In our latest essay in which a critic reflects on culture that brings them joy, Fiona Mountford explains why the detective show Foyle’s War has been helping her keep calm and carry on.
There is a corner of our living room that will be forever the southern England coastal town of Hastings in World War Two. In it sit – or rather stand, perpetually poised for official duty – Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, Sergeant Paul Milner and police driver Samantha Stewart, the last on long-term loan from the Mechanised Transport Corps. On they tirelessly work, through 19 feature-length episodes of Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz’s magnificent detective drama set on the British Home Front, from the aftermath of the disastrous Norwegian campaign in 1940 all the way through to VE Day five long years later. These 19 episodes, or 29-ish hours of viewing, have for the past decade constituted a place for my family so safe and happy that we have in fact watched the entire series three times. Which makes it 87 hours of television, all in.
The great irony is that we almost didn’t watch Foyle’s War at all. We certainly never saw it during the years it was originally broadcast in the UK, 2002-2008, erroneously, not to mention snobbishly, supposing that a wartime drama aired on pre-watershed primetime ITV on a Sunday night would constitute glib jingoism. Friends tried to tell us how wrong we were, but we stuck stubbornly to this entirely unsubstantiated opinion. My father was especially sceptical; having lived through World War Two, been evacuated and all the rest of it, he had a profound dislike of anything that looked back with even a small dose of rose-tinted nostalgia at life on the Home Front. “It wasn’t much fun, I can tell you that”, was about the most he would say on the subject, choosing instead to spend his leisure time watching contemporary films and dramas.
The show’s central crime-busting trio are Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, Sergeant Paul Milner and police driver Samantha Stewart (Credit: Shutterstock)
Still the niggling thought kept on niggling: if those who had actually watched the programme continued to expound its virtues and to berate our stubborn-headedness for not giving it a try, perhaps there might be something in this Foyle’s War programme after all. With no little trepidation I bought the first series on DVD – remember those? – for my Dad’s birthday and here’s the not exactly stunning revelation: it was just as good, subtle and thoughtful, as everyone had said, and from the first episode, The German Woman, we were hooked.
Foyle, played by the truly magnificent Michael Kitchen, conveys more in a single twitch of an eyebrow than a dozen other actors could in an hour of shouting and gesticulation
Far from cheap flag-waving, the headline note of Foyle’s War is instead weary patriotism, with its focus on people struggling on, often not understanding why they’re being asked to do what they’re doing but doing it anyway, due to a sometimes frayed belief that it must be for the common good. On they valiantly trudge, occasionally bombed out of lodgings by air raids but still bringing to book dubious military masterminds and black-market racketeers, while the lightbulbs in the police station are gradually and bewilderingly taken away in the name of the war effort.
A tribute to human resilience
When lockdown got under way, I knew that there was one television programme above all others that would keep Mum and me company night after night. Although we had watched all of Foyle’s War (all the original programmes, that is; after it was cancelled it was subsequently recommissioned for a few straggling, struggling, post-war episodes that were nowhere near the same standard) twice already, we had not had the courage to go near it since my Dad died five years previously. It was too bound up with happy memories of evenings in with him. Yet with this strange new ‘home front’ life we were suddenly being forced into, nothing seemed more apposite than a drama about the British people stoically keeping calm and carrying on week after weary week, often in the toughest of circumstances, with ‘normal life’ at a standstill, food supplies sometimes bewilderingly scarce, and loved ones suddenly dying. In a double layer of resonance, it also chimed perfectly with the recent VE Day commemorations and renewed interest in every aspect of life in wartime.