Ostensibly about the Second World War, Foyle’s War actually concerns the war against the encroaching doom of the modern world…
From time to time I am asked, “Father, how do you get so much done? You write books and essays, maintain a blog, run a parish, build a church, lead pilgrimages, and go on speaking tours and have a wife and kids. How do you do it?”
“I don’t watch TV.”
It’s true. We don’t have television. In fact, not having a television was one of the greatest decisions my parents made while they brought up the five of us children in the countryside of Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 70s. Once in a while over the years we have had a television, but we rarely watched it.
Nevertheless, television, like fast food, is not all bad. The medium does provide some good opportunities, and the new, more flexible technologies allow one to choose what, when and where to watch. Furthermore, new forms of distribution and production mean that there are an increasing number of television dramas, fantasies, science-fiction adventures, and documentaries. While most of them do not rise above shallow and predictable entertainment, there are also some excellent dramas being produced.
One such is the English series, Foyle’s War.
Broadcast from 2002 to 2015, the series is set during the Second World War in Hastings, Sussex. Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (played by Michael Kitchen) tracks down criminals who are taking advantage of the disruption caused by the war. His driver is an delightful girl named Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weekes) and the Dr. Watson to Foyle’s Holmes is Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell).
During my term as an Anglican priest in the early 1980s, I served as curate at the parish church in Bexhill-on-Sea— the next town along the coast from Hastings. There I met my wife, and there we enjoyed many happy times. Therefore viewing the television series and stepping back into 1940s England is for me, not just an Anglophile’s delight, but a nostalgic visit back to the Sussex coast with familiar surroundings, recognizable settings, and admirable English characters.
Viewing the series a second time has made me nostalgic not only for England, but also for certain values embedded in the series which were part of the the culture and landscape, but which have been lost in the brutal assault of modernity.
The first remarkable memory that Foyle’s War evokes is the reality of locality. England is a small island, and each county has its own particular scenery, architecture, traditions, and food. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s shire, 1940s Sussex is a mostly friendly community where everyone knows his place and knows everybody else’s. Sam is a vicar’s daughter. Foyle is the police detective. The fisherman, the Lord of the manor, the publican, the hotelier, the farmer, and the restauranteur belong to a kind of extended clan.
Within that clan there is confidence and conflict, and that is what produces the underlying depth of the drama. The solution of the mystery and the resolution of the plot are interesting devices for the underlying stories about people.
Mobility and modernity have destroyed these ancient foundations. Community and clan are a thing of the past. The extended family is a distant memory, and with their destruction has come a brutal individualism, a selfish egocentricity, and an orc-like greed and vulgarity.
The community and the clan depended on courtesy and good manners. Foyle, Milner, and their sidekick Sam display these manners in abundance. Foyle is a quiet, wounded widower. He is methodical, sagacious, and scrupulously honest. A man of complete integrity, he is also shrewd, compassionate and considerate at all times.
Christopher Foyle is an English gentleman of the old school. While not a snob, he has no time for the boor, the braggart, and the bully. Foyle rarely resorts to violence, but in one episode he floors a hefty thief with a right roundhouse and, while rubbing his fist, admits to Sam, “I enjoyed that.”
While Foyle is adept at sniffing out and taking out the low-life thieves, blackmailers, and traitors, he also has no time for the conniving aristocrat, the millionaire American grafter, the social climbing phony or the corrupt police commissioner. Michael Kitchen’s Foyle is an ordinary hero, an understated champion of decency, honesty, dedication, and integrity.
Meanwhile, the creation of Foyle’s twenty-two-year-old driver, Samantha, was a stroke of genius on the part of series creator Anthony Horowitz. Sam is the perfect “jolly hockey sticks” sort of Sussex girl. The daughter of a country vicar, Sam is pretty but not vain, efficient but not demanding, self-sacrificing without being self-conscious, and down to earth without being earthy. Always perfectly turned out in her military uniform and sensible shoes, she has high standards while never being haughty, and a sense of fun without being frivolous.
If Michael Kitchens captures in his portrayal of Foyle a kind of gentleman we see little of nowadays, Honeysuckle Weekes captures an innocent charm and beguiling beauty in a young woman too often lost in today’s sneering self-centeredness. Sam is radiantly good in the face of the college-aged spoiled brats simmering with the rage of feminism and the smudge of sordid sexuality.
The onscreen chemistry between Foyle, Sam and Sergeant Milner evokes a natural familial familiarity. Foyle is a kindly father to Sam. Milner is a big brother. Both are protective without being patronizing. The idea that either man would lay a hand on the girl or even say one word that might make her blush is beyond imagining.
Watching Foyle’s War is a cleansing, cathartic experience. Viewing the series produces a deeper understanding that Foyle’s War is not really about the Second World War at all.
The war simply provides the settings and circumstances. Foyle’s real war is not against the imminent invasion of the Nazis. It is against the encroaching doom of the modern world—a world that would destroy, in manifold and subtle attacks, a civilization of quiet strength, confident virtue, and assumed integrity.
Foyle, Sam, and Milner are fighting the blitzkrieg of nihilistic modernity, and their stance is all the more poignant and dignified as they face what Tolkien called “our long defeat.” Watching them defeat the villains, even for an hour, makes one remember that in the end good will triumph and evil will be foiled.
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