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Masterpiece Theatre is my Slow Motion BBC DVR: "Foyle's War"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | September 26, 2013 | Comments ()


foyles war 2.jpg

On the best podcast on the Internet this week, the Station Agents listed off all the shows worth watching that were going to be on this Sunday night, with the purpose of demonstrating that in terms of quality, Sunday is bananas. That’s the technical term. The list was somewhat lengthy, and I lost count at double digits, though I did notice that they ignored the only two things that I’m guaranteed to watch this Sunday. First, there’s football. I have priorities in my life, and I make no apologies for them. Second, there’s “Foyle’s War”, a lovely British import, a combination of period piece, murder mystery, and Cold War spy games.

“Masterpiece Theatre”, ya’ll. I’ll catch “Breaking Bad” when it hits Netflix in a few months.

“Foyle’s War” is set in Britain from 1940 to 1946, having run for eight series thus far, though in classic British design, each series is only two to four episodes, that run around 90 minutes each. The one running on PBS these days is the eighth and most current series, though sadly this revelation comes late enough so that there’s only one episode left, airing this coming Sunday. The entire series is also available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, so it’s got that going for it.

The show’s protagonist is the titular Foyle, a slightly older gentleman than usually sits in the main character seat of these shows, which is why despite seeing it recommended for some time on both Netflix and Amazon Prime (based on watching “Luther” and “Sherlock” if I recall) I skipped over it until flipping channels last week. Call me ageist, but I’m not usually a fan of mystery shows, and mysteries featuring a protagonist over fifty put me in a state of instant flashback to “Matlock” and “Murder She Wrote”. “Foyle’s War” is anything but.

Foyle investigates murders, yes, but the murders are grounded in the intelligence community of Britain in the 1940s. This is a show more at home talking about Bletchley Park and intercepted radio signals to operatives than it is about who last was following the Duchess into the conservatory with a candlestick. And Foyle, played with aplomb by Michael Kitchen, is one of those quietly bad ass characters who when he can’t get the job done within the lines does little things like convince a former commando to break into a secret military interrogation center singlehandedly to rescue an innocent girl. With no cover. And for no pay.

Foyle is helped in his investigations by one Samantha Stewart, that particular strong and driven sort of woman who has little use for the limitations placed upon her gender that is almost a boiler plate in these period pieces. The character has the added appeal of being played by an actress with the phenomenal name of Honeysuckle Weeks. When I first saw those words splash across the screen, I assumed that it must be the name of the episode, perhaps one of those half-meaningless names assigned to secret projects or missions. But no, she’s the girl Friday of the piece, and true to the modernized version of that historical archetype, she wears the pants in all her relationships, including with her husband who just got elected to Parliament.

The show is a lot of fun, if you’re into the history of the period and kind of like the idea of old school spy games. It’s certainly not in the same league as the cream of the British crop. It’s no “Luther” or “Sherlock”, but it is a damned entertaining ninety minutes if it’s your cup of tea.

I’ve noticed that the sheer number of PBS shows that are British imports set between 1920 and 1950 is truly staggering. I’m not sure if this is a representative sample (our British readers could weigh in), but there’s no denying a certain quantity. There’s a yearning here for the old days that America hardly attaches to any period. We certainly love our World War II and late 1960s settings, but those have waned in recent years, more evidence of a generational nostalgia than a societal one.

In any case, “Foyle’s War” is worth the watch, whether streaming or simply because your antenna doesn’t do cable television.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.




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  • BiblioGlow

    After reading this and the comments I started watching this with my mom since we're waiting for Downton Abbey to come back. We're only three eps in so far, but we love it! Foyle himself is so quietly, unassumingly good at what he does, and we both like Sam and her spark, too. Thanks for the recommendation, SLW.

  • bcarter3

    I love this show.

    Sure, it's not "Breaking Bad" cutting edge, but it's rich, intelligent, and well-written, and it can be genuinely moving (the Dunkirk episode, for example). From my perspective as an American anglophile, it beautifully captures the texture of Britain in the 40s.

    And Michael Kitchen, who plays Foyle, perfectly inhabits the role. Watching this is tremendously rewarding.

