I also appreciate that the plot moves slowly enough that I can easily work on my crochet at the same time (when not on the treadmill, obviously!).

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I’ve just started Season 6 (and Seasons 7 and 8 are not yet on Netflix), so I don’t know how everything develops now that the official war is over. One of my favourite things about the series to this point is its emphasis on the moral challenges of the home front, especially the need to fight for the values that the military campaign is ostensibly being waged in service of. (It’s hard not to wonder if the creators were deliberately hinting at similar challenges that have arisen our post-9/11 world.) It’s pretty clear that the show’s title is meant to mean something besides “how DCS Foyle spent his time during WWII” –his is a war against morally slipshod, self-serving, or opportunistic people who use the war as cover for their offenses or as a means to personal profit. “There’s a war on” never works as an excuse with Foyle, and that staunch clarity of judgment is clearly what makes him the hero of the series, surrounded as he is by greedy businessmen, dishonest politicians, power-hungry bureaucrats, and the many vexing shades of both incompetence and ruthlessness he runs into among those fighting the actual war. I think Michael Kitchen plays the part perfectly: he doesn’t parade his virtues, and indeed, in his own way he is also quite ruthless, but he conveys an attractive and endlessly reassuring combination of uncompromising principle, intelligence and humanity.

I think there’s quite a bit going on with the historical context: it would be interesting to work out more about just how the series is shaping its version of wartime England, something I don’t feel I have the right range of knowledge to comment on. It doesn’t strike me as a simplistically idealized portrayal of stoicism and valor, but the heroic music every time the RAF planes take off bespeaks a kind of ‘glory days’ nostalgia, and there’s plenty of talk about “the few.” Not that there shouldn’t be respect and admiration for their bravery or heroic stories about wartime sacrifice, but I’m curious about whether those who know more about this can see patterns or myths in the historiography of wartime Britain being used in significant ways in the series, whether subversive or conservative or predictable. The show seems particularly sensitive to the human costs of the victories that were won: I’m thinking of the S2 episode “Enemy Fire,” for instance, in which Foyle’s own son breaks under the strain of “combat fatigue.” I know there are shows about the making of the series and perhaps some of these issues are discussed — I’ve put off watching them until I’ve caught up on the series itself.

The one thing I don’t like about the show — and  in the spirit of this woman I’ve tried not to let it bother me too much — is Sam. Again, I haven’t seen the whole series, but by about half way through Season 4 I was at the point where if Foyle and Milner traded patronizing ‘isn’t she cute?’ glances one more time I was going to burst a blood vessel, not because she isn’t cute but because I wish so much that she had been written as a character with more gravitas. When I first met her on the show, I anticipated an arc of character development for her that would bring her (if probably unofficially) into the investigative team in a more serious way. Instead, though she has been involved in solving cases, her contributions have almost always been by accident or luck, and her personality has stayed perky and slightly silly, if good-hearted. It seemed both painfully predictable and wholly unlikely that a romance would break out between her and Andrew, who is a much more emotionally complex character. (His erratic comings and goings in the series keep the writers from having to deal with this in any serious way, at least to this point.) That it turns out Foyle never really needed a driver anyway was the final insult! There are more interesting (substantial, competent, deliberate) women in the show as secondary characters, but Sam is the only main female character, and I wish she’d been set up as one who carried her own weight, rather than as a figure of indulgent fun and chivalric or paternalistic concern.

foyleseason6I started S6 Episode 1 this morning so I’ve just entered the post-war world, though as the characters and stories emphasize, VE Day has not magically restored the world to idyllic happiness. The war Foyle was fighting continues unabated, returning soldiers struggle with how both they and their old lives have been transformed, and the realignment of the wider political world is creating new enmities. Also, Milner’s become a bit of a jerk. Wondering how this will go will be a good motivation to face another early morning session on the treadmill tomorrow!

I’d love to hear from other Foyle fans (or haters, for that matter) — but try not to tell me what happens in the seasons I haven’t seen yet! Am I underestimating Sam, do you think? What do you think the series is doing with the history of Britain in the war?

24 thoughts on “Weekend Watching: Foyle’s War

  1. RT January 26, 2014 / 7:27 pm

    Well, I declare myself as a Foyle’s War watcher. I may not be an over-the-top, irrational fanatic about the series, but I am loyal, and I have watched many of the episodes. I am especially intrigued about the ways in which some of the stories are based on actual historical events/incidents. I suppose I am restating the obvious, but there are 2 series: 1 when Foyle is the policeman (and he quits because of some management and government interference with justice that he can no longer tolerate), and 1 when he has been recruited into the UK security service. Watching all of the first, it seems to me, is a necessary prerequisite to watching the second. As for Sam’s role in both series, I am not bothered as you seem to be. Perhaps that can be attributed to my male myopia. Or it could be that I see all the characters as “creatures” of their era. We in 2014 would not be at all happy about a lot of cultural and social issues in the UK during and after WW2. And, yes, Kitchen is superb. The understatement of his portrayal is the key.


