(Posted fall 2013)
My PBS station made a big deal about another season of Foyle’s War airing in the fall. It was one of the shows I’d not seen before, so I added the series to my Netflix streaming list. I instantly was sucked in. Like a great novel you can’t put down, I ended up watching all 7 seasons marathon-style.
I am not only completely taken with the series, but also the character of Christopher Foyle, and by extension, the actor Michael Kitchen. I thought, oh God, I’ve gone and gotten a crush on an actor. How embarrassing! I’m too old for such silliness.
Fortunately, I’m not alone. I am in a league of seemingly hundreds who have been wooed by the series’ unexpected wow factor.
But that is of little comfort to me. Because I find it annoying that I became so gushy about the actor and the series, I actually set aside time to figure out exactly why I and so many others fell so hard for Foyle’s War.
There are several aspects of the series that place it squarely under the heading of Well Done Television. First, juxtaposing a procedural crime mystery against the chaos of British life during World War II gives the way-over-done crime genre a fresh and intriguing perspective. Next, period dramas are always a pretty spectacle, especially when the set/costume people pay attention to finite detail to beautiful effect, as they do in this show. The relatively complex characters and their complicated circumstances, multiple story lines and the way creator/writer Anthony Horowitz weaves them together is definitely engrossing. It’s storytelling at its best. The historical accuracy of the program (with some dramatic license, of course) is an education by itself, which also is very engaging. Lastly, but certainly not least, the performances by the series’ regulars and guest actors are all top-notch.
But, when I compare all these points with other shows of its kind or caliber, it is not all that different. So, if all of its elements compare with other successful/popular programs, what is it that makes Foyle’s War such a “wow” stand-out?
The most significant take-away are the characters, all of whom draw you in, none of which would be possible if the eye for casting was not absolutely 20/20. Relatable, charming characters played by talented actors performing well crafted scripts with story lines that pull at heart strings and strike realistic emotional chords with viewers is certainly appealing stuff, to be sure.
The curious thing I read somewhere was, as the show’s popularity grew, actor Michael Kitchen found himself more and more in the category of swoony male leads, something typically reserved for actors of more—how shall I say—particularly striking good looks. From the critical reviews and viewer comments I’ve read, Kitchen’s sex appeal caught many by surprise. At best, I’d describe Kitchen’s physicality as that of a character actor’s; more along the lines of “my funny valentine.” As one reviewer put it (and I paraphrase, because I can’t recall who wrote it or where I read it), “…the unlikely pin-up of actor Michael Kitchen.” I couldn’t agree more.
What makes Kitchen a stand out among so many others? To begin with, Kitchen is an exceptionally talented actor buoyed by an obvious and precise command of his craft. Character actors, for which Kitchen is mostly known, typically get to play a wide range of types and genres, so the fact that he has the chops to pull off any sort of character, including a leading man, should not be surprising. And, it’s my guess that his is a naturally come-by charisma, which he seems to have fun wielding for the camera like an expert swordsman. I mean, he most certainly knows how to strike a pose in those impeccably tailored 3-piece suits, giving him that “something about a man in uniform” allure. That alone can be counted as a solid deliverable when it comes to the swoon-factor.
I wondered if all his performances were this engrossing. Like many Americans, I was unfamiliar with Kitchen’s work until Foyle’s War. During the the time between my marathon viewing of the series and the broadcast of the new series (series 7/8), I looked up other productions in which he appeared. He was, of course, very good in all these shows. But, honestly, had I seen any of these performances prior to Foyle’s War, I am absolutely certain I would not have fallen for him as I did in the role of Christopher Foyle. That brought me back to wondering what it was about this show that was so remarkable. The riddle of the “wow” factor must lie in a combination of the two talents of Horowitz and Kitchen.
DCS Christopher Foyle is a shining hero in dark and complex times. Steadfast and circumspect, with a substantial moral integrity, he is the quintessential strong and silent type that swoops in at just the right moment to clear a path to safety, as well as having a knack for keeping everyone on the straight and narrow. He’s a bit like Clark Kent in this way (That is, if Clark Kent could be comfortable being both himself and Superman at the same time without the absurd pretense of having to change into a costume). I read one comment about the character that summed it up nicely: “More men of character like DCS Foyle rather than men who are characters on TV and in film, please…”
When Foyle isn’t swooping in to save the day, the depth of his persona is otherwise revealed in moments of solitude or reflection. Kitchen delivers a voyeur’s delight in letting us in on the character’s melancholy, and rivals Cupid’s marksmanship in the way he allows Foyle’s affection to shine tenderly through in superbly self-possessed moments of custodial benevolence. And all of it is delivered through Kitchen’s pitch-perfect, unencumbered performance, to say nothing of the frequent use of tight close-ups. It’s definitely a deadly combination. No wonder people like me became such goners.
