For you Foyle, the war is over - 5 January, 2008; Daily Mail
He survived Hitler and the Blitz, but TV detective Christopher Foyle has finally bought it - killed off by the current craze for dumbing down. His creator Anthony Horowitz bids him a fond farewell...
There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness to be saying goodbye to Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, the character that I created in 1999. Since then, he has appeared in 19 two-hour films on ITV, all but three of them written by me. The high point was when the show won the Lew Grade Audience Award at the Baftas in 2003. The low point... well, we will come to that in due course.
Foyle came about, like so much British TV, as a result of a lunch at the Ivy, the London restaurant that has served myriad famous faces from the Beckhams to Bill Clinton. Nick Elliott, who was then the director of drama at ITV, had a problem. Although there was an insatiable demand for TV detectives, several of his flagship programmes had come to the end of their lives. Morse was the most significant of these, with the character, played by John Thaw, dying in an episode in 2000 (Thaw himself sadly died two years later).
Likewise, another popular show, Taggart, had never fully recovered from the death of its star, Mark McManus. And the writing also seemed to be on the wall for Midsomer Murders, the series that I had helped to create in 1997.
In any event, Elliott had put out a tender for more detective drama and had been flooded with ideas - more than 300 of them arrived in the following weeks. Over lunch, I added one more to the pile. The original title was The Blitz Detective, about a sleuth working on the home front, in London, during World War II. The detective's name was George Ransom.
It would take 18 months until I was given the green light, but much of the groundwork that would become Foyle's War was there. All detectives need a sidekick, a Watson to their Holmes, but I was determined that Sergeant Paul Milner should be more than that. Hence, Milner, who had been wounded in the Norway campaign, had a missing leg (actor Anthony Howell wore a crippling leg-brace for the first two series), and was married to a horrible wife who was eventually murdered.
I also decided to break the usual detective format by adding a third character to the mix -Sam Stewart, an eccentric female driver seconded from the Mechanical [sic] Transport Corps. Originally named Fitz, she was based on Norah FitzGerald, my old nanny. She had been in the WAAF and had lost her fiance during the Battle of Britain. Like many displaced young women, she drifted into service after the war. When I was growing up she used to regale me with stories involving terrible scrapes, large amounts of drink and young pilots - often all three at the same time. She, more than anyone, inspired Foyle's War. I was glad when, played by Honeysuckle Weeks, Sam became one of the biggest stars of the series.
Everything was in place except the name of the detective - nothing seemed quite right. Then, one day, I glanced up at the sign above the shop where I was buying all the books for research. Foyle's in Charing Cross Road, London. The answer to my problem was staring me in the face.
It became obvious that it would be prohibitively expensive to film in London - how could we possibly dramatise the Blitz? So I moved the series to Hastings, a hive of incident during the war. One memorable moment came during the second episode, when we were recreating a scene from Dunkirk. An elderly fisherman mentioned that he had himself sailed in one of the 'little boats'.
This confirmed in my mind what I had always known. We were not dealing with history: World War II is still very much alive. With the first script written, the vital, life-or-death question was: who would play the title part?
Foyle's War, as it had now become, was being produced by Greenlit Productions, the company owned and run by my wife, Jill Green. The two of us have always had a 'working' marriage. Some people argue about curtains and carpets; we tend to row about how many Spitfires we can afford. Her first choice for the part was Michael Kitchen, a superb actor who had dazzled with performances in To Play A [sic] King (as Prince Charles) and the Hollywood epic, Out Of Africa.
Curiously, he had never taken the lead in a long series. In part, this may have been down to his reputation for being 'difficult'. Jill and I met him for lunch. I outlined the show and the way it would develop. A week later, he accepted, although with the proviso that he would never take part in any publicity. And that is why this article is by me and not by him. It is why you have read nothing about Michael in the past nine years.
