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Archive for the ‘Mystery murder stories’ Category


Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle

Friends and readers,

I began watching Foyle’s War around my birthday this past November by renting DVDs from Netflix. I had been told how “wonderful” it is time and again, and stubbornly had resisted — why I don’t quite know. I did not realize how these are in structures and basic tropes formulaic (including comic helper-maid, and endings where the villains often just confess when confronted by the truth) murder mystery stories. Good thing for I might never have tried them. Well, it took only the first three episodes to persuade me here was a series that transcended this popular genre, not just superbly well done, but having a complicated moral center in them individually and as a group that offered insights and warnings into the politics of our own time, especially the growth of fascism and uncontrolled capitalism. I loved the character of Foyle, what a relief as he held onto his moral compass (as good as E.M. Forster in What I Believe); this group of traits in the hero has often been cited as the programs’ highest important achievement. The core beauty. I became so fond of Sam and respectful of Milner. I could see they could solace me in my lonely evenings (the way other of my favorite British serials seen over and over).

So I had to have the whole series, be able to watch more than one episode at a time, be able to see features about how it was made, and bought the 8 season set, complete (I was promised) with features and a pamphlets. When the tall box came, and I re-began, I also began to see that I needed these features and more to understand what I was seeing: the pamphlet that came with the 8 sets (=seasons) was a help, all the various wikipedia articles I could click on, and Rod Green’s The Real History Behind Foyle’s War. What this box is is a vast film-novel of moral stories conveying the extraordinary true history of World War Two as it was experienced in Britain.

More than reading and watching, to try to grasp each episode I needed to write notes on them one at a time to appreciate all that was interwoven in. There are often four stories or threads in an episode, not counting the development of the personalities and conveying of the history of our three very sympathetic protagonists: you see Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Inspector Foyle above in an unusually softly smiling moment:  I just love the way he swings his body and his head and then asks, “Why is that?”  Just below is Honeysuckle Weeks, Foyle’s improbable driver, as she appears appealingly as a young women (not much older than 20 to start with, if that old) in the earliest seasons — why Foyle never learned to drive we are not told:

Her heart shows her the morally right thing to do and to feel. A bit further down, Anthony Howell as Paul Milner, Foyle’s Deputy Sergeant, this photo giving us a glimpse below the usually guarded stern face to see a kindly wholesome sensitive man who cannot fathom himself killing anyone.

With each of them, less is more as a style of acting.

I’ve been wondering to myself what I can add to all that has already been said without going on too long — for what I am best at is explanatory details with moralizing inferences as framework. It can be fun to be reminded of what we so enjoyed, to, as it were, relive what’s in our memories, but in the case of complicated mystery stories, with never an empty moment, it would be easy to fall into too much of a good thing. Better just to watch the TV episodes? Well, there are some ideas or patterns that one might miss, strikingly repeated stances that hold the hours together as we watch the behavior of our three protagonists interact against ever-worsening counter war techniques and protect or aid the human behavior that makes life worth living. The question is repeatedly asked: what are we fighting this war for if we consent to behave as badly as our fascist hate-filled or ruthless enemies are doing. Again and again Foyle, together with Sam and Paul as his two team-members, resist the amoral and the immoral – it is, though, he alone who articulates the actuating ideas behind the decisions and actions we see the three make. We learn about their “private” lives too. Throughout the first through fourth seasons in most of the episodes Foyle dominates almost every scene, he seems to make things happen, knit them together. This is not true across the later seasons.

This blog presents you with few notes for the 1st season and 2nd season (looking at patterns especially), and then building on what we find, I’ll write another similar blog for the 3rd and 4th. The episodes move month by month until we get to season five where we fast forward a whole year. So we get a feeling for the different phases of the war, the different emotional temperature of everyone involved.

But first an overview: at season 5, the series changes. It is said that the series was suddenly cancelled after Season 5 because Simon Shaps felt like it (that’s about as much reason for this as one is given), “causing” Anthony Horowitz to discard a series of scripts going in the same pace for Season 6. This makes no sense, and feels like hurt angry spite: I imagine Shaps complaining about some aspect of the series: maybe it’s anti-capitalist stance? (Businessmen are generally very badly behaved in this series.) So I will write separately about Season 5 and 6, which are also cut back to 3 episodes each.

