Sunday, January 17, 2016

Foyle's War

I haven't lived with a television since my set was stolen out of the living room of the group house where I was living in 1972. We replaced it with a ping pong table, and I've never gone back. 

That means that when I visit friends and relatives—virtually all of whom own televisions—it's a chance to catch up on what's worth watching on the boob tube (if you believe anything rises to that standard). Sometimes that means finding out about a program after the fact (such as the two seasons of Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night, that aired in 1998-2000), which was a terrific piece of comedy/sports/drama that fearlessly tackled tough moral issues through the medium of a TV sports program forever chasing ESPN and Fox in the ratings. The casting was brilliant, the personalities of the main characters were well developed (warts and all), and the scripts and editing were crisp.

Visiting Susan in Duluth this mid-winter, my stay has been unexpectedly extended by debilitating back pain. As I convalesce, Susan has been introducing me to the wonderful world of BBC drama. First it was Sherlock, the newest reincarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brilliant and enigmatic London detective from the 1890s. In this case, the setting is contemporary and features Benedict Cumberbatch as his nibs, with Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. (Martin is probably best known for his portrayal of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's brace of three-part cinematic tours de force, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit).

Cumberbatch (to my amazement, female aficianados of his acerbic, quirky personality have adopted the nom de guerre of "Cumberbitches"—apparently a term of pride and endearment) is terrific as a patrician, eccentric, easily bored, observer of fine detail and master of deduction. Freeman's Watson is forever not-quite catching up.

This series is running now (though at the snail's pace of three episodes per season—apparently high production values also mean high production costs).

• • •
My greatest find though has been Susan introducing me to Foyle's War, a BBC detective series that ran for eight seasons totaling 28 episodes starting in 2002 and ending just a year ago. The episodes run chronologically starting just as the Battle of Britain begins in spring 1940 and continue past the end of the Second World War.

In addition to offering up a series of carefully crafted mysteries to solve each show (slanted toward black market profiteering, greed, and plain old murder), each show also portrays the chaos, horror, and moral confusion of a country at war, as well as the breakdown of the patrician class structure. Frequently, Foyle's investigations are roadblocked by military stonewalling and duplicitous superiors who are caught with their hand in the cookie jar (or is that hand in the biscuit tin?).

There are three main characters:: 

o  Michael Kitchen as DCS Christopher Foyle (for reasons that escape me, Foyle is not merely a detective; he's Detective Chief Superintendent—how many titles does one need?). Foyle is a widower who desperately wants to contribute in some greater way to the war effort, but is trapped by how competent he is at his job (and by how may enemies he makes among his superiors). Meanwhile he operates out of the sleepy, historic town of Hastings, on the south shore of England—just the width of the Channel from occupied France.

o  Quaintly, Foyle types his own reports but does not drive. Thus, he was assigned a driver at the start of the series: a young woman from the motor pool: Samantha (Sam) Stewart, played by Honeysuckle Weeks. She is curious, vivacious, and spunky. Occasionally she gets to conduct some of the inquiries, or even go undercover.

o  To round out the team, Foyle is given Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (played by Anthony Howell). He lost the lower half of one leg early in the war, fighting in Norway and thus is exempt from further military service. But he learns to walk with an aluminum prosthesis and, ironically, does much of Foyle's leg work.

o  As an occasional fourth player, Julian Ovenden portrays Andrew, Foyle's son and an RAF pilot active in the defense of Britain's skies. While proud of his son, Foyle is also scared to lose him.

While it's painful to watch Foyle be held in thrall to British, stiff-upper-lip stoicism, where men rarely admit their feelings, at the same time he runs counter to stereotype by being a careful and patient listener who has an unerring instinct for bullshit and dissembling.
Though I've always been partial to well-done British mysteries (think PD James and John le Carré), what sets Foyle's War apart is the way the stories go right into the heart of human moral dilemmas, fueled by the desperate urgency of war. It's compelling drama.

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