Foyle's Phoney War
- by Michael Hellicar; The Daily Mail, "Weekend" magazine; November 8, 2003
Foyle's War, the stylish crime series starring Michael Kitchen as a wartime detective, is back in all its period glory - but how do you transform modern towns into sombre 1940s backdrops? Michael Helliscar investigates.
Night is closing in and an eerie silence settles on Hastings Old Town. There are no cars and the few reamining pedestrians are hurrying back to their terraced houses, firmly bolting the doors behind them and closing the heavy curtains so tightly that not a chink of light can be seen. This is England in October 1940 and the Battle of Britain is raging in the skies above us. Soon, a warden will begin his patrol along pitch-black pavements where the street lamps have been switched off by law to make sure that nothing can be seen from the air to help the German bombers navigate. However, it was a very different scene a few hours earlier - summer 2003 in real time. Tourists flocked through picturesque lanes, traffic choked the streets and the only wardens on duty were those enforcing parking restrictions.
But the cast and crew of Foyle's War, the TV detective series set against a World War II background, arrived and a remarkable transformation took place. While its star, Michael Kitchen - the imperturable Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle - is rehearsing with his two sidekicks, Anthony Howell (Sergeant Paul Milner) and Honeysuckle Weeks (Foyle's driver, Samantha), the TV crew turn back the clock.
"We have to hide every trace of modern Britain," explains designer Martyn John. "We are going back to a time before yellow lines, parking meters, green cycle lanes, TV aerials, satellite dishes and burglar alarms. Even telephone lines would have been few and far between. Plastic drainpipes and PVC window-frames were unknown then. Even the paint colours were different - house exteriors are bright nowadays, with doors of every imaginable shade. But in the 1940s people preferred muted, sombre colours - blacks, browns, greys." Out in the streets, Martyn's team are cunningly hiding the yellow lines by pouring gravel over them - afterwards, when life has to return to normal, it is just swept away. Modern window frames are aged by covering them in black tape. Black adhesive plastic covering is stuck over large areas of glass, so that they don't reflect and to disguise late 20th-century features such as picture windows and double glazing. Neighbourhood Watch stickers - a child of the 1980s - are peeled off. Some windows are boarded over to give the impression of bomb damage.
Shop fronts are carefully dressed, with modern products and advertisements swapped for popular items of the time such as Ovaltine and Oxydol washing powder. Even so, mistakes can happen; folming was about to start for one scene when a tiny sticker for the National Lottery - which begin in the mid-1990s - was spotted in the corner of one shop window.
Most shopkeepers and householders are happy to let us do what we want," explains Martyn. "When we are planning the location shots we call on them and explain what we need to do. If anyone refuses to let us de-modernise their place, we reorganise the scene so that we can film around it. But that doesn't happen very often." The police too, and the local authority have to be involved, because filming requires streets to be cordoned off and public facilities such as car parks to be temporarily closed to the public, and modern street and traffic signs to be disguised or removed. As a final touch - to subtly remind the viewer that this is a coastal setting - the props department place some fisherman's nets and a coil of rope outside one of the houses.
By now, the entire Foyle's War travelling circus is installed in Hastings Old Town. The stars mobile dressings room are parked nearby, along with the make-up truck, equipment lorries and - most important of all - the catering bus with its constant supply of bacon rolls. Cameras, lights and microphone booms are in place and Michael, Anthony and Honeysuckle go through their paces with director Jeremy Silberston. As filming begins, a very modern Boeing 747 flies over low on its approach to Gatwick, destroying the 1940s feel, and a few streets away a car horn sounds - another headache as hooters have changed from the throaty beep-beep of the 1940s to the urgent hi-tech screech of today.
"It's almost like a Blue Peter project," whispers Martyn as the cameras start to roll again and Foyle begins his investigation into a looting racket that ended in murder. "We're using a lot of different ingredients to magic together something completely unexpected."
A few dyas later the Foyle's War team are out on a different location - this time an imposing manor house in Guildford, Surrey. It is one of those scorching late summer days when the air is still, the grass is scorched yellow and the roses, which should be in full bloom at this time, are clinging limply to life. Computer wizardry on the film with mellow the brilliant sunshine, give the grass a greener tinge and mute the colours of the flower beds, for this is meant to be one of the waning days of autumn, remember.
