World War Two is the most significant event in modern history, and still has plenty to teach us. However, 58 years (and thousands of books, plays, films and TV dramas) later, perhaps it’s time to move on. That’s certainly the feeling we got from POW, a series which said nothing new about the conflict, and seemed largely an excuse to show handsome young men under duress in scant clothing. Not so, however, with ITV’s Foyle’s War.
The series is set on England’s south coast, in the early days of the war. On the face of it, it’s Inspector Morse (or perhaps Midsomer Murders) with ration books, as Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle (Michael Kitchen) tackles the tricky business of chasing “ordinary” thieves and murderers in a country steeling itself for imminent German invasion. As a whodunit it is, indeed, fairly conventional, although very well done. But there’s also an extra dimension that, nearly six decades on, manages to say something new about World War Two, and war in general.
The key to this is the drama’s unsentimental depiction of wartime Britain. Instead of a Dad’s Army land of plucky matrons ready to bash Jerry with their broomsticks, it portrays a dark, authoritarian society, dominated by a centralised bureaucracy that uses the threat of arrest and punishment to obtain compliance from its citizens. The people themselves are often less than heroic; the first series began with a corrupt official taking bribes to help men escape conscription, while this one opened with a rescue crew looting bombed-out houses.
When bombs fall, their victims don’t shake their fists defiantly at the departing Heinkels; their lives are destroyed along with their homes. Families are torn apart by poverty and the return of fathers as broken men. No-one completely trusts anyone else, because they’ve been told they mustn’t. Everyone’s afraid. It’s a society made bad by the imperatives of war, but made bad nevertheless.
Kitchen is typecast as the quietly penetrative Foyle, but excellent nonetheless, more convincingly the cultured, Oxford-educated detective than John Thaw ever managed as Morse. Honeysuckle Weeks is outstanding as his driver, Sam, the plucky girl-in-uniform with a hard edge of personal independence. The production is fairly lavish (more Midsomer than Taggart), but the lush beauty of the countryside doesn’t overwhelm the ugliness of what’s going on there.
Wartime dramas have always shown us how war produced some of the best elements of the British character. Foyle’s War does that, but it also shows how war produced some of the worst elements, and how it always eats away at the principles of free, open society, even for the non-aggressors. That’s a lesson that’s well worth learning.
What was Foyle’s case this week?
Foyle was called in to investigate what seemed to be the mutilated body of a British spy was found in the remains of a bookshop after he committed suicide over a doomed love affair.
What to say of you liked it
A gentle stroll in England’s pleasant pastures at a time when war raged around the globe, in the company of an amiable police officer sorting out domestic troubles.
What to say if you didn’t like it
A meandering, pointless escapade that relies on a sense of nostalgia to entice viewers into its highly unconvincing plotlines.
What was good about it?
• It was refreshing to see a detective drama where evidence was used as a clue other than simply being bagged up and shipped off to the forensics squad. In this case, the clue was a suspicious watch.
• Foyle sometimes comes across as what Dr Who would be like if the TARDIS broke down and he became trapped in 1940s Britain, as he has no interest in romance while his assistants are a plucky young woman and a sober young man.
• Plenty of lingering shots of rural Hampshire.
• The narrative ambled along at an amiable pace, but was also punctuated by anomalous scenes whose significance would become apparent later on the investigation.
• The whole sense of conspiracy as the incompetent division of spies set out to fabricate the death of a serviceman who was really killed in France, right down to dotty landlady and weeping girlfriend.
What was bad about it?
• All the poor folk seem to have been banished from Hampshire, to the extent that we saw more graves than working class people.
• The only working class character was the shifty Mr Fenner, a black marketeer. But he was soon coshed and hospitalised by the Oik Extermination Squad (or one of the very posh members of the corrupt secret service).
• Too many clichés of rural life, the worst being that Foyle had tea with a beaming vicar.
• Some clues were too blatant.
• After we guessed the victim in the bookshop was the recently dug-up corpse and the motive for the cover-up after an hour, the rest of the investigation was a tortuous process.