To further the ecstasy, Horowitz sprinkles lighter moments here and there in various story-lines that add a twinkle to Foyle’s character. Most of these moments are at the character Sam Stewart’s expense, Foyle’s ditzy and daffy girl-friday played to perfection by Honeysuckle Weeks. Without them, Foyle and Sam’s relationship would not buzz the way it does. I doubt Horowitz could have managed these little bits of fun if it weren’t for Weeks’ straight forward girl-next-door ingenue and Kitchen’s ability to deliver the perfectly understated jest through utterly charming physical tics and facial quirks. Much has been said by professional and amateur reviewers alike about the twitchy corner of Kitchen’s mouth, raised brow, or flash of eyes.
While like enchanted wall flowers we may wistfully fall for Kitchen’s ability to cut a rug, as it were, in these moments, it is his performance of Foyle’s unreserved intolerance of fools and scoundrels that constitutes the series’ committed relationship with its audience. Horowitz cements this aspect of Foyle’s gravitas in many ways. The bad guys (and sometimes the well-meaning but nevertheless misguided guys) are inevitably surprised and indignant when stopped short by Foyle’s particular ability to uncover the truth. As the bad guys launch into defensive action, Horowitz bashes their insecurities and weaknesses against Foyle’s rock-solid convictions in the most gratifying way, like watching your favorite (American) football team sack the opposing team’s quarterback. Foyle’s formidable nature is further grounded by making certain absolutely no one—friend or foe—is immune to Foyle’s scorn when they step off the straight and narrow. And to further cement Foyle’s strong-and-silent type of gentility, confrontations are rarely violent. More often than not, they are a cool, exacting and glaring look, followed by a clipped, didactic retort, revealing Foyle’s thinly veiled and uncompromising disdain or disbelief.
In all these various ways, Horowitz has created a character that is every bit the hero that men and women alike can admire, and Kitchen has made him believable and desirable. But, honestly, after all this analysis, I was still at a loss as to why I fell so hard. I felt like Mr. Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice,” in his desperation to conquer his feelings for Elizabeth Bennet after she initially rejects his marriage proposal….And then, just like that, the reason for my “wow” reaction to Foyle’s War hit me like a thunderbolt.
Horowitz and Kitchen’s Christopher Foyle is, when you think about it, a particularly brilliant rendering of a Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott— and whomever else you care to mention— romantic lead. Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet, George Knightly, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Edward Rochester, Prof. Baher, Mr. Brownlow and Bob Cratchit—all quiet, principled, and strong men. They all possess tender souls with a cool determination, seeking only to make their way through the complexities of the world, and to help those they hold close to their hearts to do the same. Generations after generations of readers have clung to these characters in hopes of one day either being like them, or being loved by someone like them.
Played with quietly barbed charisma by Kitchen, Foyle is clearly an idealized version of British manhood, from his tamped-down emotions to his bone-dry wryness to his innate loyalty and sense of honor. This is a man so square you could play checkers on him. And given the duplicitous world Foyle’s War conjures up, I mean this as a compliment. – John Power, National Public Radio
Having finally figured out what gave me that extra bit of excitement for the series and its lead actor, I was ready to watch the (US) 8th season with a new-found objectivity. What I wasn’t prepared for were the changes that alter the character of Foyle in some subtle, but distinctive ways.
In the transition of Foyle from small town policeman to MI5 agent, much of the opportunity for him to be firm but tender has been feasibly written out. He’s no longer a small seaside village’s champion, but a barely tolerated new member of the British intelligence community, reluctantly recruited into this new-fangled intelligence agency at the onset of the cold war.
The salvation and preservation of a society of civilized and moral people is no longer the risk the world is facing in this new rendering of the series. Seen as a quaint, even an amusing notion, maintaining the charm of the simple life is of little or no consequence to the villains, but more notably, to the supposed good-guys.Moreover, Foyle’s no longer the sharpest, nor the cleverest tool in the box. In fact, he’s now other people’s tool.