    • Rohan Maitzen January 26, 2014 / 8:30 pm

      I don’t think it works to say she’s a “creature of her era” in response, unless you think women of the 1940s were all basically the kind of person she’s shown as! And the show already includes other women who are very different from Sam and in different roles, after all, despite being part of the same social and historical environment. Further, Sam’s character was created now, not then, by the writers. I can see how it serves their purposes in some ways: if she were a different character (smarter, more ambitious and professional) and still being patronized, it would certainly alter our view of Foyle in challenging ways.

      I didn’t know Foyle goes into the security service! You weren’t supposed to TELL me what happens later on …


  2. RT January 26, 2014 / 10:33 pm

    Oops! Then I won’t speak of Sam’s future and how she might be rehabilitated in your eyes. You’ll just have to wait. I won’t TELL you!


    • Rohan January 27, 2014 / 10:04 am



  3. Peter Jobson January 27, 2014 / 4:13 am

    I find Sam quite believable.

    It is obvious that she comes from a wealthy privileged family that is trained to be a good wife, who has skills in singing & making polite conversation & keeping in the background. For her, her world is not dead & is it just a hiatus for the war? or it is & this New World Order will be the reality? For us the viewers, we know the outcome. So, we are watching her deal with a new world, where she meets the working classes etc, how she reacts & how she comes to terms of this new reality.

    A similar scenario is played out in Call The Midwife, played by Miranda Hart.

    I recently saw the 2nd phase type stories, ie: late 40s/early 50s & they didn’t do it for me & felt very much the series had “jumped the shark”. Overall, based on the stories from my London born mother, this was very faithful from the civilian side of the war (my grandfather was banned from participating due to a 1930s injury & he was a graduate of Greenwich Naval College).


    • Rohan January 27, 2014 / 10:10 am

      Well, I didn’t say she wasn’t believable, just that I found it a disappointing choice on the part of the writers not to make their one main female character someone who wasn’t so frequently and deservingly the focus of condescension. As I recall, her family is not particularly wealthy: her uncle’s a vicar, right? I haven’t seen an particular signs that she sings or is otherwise accomplished. She’s a nice girl, to be sure, but a bit of a ditz (requisite disclaimer: SO FAR).


  4. Jessica January 27, 2014 / 1:25 pm

    What perfect timing! I’m looking for a new show to watch in exactly the same kind of situations you describe (during cardio, at night when tired), and Foyle’s War was recommended to me on Twitter by several people. Your description, especially of the moral challenges on the home front, is intriguing. Will give it a try!


    • Rohan January 27, 2014 / 4:45 pm

      I really do enjoy it. Also, in the episode I finished this morning, I was happy to see Dimitri, from MI-5 (he probably has a real name too). Sometimes it seems like there are only so many actors in the UK and they will all turn up eventually in any given show!


  5. Alex January 27, 2014 / 4:51 pm

    I haven’t seen any of these so I can’t comment on the show itself but your post did remind me of the first time I saw (a very much younger) Michael Kitchen, which was on stage at The National Theatre in an Hungarian play that Tom Stoppard had translated. He was playing the roguish waiter type character and had the refrain ‘classic’ which cropped up throughout the show. I can hear him saying it now. His timing was spot on and he made that one word mean a thousand different things. He hasn’t had anywhere near the recognition he deserves.


  6. Amateur Reader (Tom) January 27, 2014 / 5:47 pm

    I will bet you Viennese rather than Hungarian, Stoppard’s On the Razzle.

    Having seen Foyle’s War only through Season 2 or so, I am no help otherwise.


  7. Ric January 27, 2014 / 9:50 pm

    OK. Up front, we really love Sam. A lot!

    Remember her father, the fatuous parson who didn’t think the police was an appropriate place for his (sheltered) daughter. She had a long way to come, and bit by bit she made the grade. And, as hinted in another comment there is more to come in your watching life.

    AND remember, YOU came out of the womb empowered, and were raised to be self-sufficient and self-confident (bit of self-congratulation here). Different world. Different time.

    And, as Peter says above, the characters in Call the Midwife, almost a generation later, would probably please you a little more.


    • Rohan Maitzen January 27, 2014 / 10:10 pm

      I think the point about her family background is a fair one; she behaves in a perfectly plausible way, and I’m genuinely interested to see if they take her character in a more interesting (substantial) direction. As I said to RT above, though, I don’t think the point that it was a “different time” is accurate or relevant: she’s an exact contemporary of plenty of empowered, self-sufficient, self-confident women. She’s younger than Rebecca West and Vera Brittain, for heaven’s sake! Women of her “different world” fought, and some were imprisoned and some DIED, to win women the vote! Women long before 1940 were outspoken, determined, strong-willed, intellectual, politically informed and active — often against even greater odds than women faced in Sam’s time! There’s no need to wait another generation for a character like that. But the writers did not give us a character anything like that to stand up as an equal to their other main characters — though they could have, with perfect historical realism. It would in fact have added another genuinely interesting facet to their exploration of the era. Instead, they gave us (ritual disclaimer: SO FAR!) someone whose main virtue is being perky. Well, and loyal, which is nice.

