Foyle's War - Series One Reviews

The Guardian
; CPA (Aus); October 30, 2002;

Mail on Sunday
; London (UK); Nov 3, 2002; Jaci Stephen;

The Daily Telegraph
; London (UK); Nov 13, 2002; Sarah Crompton;

The Times
; London (UK); Nov 16, 2002; Jonathon Meades;

The Independent
; London (UK); Nov 18, 2002; Thomas Sutcliffe;

The Age
; Melbourne (Aus); November 28, 2002; John C. Murray;

The Guardian; CPA (Aus); October 30, 2002;

And now comes an excellent four-part series Foyle's War (ABC 8.30pm Fridays), in which Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle investigates murders and the like on the south coast of England during WW2.

Created and written by Anthony Horowitz with a clever (and convincing) ability to relate the plots to the atmosphere, events and milieu of the War at home, the series has been directed by Jeremy Silbertson with an understated skill that is quite refreshing.

In fact, understatement might almost be a theme of the series: the performances, David Odd's excellent photography and especially Jim Parker's very effective music are all pleasingly understated.

Foyle is played by Michael Kitchen as a shrewd, experienced and credible copper. At the beginning of the series he believes he is wasted doing mere police work and wants to be allowed to take a commission in the army. His boss, Asst Commissioner Summers, (Edward Fox) won't hear of it.

As compensation, Summers gives Foyle a woman driver from the Armoured Transport Corps, Sam (played by the extraordinarily named Honeysuckle Weeks). Sam, as played by Weeks, is delightfully in period: rosy cheeked, frank, inquisitive, not at all overawed by her new boss the very picture of the young '40s woman given the opportunity by the War to step out of her designated domestic role (in Sam's case, a village vicarage).

Best of all about Foyle's War is that the plots are intelligent rather than merely ingenious, the supporting characters are interesting and the supporting cast is excellent (in episode one, Robert Hardy, David Horovitch, Rosamunde Pike who could have stepped out of a 1940s movie and Philip Whitchurch, amongst others).

Mail on Sunday; London (UK); Nov 3, 2002; Jaci Stephen;

Thank goodness in a dire week for the genius of Michael Kitchen in Foyle's War. This is an actor who can do no wrong; he does not blink without there being a reason for it, and his role as wartime Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle makes the most of his extraordinary talents.

If Michael Kitchen played a corpse, you would still watch him more than anyone else.

The Daily Telegraph; London (UK); Nov 13, 2002; Sarah Crompton;

I wouldn't make any great claims for Foyle's War, currently filling Sunday nights on ITV: it is undemanding entertainment, unlikely to change your life. It is, however, in its own quiet way, a phenomenon. For Foyle's War is a new television detective series that is actually a success.

Since Fabian of the Yard appeared on our screens in 1954, the murder mystery has been a small-screen staple. Each decade has produced its favourites, but it was Inspector Morse (1987-2000) which elevated the audience-grabbing detective series into a televisual Holy Grail.

According to its creator, the ever-modest Colin Dexter, principal credit for the success of Morse must go to the casting directors who brought in John Thaw and Kevin Whately to transform the parts of crusty hero and diligent sidekick into something much more rich and memorable. But it was Dexter who provided plots that twisted and turned with satisfying thoroughness, and a group of talented young screenwriters who filled them out for the screen. Then producer Kenny McBain had the idea of telling each story in a two-hour chunk, thus producing, in Dexter's words, "event television". "People looked on it like going to the pictures."

Ever since then, schedulers have been desperately trying to replicate the Morse formula. Indeed, Foyle's War was commissioned as a result of ITV putting out a tender for a Morse replacement which produced 300 different pitches and three pilots. The final one of these, The Last Detective, starring Peter Davison, has yet to be shown, but Foyle is already a success, favourable critical reaction and audiences averaging more than seven million giving ITV enough confidence to commission a second series.

In part, once again, this is down to its leading actor, Michael Kitchen, who has been given a vehicle that allows his infinite capacity for sensitive understatement full rein. But it is also because its writer Anthony Horowitz, also the creator of the popular Midsomer Murders, has come up with something that is, within the constraints of the genre, genuinely original.

The summer of 1940, when Foyle is set, has always fascinated him. "You could argue it is the most interesting year of our civilisation," he says. And that interest shows, as he turns a spotlight on unexplored areas of wartime Britain: internment, draft- dodging, the treatment of pacifists, support for the Blackshirts.