There are still the well-meaning but misguided trouble makers that Foyle sets straight, and others who are also trying to do the right thing regardless the rules, but the real villains who Foyle confronts in these scenarios are not at all flustered by a stubborn do-gooder. Oh, he still runs rings around those who think they are too clever to be caught, and of course prevails, but the circumstances are entirely different this time. Foyle is trying to operate among true-believers and vicious power brokers in the world of international espionage.
To make matters even more untenable to the previous series, Foyle is now relatively isolated. Being a stranger to town, he is without friends in London. His son Andrew and Mr. Milner are no longer part of the series, and Miss Pierce will not ever be a compadre (though I do love her character). The delightful quirks of small town life have no place in the downtrodden metropolis of post-war-now-cold-war London. There’s no kindly Sgt. to greet him when he arrives to work and no village merchant or neighbor to ask after his well-being on his walk home at the end of the day. Without new friends, amiable camaraderie over a game of chess or a glass of scotch, or an afternoon spent fly fishing, Foyle’s sharp edges have nothing to soften them. Even his munificence has evolved into something a bit more hard, like a parent grown weary of having to constantly scold an unruly child.
Speaking of whom, Sam is back in this new version. Married now, she and her husband Adam have moved to London. Sam eventually goes back to work as Foyle’s assistant, but her life is no longer solely cleaved to Mr. Foyle. As Adam’s wife, her focus is understandably on forging a life with him; supporting his efforts to become a successful politician. And he is an equally strong, principled and silent type (it is said that girls end up marrying some sort of version of their fathers, or in Sam’s case, father figures, yes?) So, Horowitz has reassigned much of the fight for the salvation of the average guy to Sam and Adam, leaving Foyle to interact almost exclusively with the nastier, cold hearted, and jaded characters.
In my opinion, in the (US) 9th series, if Sam is all Horowitz has left for Foyle to balance out his new dark world with something light, he’s set up a particularly difficult challenge for a young married woman. To begin with, she is her own version of war-weary, stressed with the continuous trials brought about by the shortcomings of post-war life. She’s got an actual angry streak to her now. But, she’s still sweet Sam, so she’ll want to be of service to both her ambitious men who do important work, plus be mother to the baby we learned is on its way. As a result, Sam may end up a freaked-out Ophelia, turning the series into something we feel sad about rather than hopeful at the end of each episode.
The issue I see will be how Horowitz resolves the circumstance he’s set up in the (US) 8th series: that of Foyle’s unswerving character set within such a dark and lethal world that does not care about moral consequence. Foyle will have to change his tact to something a bit more Machiavellian in order to keep up. Without those softer touchstones at home in Hastings to balance him, or if Sam can’t pull through and deliver him from becoming too hard boiled, Foyle could very easily devolve into his own tragic Shakespearean character: sullen, alone and angry. Shylock springs to mind, demanding his pound of flesh to the point of unreason.
In a brief interview I found online, Michael Kitchen stated that he had always pushed for this circumstance; for Foyle to be an intelligence agent rather than a policeman. Well, you got your wish, Mr. Kitchen, but it might come at a cost. Horowitz said it himself, though in a different context in the first “Making of Foyle’s War” documentary (and I paraphrase): It’s like a house of cards. If you pull just one card out, it will all fall apart.
Don’t get me wrong. The show is still fantastic, and however it presents itself again, I’m sure I will still love it. And, change is good, to be sure. Its dynamism is the base element that makes excellent theater worth watching (and writing, and performing). However, from the way Horowitz wrote the closing minute of the final episode of the 8th series, it seems he understands the conundrum we viewers face about staying true to a series we’ve fallen in love with, in light of the changes we see: As Foyle and Sam drive away, Sam asks, “Where to now, sir?” Foyle answers her rhetorically, “Yes that is the question.”
(Want to read a (PG-rated) fan fiction musing about Christopher Foyle as James Bond? Go to my post “The Name’s Foyle. Christopher Foyle.”)
(The final season of Foyle’s War is only available via streaming on Acorn.TV. I read somewhere it’s scheduled to go into syndication in May of 2015).
This work by L Rose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at bylrose.wordpress.com.