For the purposes of the story, the house is a wartime 'funk hole' - the contemptuous name given to country hotels to where the wealthy fled from the bomb-ravaged cities during the height of the air-raids. The hotels sheltered cowards, deserters and black-market profiteers, without asking too many questions about their guests, and somehow managed to supply them - even during those times of strict rationing - with everything they wanted. Foyle's investigations into the disappearance of a young boy and a break-in at a local food depot lead him to the hotel and he finds himself in a viper's nest of greed and deceit.
Today, though, we watch as a cocker-spaniel - Charlie the actor dog - has to do his part, racing across the lawn, barking. By the 20th take, the two rather grand actresses who are sharing his scene are visibly wilting in the heat, but Charlie shows no sign of losing his enthusiasm. Across the lawn is a tennis court, re-equipped for the scene with a 1940s net and two racquets of the period.
Series writer, Anthony Horowitz, explains, "The detail is so important. When I was researching the era, I realised that everything changed very quickly and dramatically. For instance, the wartime government requisitioned all the ice-cream seller's vans because they were needed to transport blood between hospitals. I had to find a way of writing that wonderful piece of beaurocratic thinking into the script. And we spoke differently, too. It was unusually familiar, in fact it was a liberty, for people to call each other by their first names - surnames were always used, even by neighbours and close work colleagues. Nobody spoke their mind because it was a time of courtesy and formality.
"It wasn't until the late 1950s that television began to shape so much of our speech with its slang and American-style idioms. Until then, it had had almost no impact, and in fact it was suspended from service during the war years, when radio - or rather the wireless as it was called then - was king."
Foyle's War came about, says Horowitz, because Morse had come to an end and ITV felt that other detective shows such as Frost and Taggart were losing their appeal. "They are good shows, but in spite of all the work that goes into them, the result is always the same - the butler, the vet or the doctor did it. If you want to be really different, perhaps the vicar did it.
"So ITV asked for ideas for a new detective series and they received 300 suggestions. They whittled them down to three, of which Foyle's War was one. Period shows are notoriously expensive, so we had to convince ITV that we wouldn't be going back in time far enough for it to be a costume drama. In the end, they accepted our argument, even though Foyle's War isn't cheap. Imagine the cost of making all those 1940s clothes, not to mention the set dressing to make real places look as though they are in the middle of the war."
One way in which producer Jill Green - Anthony Horowitz's wife - has saved money is by cutting back on military hardware. An authentic Spitfire was required for some scenes, and the only working one left in Britain was hired for two days from its final resting place, a museum, at a cost of £13,000 - for less than two minutes on screen. But in one episode, a whole squadron of them is seen in the background. "Simple," cuts in designer Martyn. "We made life-size plywood cut-outs of them, and stood them in a field next to the real one, but you'd never know we'd faked them."
"Our working title was The Blitz Detective," continues Horowitz, "but I knew that had to change because I wanted to empasise that there were two wars going on here - the real one and the policeman's personal one against ordinary crime." It was while he was researching for story ideas that the perfect name came to him. "I used to visit the wonderful 1940s-style Foyles bookshop in London. So I decided to take their name for my hero, and for his first name, Christopher, I adapted the first name of the shop's boss, Christina."
A list of 15 possible candidates was drawn up for the title role. Michael Kitchen was at the top, but, as one of Britain's most distinguished actors, no-one really expected he would have the time. "When he read the outline of the idea, he said he would love to do it," says Horowitz. "From that moment on, we were certain we had a winner on our hands. He helped me write the first script and contributed some very good ideas. He is the only actor I have ever met who asks for fewer lines to speak, rather than more. He can express with his eyes, his looks, his mannerisms, what other actors need six lines to convey."
Kitchen himself, though, modestly shrugs his own efforts aside. "It was a great idea for a detective drama and a big attraction for me was to be able to play the character as I see him. The 1940s was a period of extraordinary stories and so every script is based on actual events, which helps to give the series an authentic feel." Now, with an audience of 10 million viewers in Britain, and previous episodes sold to 30 countries including Russia and China - but, hardly surprisingly, not Germany - Foyle's War is set for two more series.
World War II offers a rich backdrop for TV drama, in spite of other, more recent wars, creating so much bad feeling," says Horowitz. "The issues of the time are still relevant. We built a huge internment camp for one episode at around the same time that politicians were talking about building internment camps on the south coast for refugees. But I think murder will always be popular, in whatever setting, because we had a killer instinct as early primates and like to see it - from a distance."
Foyle's War returns to ITV1 on November 16.
With thanks to Jan for the scan.