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

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | September 26, 2013 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | September 26, 2013 |

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 You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.