TV Rewind: Foyle’s war and the use of genre conventions to mediate our understanding of war

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“Spring and the smell of cordite in the air.”

It’s April. An invading force flies over a country it is setting fire to. A plane falls out of formation, its fuselage torn apart by anti-aircraft missiles fired at it from the ground. If any of the men on board manage to jump to safety, they will land in the pastures of a rural hamlet, where the farmers whose lives they are determined to destroy have woken up early to milk their cows, drive their plows and plant furrows. after furrow of potatoes to feed the troops defending them on the front lines. It’s spring, after all. Cordite or not, the crops won’t plant.

What it is also is 1941. Specifically, it is 1941 in a 2004 episode of the British crime drama Foyle’s War (specifically the Season 3 episode “They Fought in the Fields”). But you’d be forgiven for thinking I was describing something else. Another war. Another country. Another invading force. Another spring. It is human nature, after all, to seek parallels between art and life; Hell, in the world of Hot Take pop culture blogging, it’s practically a must.

Still, it would be hard to overstate how familiar and disorienting it is to turn on an episode of Foyle’s War during Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. And not just because an authoritarian, ultra-nationalist state with genocidal intentions invading its European neighbor does more than echo the difficult beginnings of the last two world wars (although that is obviously a real and worrying factor). This is because one of the characteristic elements of Foyle’s War it’s how cleverly he uses the conventions of crime drama to meticulously observe and sit uncomfortably with all the ways in which everyday life – not just farming, raising children, art and fishing, but also crime, corruption and cold – bloody murder – adapts to adapt to war. After watching events in Ukraine unfold through the lens (and gender conventions) of Twitter, Substack, and WarTok: tough the same.

And yet, even with all the millions of hours of content available that aren’t expressly about a country struggling to fend for itself through daily air raids, bombings, and cultural, economic, and just plain physical devastation, Foyle’s War has however become the comfort watch I have been turning to for the past few weeks. And not in spite of his subject of war, but because of him.

Created by prolific British novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz (Pastry readers might recognize him as the person behind alex rider), Foyle’s War stars Michael Kitchen as the quietly efficient Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. Honeysuckle Weeks plays her brave young driver, MTC officer Samantha Stewart, while Anthony Howell plays Sergeant Paul Milner, who recently returned from the front line after losing a leg in Norway. It takes as its subject the puzzling and infuriating criminal activity in and around the pastoral seaside market town of Hastings during the Second World War. It’s disconcerting because there’s a war going on (who with even half their common sense would have the nerve to think of committing a crime while bombs are falling all around them?) and infuriating because, well, see above. It’s the war ! The bombs are falling! Who, even half sane, would have the nerve?

If that sounded cheeky, it wasn’t meant to be. As much as the purpose of the series is to underscore the fact that even active enemy bombardment cannot stop the maelstrom forces of human nature, so Foyle’s moral outrage at the unbridled and selfish pettiness of every criminal and murderer to whom he finds himself confronted. on the home front. Of course, a small part of that outrage stems from the fact that it is his seemingly unique ability to clean up the selfish little messes of these criminals that seems to prevent the powers that be from accepting any of his many applications to join and directly help the war effort. But it takes just 10 minutes for the pilot to establish that one of the reasons * the powers that be keep rejecting Foyle’s applications to join the military is that his sincere and extremely polite distaste for those who would use the fog of war for their own nefarious ends are likely to do more to help the war effort than anything he could do as a military officer. Not only does each new resolved case, after all, prevent another whirlwind of domestic tension from spiraling into unbridled chaos, it also boosts morale on the home front.

(*The other reason, of course, is that the police and military chains of command are just as rife with crime and corruption as the self-absorbed nobility behind most of the murders Foyle has had to solve in the Hastings campaign, and they all know better than to exhibit their many, numerous flaws to its gimlet eye.)

Anyone who’s been paying attention to what’s been going on in Ukraine since February — heck, since 2014 — will understand exactly how important morale is to a nation under attack’s overall war effort. From President Zelenskyy’s steadfast home addresses to his compatriots (and the rest of the world) via Twitter and the steadfast daily war diaries of Evgenia Belorusets, to all of WarTok, Ukrainians are using social media to protest, in some of the in the most intimate ways imaginable, how real daily life continues to be, both in the face of and despite the air raids and random, indiscriminate bombings that have become the daily backdrop.

Which brings me right back to Foyle’s War and why I find the random, indiscriminate murder series backdrop so… well, if not really comforting, then effective. Because even when dressed as part of a cozy British crime drama, the thing about murder is, like war, it’s never fair. This means that the murders of Foyle’s War feel particularly insane against the backdrop of World War II: a little boy evacuated from London is blown up by a grenade ostensibly aimed at the corrupt judge who resentfully welcomed him. A conscientious objector stripped naked and doused with ice water by the police in retaliation for his pacifist beliefs finds himself hanged. A British woman dies of a heart attack while roughly separated from her German expatriate husband while they are interned as ‘enemy aliens’. Even the little mysteries woven like red herrings often turn out to be just another grim reminder of the harsh realities of war, like the alleged Series 1 munitions factory secretly producing coffins for the thousands of dead thrown into the air. future of Britain.

In the wrong hands, all this nonsense could be nothing more than dark nihilism – or, worse, thoughtless and unfulfillable promises that a better future is on the horizon. Corn Foyle’s War confuses the two narrative temptations. He uses all of Hastings’ murders amid Britain’s wartime destruction and Foyle’s moral yet pragmatic character to argue that there is often no right answer. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dig in and do the best thing the circumstances might allow.

To wit: At the end of one of the series’ first episodes, after it is announced that Italy has sided with Germany and declared war on Britain, an Italian friend of Foyle’s is killed after an angry mob torched his beloved neighborhood. restaurant in the middle of the night. Her only son, a British-born son who had already enlisted weeks before, is left sitting, burned and in shock, amid the smoldering debris. “What kind of world is it, Mr. Foyle?” he finally asks, hoping the smartest man in Hastings might have an answer for him, even though he’s sure there isn’t. To his credit – and totally in keeping with his character – Foyle isn’t pretending there is one. What he says, on the contrary, is nothing. It’s not until the young man leaves and Sam finally says, to no one in particular, “I don’t know what to say”, that he even tries to answer. But even then, all Foyle can handle is a terse, unsatisfying “Me neither” before they turn and go do the best thing they can handle, solving the next little problem Hastings has to to offer in time of war.

Because what else to say? what kind of world East that, after all?

It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. Neither do I.



Foyle’s War is available to stream on Acorn TV. Evgenia Belorusets’ War Diary can be read daily on Isolarii.





Alexis Gunderson is a television critic and audio bibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.


For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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