Thursday, July 1, 2010

Maimon Schwarzschild

If by some chance you haven't watched Foyle's War, the English TV series - well, do.  Everyone says it's a great series.  This is one of those cases where everyone is right.

(It's a detective series, of course, set on the south coast of England during the war.)

Every episode is taut, very smart, very complicated, very satisfying.

In some of the early episodes, there were bits of heavy-handed leftist preaching, of the usual entertainment-industry-turned-propagandist kind.  (Rich people, bad.  Americans, deeply bad.  Gays, good.  A Communist character, saintly.)  Interestingly, this drops away as the series goes on.  It's as though the writers gained confidence that they didn't have to please the invisible Politburo any more, and could write as intelligently as they liked.

The series takes its Second World War history seriously, not solemnly, and does a remarkably good job with it.  There are anachronisms though.  Maybe inevitably, it's sometimes the 1940s refracted through today's preoccupations and standards of politics, sex, and personal relations.

But the anachronism that really strikes me is the sleekness of the series' England: outdoor and indoor scenes alike.  The buildings and rooms somehow look like England today, despite the strictly period objects.  The England I knew as a kid in the 1950s and even in the 1960s was infinitely shabbier.  The outsides of buildings were sooty and badly kept up, interiors were tired and often horrifically wallpapered, with ugly furniture almost everywhere.   Things were certainly worse, not better, during the war.  Perhaps it's impossible to convey on film today, maybe even impossible for postwar people to imagine fully, the texture of how much poorer the world was seventy years ago.

Still, Foyle's War is a great series.  All the episodes are available from Netflix.  See them if you haven't.

UPDATE:  A commentator points out, quite rightly, that the Foyle episodes are littered with linguistic anachronisms - a scriptwriter with a tin ear.  Well, "littered" may be a little strong.  But it's true: characters talk about things like their "priorities" in life - corporate/New Age-speak unknown in the 1940s.  It's odd, and more than occasionally obtrusive, in an otherwise intelligently-written series.  The commentator also notes that the series would never allude to anything like the strikes by Communist and fellow-travelling trades unions in British defence industries which took place in wartime while Hitler and Stalin were still allies.  There was indeed a curious early Foyle episode in which a Communist character actively opposed (and in fact was trying to undermine) Britain's lonely and desperate war effort against Hitler - until the day Hitler invaded Russia: the screenplay treats the Communist as a hero, almost a saint.  There's less of this sort of thing as the series goes on; and it's a good series.  But needless to say, there's a lot of this sort of propaganda nowadays, even in good "entertainment".

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Maimon Schwarzschild


I've been watching this off and on for several months. It's great, but as you point out, it mostly skips the grubbiness of Britain during the war. It really wasn't a pleasant place to be; most people were dirty and hungry. One piece of fiction that does deal realistically with that aspect is Robert Harris's "Enigma." It's also a great look at codebreaking; less wacky but really more informative than "Cryptonomicon."

Posted by: Alan Gunn | Jul 1, 2010 4:54:26 AM

Thanks for noting that the anti-Americanism drops off significantly as the series goes on. I watched the first couple of episodes and stopped; tired of hearing how racist, etc., that we were/are. May try it again!

Posted by: Greg | Jul 1, 2010 5:00:25 AM

Mind, it's littered with linguistic anachronisms. The scriptwriter, I fear, has a tin ear.

Posted by: dearieme | Jul 1, 2010 7:43:50 AM

Ditto. I've seen them all unfortunately as I can't watch them again for the first time. The England I saw in 1979 was shockingly shabby. I really need to go back just to see what it looks like now.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Jul 1, 2010 8:30:04 AM

I enjoyed the series thoroughly when I watched it. It was only afterward that I realized almost every episode attacked the "finest hour" ethos we associate with the British effort during the Second World War. It may be a legitimate reality check, but it left me feeling very sad.

Posted by: Anna Camellia | Jul 1, 2010 9:27:05 AM

Oh, Anna, that's just standard showbiz leftism. One of the sad things about WWII was the strikes by the Trade Unions - especially while Stalin was still Hitler's ally. That, of course, got no mention at all. Of course not.

Posted by: dearieme | Jul 1, 2010 12:13:57 PM

A little anti-Americanism is actually realistic, hence the WWII remark "Oversexed, overpaid and over here", to which the GI's resounded with "underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower". Still I particularly enjoyed the minimalist Foyle. When inquiring into a crime he starts with a barely audible "I'm a policeman".

Posted by: Hal Duston | Jul 2, 2010 10:57:55 AM