Then because it was so liked, so respected, it was given yet another two series, again with only 3 episodes (it might have been the expense) — but now our characters are in a different, and actually (it turns out) deadlier era when it comes to police and gov’t spy agency behavior (the problems themselves infected by knee-jerk anti-communism and an implicit nationalism it eschewed until Season 7). That is, we shift from the subgenre type of mystery which Andrew Marr describes as sleuths, to the subgenre, spy stories. And so I will again write a separate blog for these last two (where we lose Milner).

I will try to avoid concrete retellings of stories as these are amply covered in wikipedia. And not name all the superb actors across the years as they too are usually named, unless something or someone seems to me so outstanding

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Season 1: Episode 1: The German Woman, May 1940. In this episode we are watching the formation of the team: Foyle cannot convince his superiors to let him switch from domestic policing to being a member of the war effort, and partly to keep him comfortable, he is given a driver, Sam Stewart; a young man he knew previously has been very badly wounded, lost his leg, Paul Milner, and Foyle manipulates Milner out of an angry depression and despair about having but one leg by showing how he can make his talents useful. We meet Foyle’s son, Andrew (to my ears a very British name), see their close relationship and Foyle fish.


Julian Overdone as Andrew fishing with his face: look carefully and you’ll see a look of impatience on the young man’s face

Julian Overdone is a recurring important character, but not as central to the story structures of solving the mystery (sometimes he is part of the problem that led to the murder). He is growing up, with a little help from his Dad. We learn of Foyle’s wife’s death from lovely watercolor landscapes on his wall. Kitchen dominated the 100 minutes in ways he stops doing by the 6th season and I found the episode more satisfying because of this: his firm strong morality. The murderer (a sexual cad, predator after women’s money) is despicable, especially, but at least one of the victims (the rich German woman whose fortune the murderer was seeking) and their families are humanly flawed too. The episode is against knee-jerk hatred of Germans as Germans. A scholarly German man is thrown in prison with his wife; she dies of a heart attack before Foyle can put an eend to this injustice. An innocent girl is bombed to death, and then her reputation made to suffer until Foyle discovers and exposes what happened. Here the murderer himself asserts that his important war work makes it absurd to accuse, jail and then possibly execute him. This first iteration of this idea is as unconvincing to Foyle as it will be in the 8th year, 27th episode. Here he is in charge and has the power to make his accusation stick.

Not only how young is Sam but how uneager Foyle for having her around and begins teaching her not to pick up cant; how much he is responsible for bringing Paul Milner back to effective useful life … The episode is notable for having performances by Robert Hardy, Edward Fox, James McAvoy

Episode 2: The White Feather, May 1940 still. A pattern: In most of the episodes of these four seasons, after the initial setting forth and some interludes to feed us information Foyle does not see, he is brought forward. In these first four, Foyle shows himself very emotionally engaged even if the evidence is limited to bodily gestures, facial expressions, and the very occasional outburst of stern moral truth. At one point thinking of his son, he puts his head down.

The White Feather combines the reality of nazism and fascism, juxtaposing a particularly foul kind of anti-semitism in the UK, with Dunkirk. So the whole emotional temperature of that happening as felt on the coast where small boats are setting off to rescue people is felt. There is a trio of concerned fathers: the weak man with the domineering nasty (and willing to terrify others to her will) upper class anti-semitic wife and his (in effect) neglected and angry son (a young Tobias Menzies – stealing the scenes he’s in); the old fashioned working class fisherman and his son who is involved with a young girl, an ex-servant in the anti-semitic hotel, who finds himself arrested.


Tobias Menzies as Stanley Ellis

Another pattern: in both episodes is once Foyle knows for sure the person arrested for the crime didn’t do something that resulted in serious injury or death to someone else, or didn’t have malign motives, was bullied, tricked, deluded, he frees that person. That’s important. He is a cop and I find myself thinking were this a Black man (and I believe there is a episode about race prejudice), Foyle would not be casually putting such a person away for life.

The ending at Dunkirk, and arresting the lead Nazi (Charles Dance knows how to do evil): you are made to feel why this war is worth it. Both have beautiful photography of this semi-rural part of England.

Episode 3: A Lesson in Murder. June 1940. An total snob, cruel upper class judge at the center. He coolly murders, blows to bits an 11 year old evacuee whom his daughter (not understanding quite the amount of evil her father could do) volunteered to take in a evacuee. The poor boy has terrible time all the while desperately missed by his father. Foyle’s long time friend, an Italian man (Alan Corduner), a good person, dies at the end because when Italy declares war on England, because a mob comes and set fire to, blows up his restaurant. His son, very like the young man who became involved with the servant in The White Feather, is being pressured by a bad young man, a semi-crook type — whom Sam is rude to. A scene of coffin making (a hidden factory) has its effect.


