History buff-ery can lead you to unexpected places. Recently it’s led My Own True Love and I to our living room in front of the television, where we are totally absorbed in the BBC television series Foyle’s War.* It’s a police procedural set during World War II in the town of Hastings** on the southeast coast of England. The main character, detective chief inspector Christopher Foyle, would rather be in the armed services doing his part but his superiors feel he will do more good maintaining order along the coast.
The care with historical detail in the series is impressive,*** but the choice of period is more than set-dressing. The first season is overshadowed by the fear of German invasion. Subsequent seasons follow the course of the war. The murders in each episode derive directly from wartime conditions in Britain.
Even more interesting, from my perspective, is the representation of wartime British society. Patriots and heroes are shown side by side with Nazi sympathizers, rabid anti-Semites, draft dodgers, profiteers, hoarders, and soldiers irreparably damaged by their experience at the front. Innocent German refugees suffer at the hands of Britons whose patriotism has hardened into intolerance and hatred. Soldiers treat women badly. Men in important positions assume their value to the war effort exempts them from the rule of law. The government tries to cover up failures. The memory of World War I is never far away–something we often forget. This is not a simple picture of gallant little England standing alone against the Nazis. In many ways, it makes the instances of bravery, generosity and justice that appear in each episode more impressive.
We just finished season 5, which centers on the announcement of the German surrender. It will be interesting to see if the historical interest of the series holds as Foyle and his team move into the Cold War.
Don’t touch that dial.
* We are not cutting edge television viewers. The first season of Foyle’s War aired in 2002; season 9 is now in production.
** As in the Battle of Hastings–a subtle reminder that the threat of invasion from continental Europe is a pervasive element of British history, from the Romans onwards. No island is an island.
*** The only note that they don’t quite hit is the issue of scarcity. Characters talk about coupons and rations. In one episode, members of the police force drool over food being held as evidence in a profiteering case. In another, the detective team enjoys the bounty available at an agricultural worker’s boarding house. But you never get the feeling that people are never really warm, that clothing is patched and remade to make it last, or that they are hungry. If you want to get a good since of how pinched the average Briton was during the war, I suggest you read letters or popular fiction written during or just after the war. Off the top of my head, I would suggest Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, Angell Thirkell’s novels set during the war (pure fluff but very clear on the scarcity), or Agatha Christie.