      My point has never been that she’s unlikable or unrealistic. She’s cute. Didn’t I say that? I like her too, within limits.

      That said, your self-congratulation is certainly in order. 🙂


  8. CB January 29, 2014 / 12:27 am

    As a great fan of the show and its characters, I like the way that you described Foyle’s personality, but I see Sam very differently. To me she is a charming blend of youthful brashness and war-bred maturity, and I don’t perceive the sense of condescension from the men that you do. Oh, there is an eyebrow-raise or joke about her exuberance here and there, but I don’t get the sense that a young male driver behaving the same way would receive different treatment. Much more often, Foyle operates as a mentor to her, and after his initial annoyance with her he comes to admire her smarts and treat her in an egalitarian fashion (indeed, in the very first episode). One can tell how deeply fond the two characters are of each other (and there’s a bit of spark between them, though the show never takes that into the romantic territory that many a fanfic writer has). The lovely interplay of their very different reactions/approaches is a huge part of the show’s success.


    • Rohan January 29, 2014 / 10:24 am

      A spark?! Yikes. I’m glad I hadn’t thought of that before. The possibility strikes me as a bit creepy, considering how overtly he stands as a father-figure to her.


  9. Sylvia January 29, 2014 / 9:25 am

    I think the character of Sam is meant to personify the “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude that so many people had – and as with so much in this show, inspired by women who lived during the war. I do see Foyle as a fatherly mentor to her.
    It should be pointed out that ITV’s premature wish to cancel “Foyle’s War” in 2007 (because of viewer demographics and the expense of a period drama, despite high ratings and international popularity) caused creator Anthony Horowitz to alter plot lines and speed up the end of the war. It has led to a change in tone really for all but the central character, I think..


    • Rohan January 29, 2014 / 10:26 am

      I’m in Season 6 now and I do see a change in tone and pace.


    • Rohan January 29, 2014 / 10:30 am

      See, I just don’t agree — the parts that riled me up seemed to me overtly patronizing — in a “nice,” friendly, fatherly, paternalistic way. That doesn’t mean every interaction between them riles me up or that I think Foyle is not a good guy or even an ally of a kind, though “feminist”? I’m not convinced, though as I’ve said, I’m not through the whole series yet. In any case, clearly, around here anyway, mine is a minority view.


  10. Sue January 29, 2014 / 10:53 am

    (sorry – meant my earlier reply to go under CB. Ah well, moving on…)

    “… patterns or myths in the historiography of wartime Britain being used in significant ways in the series, whether subversive or conservative or predictable”

    As you’ve observed, the human cost figures large, and is also explored from the angle of German civilian losses: Sam’s Uncle Aubrey specifically deplores the Dresden bombings (Plan of Attack, S6E1)—though the perspective he expresses is hardly groundbreaking stuff to modern insights, the fact that he is portrayed voicing it in wartime comes across as such. And it is used as a platform to question the place of pacifism and The Church in wartime.

    The myth that “everybody pulled together on the Home Front” is exploded in myriad ways: opportunist thieving from bombed properties, weary sappers lining their own pockets (War of Nerves), people buying their way out of conscription (The German Woman) or paying to sit out the war in relative comfort (The Funk Hole), companies trading with the enemy (War Games). I suspect that this is news to many viewers, if not to historians.

    Military, research and intelligence blunders get an airing also: Messinger’s son’s death in The French Drop, anthrax in Bad Blood (ref. Gruinard Island), and the tragedy of Slapton Sands in All Clear. I wonder again whether, in these times, after the lifting of the 50-year rule, these are real revelations any more, but certainly they should be mentioned in a series of this kind.

    I have heard the view expressed that Foyle’s War is anti-American in tone. Not being an American myself, perhaps I’m not sufficiently sensitive to this. But anti-American feeling did exist in Britain during WW2, so it seems appropriate to portray it in the series—never, however, is it expressed by the central character. For my taste, to pretend that everything in the garden was lovely between these two friendly nations would have been naïve in the extreme. And after all, equivocal feelings between Britain and America was (and is) a two-way street.

    Pro-Hitler/anti-Semitic sentiments are also dealt with frankly—in The White Feather (does this make FW anti-British? ;o) with a tour-de-force turn from Charles Dance as Guy Spencer channelling Sir Oswald Mosley. Again, this ignominious bit of history needed airing.