  • mrsdalgliesh

    I was visiting with my mom, who has been quite ill, last week and she declared that we were going to watch "Foyle's War." I acquiesced because, mom-quite-ill, but definitely felt I was going to be fading out during the episode. To my surprise, I enjoyed it thoroughly, especially because Foyle is moral without being moralistic. The period details are wonderful.

  • MikeRoorda

    In the comments on an article I posted recapping some of the better Non-American police dramas, one of You People chastised me in the comments for not including this show. I can happily report I'm now about halfway through the available episodes on Netflix.

  • PantsAttack

    Wait. Hold up. I had no idea the most recent PBS Foyle's was a brand new season! I'll be kicking myself the rest of the day.

  • AM

    No shit. I just straight up deleted them thinking "I watched every episode about three years ago now." Fuhhhh. Hopefully I can still catch them on PBS website.

  • bcarter3

    Acorn TV ( http://acorn.tv ) is a sort of mini-Netflix that offers primarily British TV series. They have all the Foyle series, including the new one, and they're running a free month offer.

    I'm fortunate enough to live in Washington, DC, where one of the PBS channels on extended cable offers 24/7 programming of new and classic British shows. Acorn is affiliated w/them.

  • PDamian

    Oh, my ... an opportunity to chat about Foyle's War, one of my all-time favorite TV series! There aren't enough Foyle's War fans on Pajiba, or online for that matter. It's not the sort of series that people obsessively follow and recap for others. But if you can handle the slower pace (not slow; just slower than most primetime TV police procedurals), the undeniable charm of the series will win you over in short order.

    Much of the series' attraction comes from the sheer Britishness of the thing, of course -- words like "right-o" and "ticky-boo," and the hairdos and styles of wartime England (and now, in the latest iteration, the wan, ration-ridden England of 1958). If you love history, particularly English and WWII history, the series is a joy and a treasure, with its references to Spitfires, dambusters, espionage, and so forth. The series also features some terrific turns by now-famous or semi-famous British actors like Emily Blunt, Lawrence Fox, Peter Capaldi, and Colin Redgrave. And yes, Honeysuckle Weeks (her sister and brother are Perdita and Rollo; guess the family likes whimsical names) is wonderful. But frankly, the best part of the series is Michael Kitchen, who plays Foyle as the sort of intelligent, upright, moral but not stuffy or dogmatic, open-minded and flexible but with a strong core of integrity, undemonstrative but quietly loving and giving BADASS that this world desperately needs. I've been fortunate to know two men like him; one was a college professor and mentor, the other was a priest. Watching Foyle's War, for me, allows me to hearken back to those lovely men. BTW, one of the pleasures of the series is hearing people call Christopher Foyle by his full title: "Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle." You just know that if the series were set in the present day, he'd be D.C.S. Foyle, or Chris.

  • Rebecca

    Isn't it only 1946 in the new series, not 1958? That's what PBS.org is telling me, but I didn't notice the title card in the episode.

  • It's 1946. The political subplot revolves around the struggle to create the National Health Service, which ended up happening in 1948.

  • PaddyDog

    What's really wonderful is that there's been a run of shows over the past couple of years using the creation of the NHS as the theme by way of showing what a fantatstic benefit this was for people, presumably in response to Cameron and Co's current vicious campaign to dismantle it.

  • PDamian

    My bad, then. And my apologies!

  • Blake

    Honeysuckle Weeks!

    That is the second greatest name in history behind Benedict Cumberbatch.

  • Lurkey Turkey

    Could they get together and have Honeysuckle Cumberbatchlings? Because that would be incredible.

  • sunset&camden

    Foyle's War is AWESOME. I've only watched the ones on Netflix because I don't have cabel so I'm not caught up past 2008, but Foyle is SO fucking badass. He's terse, moral, and I love how he chews on his lip and then just decimates shitty people with a few well chosen words.

  • Lurkey Turkey

    Hell to the yeah! I love this show. Michael Kitchens is amazing in it. Thanks for the shout out to one of my new favorites (favourites?)!

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