Was he difficult? He was certainly demanding - utterly focused on the character with a rigid determination to ensure that the integrity and the quality of the drama would never be compromised. Sometimes, he would cut or rewrite a scene hours before it was due to be filmed, and I won't pretend that this wasn't frustrating. But for him the performance was everything, and the result is there on the screen. I have no doubt at all that a huge part of the success of the show was down to Michael.
Foyle's War is always listed as a detective drama, but, in truth, that was never the entire point. I've often thought it rather a waste of time to spend three months making a film that simply boils down to 'the butler did it'. With Foyle, I was determined to do something more. The murders were really just an excuse to tell the history of Britain between 1940 and 1945. For me, the greatest pleasure was unearthing stories from that period - many being told for the first time, which is how map-maker Victor Gregory's story came to be told in the first of our final three episodes.
Now 85, Victor worked at Hughenden Manor near High Wycombe, an installation so secret that its existence was only acknowledged two years ago. The extraordinary resourcefulness that went into making new maps for the RAF is a drama in itself and, frankly, who needs murder? But of course, as always, there is a death in the episode... and the clue is in the maps. And it's fascinating to reflect that Hitler, already preparing for war, stopped any maps leaving Germany after 1933.
Time and time again, the truth has attracted me more than my own fiction, to be used in Foyle's War, such as some of the things the Special Operations Executive (British agents involved in wartime sabotage and subversion) got up to. Did you know that they hid explosives in dead rats and fake camel dung? The idea was that the Germans would throw the rats into a fire or run over the dung in their tanks.
In one episode, Casualties Of War, we were inspired by the genius of plastic surgeon Archibald Mclndoe. He noticed that airmen who were shot down into the Channel recovered from their burns faster than those who made it back to land, and realised that the salt water must play a part.
I loved the seemingly endless resourcefulness of the Government in those years: commandeering ice-cream vans to carry blood supplies around; building Spitfires out of plywood to fool the enemy into bombing non-existent airfields; the speed with which iron railings were collected to be melted down to make munitions, and public gardens turned into vegetable patches to help eke out rations. These last two we had to quietly ignore: the budget would only go so far.
When I look at the present government, who can't even safely courier two computer discs containing information on families receiving child benefit across the country without losing them, I wonder how we ever came to this.
Of course, there were failings in the war years. The Norway campaign that cost Milner his leg, for example, was a monumental error. But, even as I have delved through books about racketeering, anti-Semitism, administrative failures, cowardice and all the other dark things that were the inspiration for my stories, I was still impressed by the determination and intelligence of the British people.
Inevitably, we made mistakes. One of the most frequent letters we got from ex-servicemen was to tell us that you don't salute an officer if he isn't wearing a cap. Also, in 1940, nobody would stand with their hands in their pockets. We acknowledged we were dealing with real people whose courage and sacrifice won the war and that we owed it to them to get it right, so we had a huge team working on all the details and the scripts were read by the Imperial War Museum.
We began in May 1940 and finish, poignantly, on VE Day when everyone is celebrating except for one detective, who is drawn into a final murder investigation. Curiously, this was one of the first ideas I pitched to Michael over that non-lunch in Manchester. And I was glad that we were able to entice Julian Ovenden, who plays Foyle's son, Andrew, back. He was the only regular who left the show, forcing me to break up his growing romance with Sam.
Does Foyle die? I'm afraid the answer to that is wait and see - although I will say that my main determination was to give him a dignified and realistic end. Which is more than you can say for the series itself, which was quite suddenly cancelled by the incoming Director of Television. This saddened me. True, we were faced with escalating costs at a time when low-budget drama is a priority. But I still had stories about the last two years of the war and feel that we had won our right to tell them.
I have spent more than 20 years working in British television, and I suppose murder has been my speciality: Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Murder In Mind etc. But I have never been more proud of anything than Foyle's War, and I'd hate to think that between the cheap fix of reality shows, game shows and soaps there's no room for this sort of crafted, intelligent drama.
Anyway, ITV may yet have to rethink their Sunday evenings. Old-fashioned and expensive it may be - but the period drama Cranford dragged millions to the other side. And without a single murder in sight.