It’s lovely to have Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle back on our screens again, after his time was cut so rudely short in 2010 seemingly either as a result of a short-sighted ITV network deeply strapped for cash or else an aggrieved outgoing channel controller aiming for a ‘scorched earth’ policy to leave the cupboard bare for his successor.
Whatever the reason, the abrupt speeding up of the languid Foyle’s War into a sudden sprint to the end of its World War 2 setting and the hustling of its titular character into retirement was profoundly indecent, and it’s great news that a resurgent ITV is feeling so confident about its revived drama output once more than it has found a way to revive the series for another three 90-minute instalments.
To get around the ‘wrapping up’ of the original concept of the show (which focused on the problems of trying to maintain ordinary law and order on the home front in a time of pitched warfare overseas) the show has found itself a new war on which to hang its stylish trilby hat: the Cold War is here, heralded by a neatly modified title sequence which now features a Russian alphabet typewriter and a revised title theme underscored using a balalaika.
The change of setting and concept is estavblished early by the opening scene of episode 1, “The Eternity Ring”, which is set in Los Alamos thereby letting us know we’re in the atomic age now. It’s an impressive sequence, as is the whole show – especially given that period drama is always extremely costly. Shooting in Dublin seems to have given the show enough authentic locations to work with in order to make the money stretch, because you certainly don’t notice any penny pinching.
Budget or no, the one thing that the show couldn’t manage without is its star, Michael Kitchen, who plays former DCS Foyle. He is a master of minimal acting: on screen he appears completely static and unmoving, a total enigma save for a brief twitch of an eye or a pursing of the lips. So desperate are we to know what’s going on in the character’s mind that these slimmest of hints are like manna from heaven, and Kitchen is incomparable in doling them out in the slyest way possible to keep us hanging on craving more. He steals scenes by doing nothing at all, and imparts even the silliest events with gravitas via the application of the smallest nod of his head.
At the start of this new series, Foyle steps off the boat from America and is immediately co-opted by MI5 in London in the form of Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) rather than allowed to return to Hastings. It’s also wonderful to see Honeysuckle Weeks back as Foyle’s assistant (now with added husband, a prospective Labour MP); it’s unfortunate that the final member of the original series triumvirate, Anthony Howell, is no longer a part of the show.
There’s just something so right and satisfying about Foyle now being caught up in a world of strange men acting mysteriously in dark shadows dressed in long overcoats: it’s like The Third Man crossed with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, both of which I hold in great esteem, and so this reboot of Foyle’s War immediately gets brownie points from me. The fact that the first episode is also very much about austerity is also extremely apposite for the times in which we the viewers are currently living: a reminder that however ‘austere’ we think we have it in 2013, it’s nothing compared to the post-WW2 hardships that people endured as a ‘reward’ for winning the war against Nazi Germany.
This first episode, which sees Foyle investigating a Soviet spy ring stealing Britain’s atomic secrets, is by no means perfect. The show is more interested in the surrounding mise-en-scène than it is with the drama of a criminal mystery (or as it now is, that of an espionage thriller.) The B-story about a soldier trying to return to civvie street after five years at war has almost nothing to do with the main storyline at all and sits awkwardly in the show; and the central mystery of how the spy ring is passing on nuclear material is embarrassingly obvious and easy to work out. But then, such things were never the core of Foyle’s War, it was and is all about atmosphere and period. The Cold War is an utterly perfect backdrop for such things, so much so that you almost wish they’d started the series here in the first place.
It’s a shame that having found such a terrific new lease of life, Foyle’s War might not return after this latest trio of offerings. Creator and writer Anthony Horowitz is such a busy man now in the world of books, TV and film that he seems inclined to call it a day with Foyle. That would be regrettable, because it seems that after 11 years, seven series and 25 episodes, the show’s new concept is arguably the best thing it’s done yet and deserves a much longer and happier stay on our screens.
Foyle’s War airs on ITV on Sunday evenings at 8pm. Episodes can also be watched on the ITV Player.