Just as his period detail is lightly applied but convincing, so such concerns provide gentle backdrops to the requirements of the whodunnit genre, in which suspects are lined up as mechanically as they ever were in Agatha Christie. The whole adds up to slightly more than the sum of its parts, giving an elegant twist to the old formulas. Precisely because detective series are formulaic, their creation looks easy - but, although the ingredients are simple to identify, the alchemy that distinguishes a hit from a miss is curiously elusive.

Terrific material, for example, is no guarantee of success. Ian Rankin is perhaps the best and most complex thriller writer in Britain today, but the television adaptation of his Inspector Rebus novels was a travesty. Indeed, perhaps the strength of the novels actually worked against him. T R Bowen, one of the writers behind the BBC's exemplary Miss Marple series (1985-92), says: "Christie's crudity is, in a sense, her strength. Her novels are very robust, and they give you something you can bounce off."

On the other hand, Bowen also adapted Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn books for television. They vanished without trace, perhaps because her plots are weaker than Christie's, or perhaps because the series was miscast. No one precisely knows.

My long infatuation with TV detectives of all shapes and sizes leads me, however, to offer one observation, drawn not only from watching Foyle but also ITV's other new autumnal detective offering, Wire in the Blood, which runs for six weeks from tomorrow.

On paper, this has everything going for it - good plots, high production values, and the charismatic Robson Green as clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill, brought in by clever cop Carol Jordan (Cold Feet's Hermione Norris) to help solve a particularly nasty set of serial killings.

Although it is based on Val McDermid's books, its direct televisual progenitor is Jimmy McGovern's Cracker. But, in its cold- blooded brutality, it lacks one crucial ingredient that all the best telly 'tecs share - a warm heart. Television detectives are so popular because they make order out of chaos on our behalf; they bring moral certainty to the messiness of life. But, if we are to love them truly, then they must be truly lovable. They can't be too perfect, yet they must be kind. They have, at some subconscious level, to represent both the best and worst qualities of the audience which watches them. And that, I suspect, is what makes them so very difficult to create.

The Times; London (UK); Nov 16, 2002; Jonathon Meades;

Over the past month something unusual and heartening has occurred on television. Michael Kitchen's playing of the title role in a show called Foyle's War on ITV on Sunday nights is uplifting because it is an unalloyed display of high art. That it should occur in a compromised medium that shies from excellence and where it is pygmies who make all the noise renders it all the rarer. His performance is singular, serious, very quiet. He does something that only the greatest actors are capable of, that is to convince in character while employing consummate professional skills. He promotes the suspension of disbelief, yet thrills that part of us which yearns to be seduced by performance. When we witness a virtuoso musician we are simultaneously enthralled by the composition that is being played and by the artist's compact with the instrument. Acting at this level is kindred.

Kitchen's instrument is his face. He has used it to create a gestural language of the utmost suppleness and complexity. I'm not sure that I get it all - there is evidently no key to it - but that does not inhibit my appreciation. The fact that one is now and again foxed by the meaning of this moue or that twitch doesn't matter. Meaning takes second place to expression. Communicative usefulness is subjugated by the brio of the devices. His sheer control is awesome. His repertoire causes us to rethink the possibilities of facial musculature. He conjures tones that are beyond the capacity of even such masters of physiognomic colour as Lino Ventura and Alain Delon.

Kitchen's thrilling performance is conducted within the depressingly banal confines of yet another detective series. This one is set in the picturesque bits of Hastings (the net huts, the old town, Coburg Place etc) early during the Second World War. The scripts are predictably anachronistic - for instance, the word "starter" as a meal's first course was unknown before the 1970s. The plotting contrives to be both preposterous and cliched.

Yet it doesn't matter. For most starry actors such hackneyed shows are little more than vehicles for one-dimensional turns every bit as threadbare as the cosy consolations of the English murder.

Witnessing Michael Kitchen in this show is, I suppose, about on a par with witnessing Alfred Brendel play S Club Seven's greatest hits - now, there's an idea for a telly executive. But better that than no Brendel at all. There are occasions when an interpretation can quite overcome the creation it supposedly serves.