    Moral injustices on the Home Front? Well-explored already from the outset. More human fallout: internment of innocent civilians by reason of foreign origin—not even German Jews escaped this, to add insult to injury. Cover-ups under the aegis of the Official Secrets Act (Eagle Day, Casualties of War), diplomatic expediency (Fifty Ships).

    Then we have the sacrifice of moral principles to smooth post-war relations in S7, but I don’t think you’ve quite got there yet. I’ll come back later.

    Just a few there to be going on with. In general, I think the writing likes to stick a nail under a few good scabs to see what’s happening underneath. And does so in a way that doesn’t make the subject-matter indigestible.


    • Rohan January 29, 2014 / 4:10 pm

      That’s a great catalogue. I guess what I don’t know is how persistent those ideas (e.g. “everyone pulled together”) are in the way WWII is usually treated — I agree that it’s striking how wide-ranging the debunking is. I have noticed the anti-Americanism: you’re right that it doesn’t come from Foyle, but I recall some episodes where the feeling that the damn Yankees are pushy and arrogant seems reasonable enough in context. The episode I started this morning deals with the attempt to institute segregation among the remaining American troops, with all the resulting problems of discrimination and complicity. My admiration for the show comes from the kinds of things you’ve outlined: a really persistent engagement with the social and moral fall-out of the war.


      • Sue January 29, 2014 / 4:37 pm

        From that perspective, the next series, set in 1946, can’t disappoint you, and Foyle is plunged into the thick of it as usual. You’ll find fallout both literal and figurative. And a Sam transformed (which drew no shortage of discussion and complaint from the fandom). Perhaps the new Sam will be more to your taste.


  11. MaryB January 29, 2014 / 9:45 pm

    I just finished watching through Season 6 (but won’t talk about 6 yet) and I completely agree with you. I really enjoyed the series and can’t wait for the later seasons to show up on Netflix. But I too thought that the way Sam was written was the weak spot in seasons 1-5.

    While I was watching I thought it was just laziness on the part of the writers – that they were just sticking to the tried and true old fashioned format for television shows where you have a main character who always figures everything out and you need a sidekick who is there to ask the questions and make the main character look good. The companion to Doctor Who. Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes in the old Basil Rathbone movies. Etc. The problem was that after a while it became distracting that she never got better at figuring things out.

    The other reason I marked it down to lazy writing was because I marked one other thing that annoyed me down to lazy writing. I tire of detectives who are always solving cases that involve their family members or their close friends. It always seems like a bit of a cheat to me – you automatically have the audience’s interest because, for instance, Andrew is accused of murder. Far more challenging for a writer, I think, to think of a mystery involving unrelated third parties and do it in a way that the audience is drawn into the story as much as if they had already known the characters. (In Season 6 this was a real problem for me.)

    After you wrote this, however, I started to think about other reasons that I might have reacted to Sam this way. It might be that Seasons 1-5 take place from 1940 to summer of 1944, so no more than 4 1/2 years. But they aired from 2002 to 2008. So the actress who played Sam began to look noticeably more mature even though not that much time had gone by on the series I had the impression that Sam was supposed to be fairly young at the beginning – did they ever say her age? I was thinking she was supposed to be no more than about 20. So at the end of the war she’d be 24. But the actress, who may have started out the same age, was noticeably older than 4 years older. Maybe I kept expecting that since she looked as if she were 8 years older and not 4 years older she should have grown more than she had.

    Somebody mentioned the Americans in the show. I liked that there was tension. I can’t imagine Americans going anywhere, with our attitudes, and not causing tension. I will say that the I found the accent of the man who played Capt./ Major Kiefer somewhat distracting. It wasn’t that he didn’t sound American (for all I know he IS American), it was that he sounded like an American in a 1940’s movie. I don’t know if that was a choice he made in portraying the character or that’s what he really sounds like, but I did find it distracting. But it made me think about my best friend’s now deceased dad, who served in WW2 and was stationed in Britain. It was the only time in his life that he left the United States and while he wouldn’t talk about the war itself, he talked often about his time in Britain and the wonderful people he met who he kept in touch with after the war.


    • Rohan January 30, 2014 / 10:22 pm

      I’m shamefully relieved that someone agrees with me about Sam-So-Far! I hope everyone realizes that by hinting so much about how much she changes, I’ve got my expectations pretty high now. 🙂

      I had wondered about Kiefer’s accent too. Often in MI-5 there were “Americans” who really didn’t sound like Americans, which drove my American husband especially crazy. (“Where’s that accent supposed to be from?!” he’d expostulate.)


  12. Sylvia January 30, 2014 / 9:29 am

    The character of Sam was 22 when the series started (The beginning setting is 1940.).

    And Jay Benedict, who played Captain/Major Kieffer, was born in the U.S., but moved to the UK as a teenager.


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