The Italian man’s restaurant set on fire because the mob has heard Italy has entered the war: he dies upstairs (this is the episode’s penultimate scene)

There is a theme of good young men thrown away or hurt badly in these episodes. This includes Foyle’s son (flying spitfires); the twisted young man that Menzies plays (capable of being so much better). James McAvoy played the role in episode 1: he was engaged to the young girl whom the murderer smeared to cover his tracks. This is part of the fathers and sons, for a familiar actor (John Shrapnel, played Creon, Achilles) is a high class man who bribed the ugly murderer to give his son a conscientious objector status. The episode opens with another young man, genuinely ant-war, being denied status and then in prison mocked, beat up, humiliated, hanging himself. David Tennant is his best friend, who turns up to be with the wife and is suspected of murdering the ugly judge. His wife did it — she was right to she says. Of course Paul Milner is such another, with a wife who has no loyalty towards him, is in fact turned off because he has lost his leg; thus he was tempted by the fascist Charles Dance; at the end of The White Feather, Foyle scolds him intensely for disloyalty — and stupidity.

Episode 4: Eagle Day, August to September 1940. Eagle Day is about sexual harassment of women. It’s not called that but the story at the center is of a Miss Lucy Smith who throws herself under a train because an intelligence agency boss (a bully, amoral, horrible man) seduces, impregnates and then rejects her. Unknown to him, Foyle’s son is assigned to the place and once her friend tells him ever so little the boss and his accomplice are determined to get rid of Andrew – this is slightly improbable but it enables Horowitz to show how easy it was/is to get up a case against an innocent man who say once was part of the communist party, how easy to stash incriminating papers in his locker and under “secrecy” orders of war (deeply anti-democrat) ruin his life – put him in prison.

Instead of now where the girl would have to sue, we see parents who want to protect the daughter’s virginity. No sign of her having any right to an independent life or sexual liberation, but they are indignant or worried. This leads to Lucy’s father murdering two men –- and as with the ugly bully in A Lesson in Murder, the murderer shows no regret and says he did the right thing. Sam’s father come to fetch her home is the ultimate embodiment of such an attitude. He decides she’s safe and doing useful work not that she has the right to an independent life. Another pattern: the first and third episode show young women badly bullied by their fathers — having no agency — my feeling is this is criticized as the result of individuals; the pattern itself accepted, no subtext against it. Sam’s father turns up because he and her mother have become convinced she should return to their village. Being in Hastings was too dangerous and what was she really contributing to the war effort anyway? Despite her being a grown woman, because she wasn’t married, her parents assumed they could still control her life and she felt she had abide by their decision. Her only chance was if Foyle would intercede for her. So it takes a man’s help for her to live the life she has chosen.

Woven in is a story of theft from a museum where the thief (Anton Lesser playing this role) uses the export of art objects to places where they will be hidden to fetch some off for himself. Paul Milner is important in discovering this as is Sam’s father who before he became a vicar studied art.

The opening sequence of this episode shows a woman coming home from work a little later than usual to find her house bombed, her husband nowhere to be seen:


Woman whose house has been bombed — there are countless such tiny episodes which are usually linked to the central threads but also there to show how people experiencing this war

Why August 1940? a month later the bombs begin to drop on civilians. This is presented a sort of sardonic comedy where Foyle’s son tries to save him and his father from these by hiding in a bunch of bundles which turn out to have highly inflammable stuff in them. Young Foyle is a young man who is daredevil in a plane but not too good at protecting himself. This last one ends up with all four in the car Sam has driven up with Milner just in time to fetch the two Foyles away to safety.

To read about Season 2, Episodes 1-4, see comments: Episode 1, Fifty Ships: September 1940; Episode 2: Among the few: September 1940; Episode 3, War Games: October 1940; Episode 4, The Funk Hole: October 1940.


From The Funk Hole, Caroline Harker as Jane Hardiman protecting a beloved dog, whom Phoebe Nicholls as Amanda Reese, novelist, disdains: a tiny thread referring to how many thousands of pets were killed by their owners at the beginning of the war; Mrs Hardiman’s crime is to buy adequate dog food on the black market

To read about Seasons 3-4, see companion blog to this (perhaps next week because another syllabus blog must come inbetween).

Ellen

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