The Independent; London (UK); Nov 18, 2002; Thomas Sutcliffe;

I caught up a little late with Foyle's War, after someone enthused about Michael Kitchen's performance as a police detective in wartime Britain. The drama itself was fine, if a little too dependent on whodunnit cliches ("It's an extremely unpleasant business"; "You could almost forget there's a war on"; "It doesn't make any sense!"). But when Kitchen was around you barely noticed. Can any other actor hesitate so speakingly? His pauses and catches of utterance were tactful, pained, reluctant, pensive, tender and searching. This old-school detective series hasn't really stretched him, but when he's on screen he certainly stretches it.

The Age; Melbourne (Aus); November 28, 2002; John C. Murray;

I don't ask a TV series to be as crammed with action as, say, the overwrought 24, or with acting as histrionic as Vincent D'Onofrio's in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But Foyle's War's creator Anthony Horowitz has cobbled a pastiche of unevenly paced plots straight out of the Agatha Christie songbook (murder at the manor, death in the drawing room), presided over by the Buster Keaton-stonefaced Michael Kitchen. Its admirable recreations of the visual and social surfaces of Britain in 1940 provide some moments of keen dramatic tension and others teetering on the ludicrous, with the whole enterprise smothered in an almost parodic air of bourgeois English decency. (There's a research paper to be done on how often characters in these narratives say "Sorry''.)

Detective Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Kitchen) has all the facial animation of Mount Rushmore; his WRAC driver Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) emerges in voice and bearing as the mirror image of yesteryear's Princess Anne; and young men like Foyle's son Andrew and the former pacifist Theo Howard go off to war to ``do their bit'', upper lips stiff with patriotism.

There's no question that Horowitz, his directors (Jeremy Silbertson and David Thacker) and production team have done a fine job crafting a 1940 Sussex milieu. Civilians attend Sunday service with gasmasks on their shoulders, blackout curtains drape windows and car headlights are masked. Foyle and Samantha Stewart travel in a black, forbiddingly angular Wolseley 6/80 sedan. There are evacuees from London like 11-year-old Joe Pierson, a key figure in last week's tangled plot; refugees from Europe; conscientious objectors; xenophobia and anti-Semitism; war profiteering; even Joe Loss band music for the dance hall.

But the treatment of and obeisance to historical realities have in one glaring instance drowned the mood of a story in bathos. In episode two, fascist sympathisers gather at the town guesthouse for an address by an extremist Tory politician visiting from London. At one point there is a blackout, during which the manager's overbearing wife is shot dead.

As usual with these kinds of plots, there are about five people on whom Foyle's suspicion can justifiably fall. One of them is a young man who works on his father's trawler and who resented the woman because she'd harshly treated a waitress he loved. The young man was seen in the guesthouse grounds on the night of the murder and has no explanation for his presence.

Foyle and Stewart drive to the dock and Foyle tells the trawler captain that his son will have to be taken in for questioning. But the old man says he can't release the lad: there has just been a government request that all vessels, large and small, cross the Channel to rescue the troops stranded at Dunkirk. He is unable to manage the boat by himself but promises that if Foyle will let the youth go, he will surrender him when they return. Foyle agrees and the trawler sets off for France.

No worries so far: the Dunkirk rescue is rightly part of British national legend. But in Foyle's War the departure and everything it connotes is trivialised. Why? Because the camera frames the impeccably uniformed Stewart, the WRAC cap set with geometric precision straight on her head. As the boat buckets through the swell, she honours its crew with a perfectly executed, long-held, ramrod-backed military salute. So what? you cry. Answer: the conception and realisation of the close-up were so studied, so self-consciously high-minded, so patently an emotional device that they undercut their own purpose. History was cheapened by the bathetic theatricality of the gesture.

Though relatively small, such missteps can erode one's trust in the sensibility shaping the material.

When the trawler returned we got the old captain's account of the troops they had saved and the revelation that, as promised, his son was being returned to Foyle - but dead, killed by a German bullet while helping a soldier to board the boat. Here Foyle's War stumbled again with a series of uncomfortably insistent close-ups of the sobbing, inconsolable old man, which revealed nothing more than that a parent who has seen his only child die is likely to be pretty upset.

Last week, Foyle's interrogation of PC Ferris, the pacifist-hating copper who had brutalised conscientious objector David Beale to the point of suicide, was powerfully written and acted. But in the same episode Emily Gascoigne's shooting of her husband, the judge, was misconceived and way over the top.

Foyle's War has been a very mixed bag indeed.

Many thanks to Deb for digging out these reviews.