Blacks in Britain Alert: Masterpiece Theatre, “Foyle’s War VI: Killing Time” Presents Black GIs in Post-World War II Britain
I’ve been following Foyle’s War for a few years now. (Masterpiece Theatre now switches from classics (Jane Austen, Small Island, Sharpe’s Peril) to mysteries (Poirot, Inspector Lewis) to contemporary series (upcoming).) As an overview, it’s the story of Detective Chief Superintendant Christopher Foyle, and how he solves murders and fights crime in Hastings during World War II Britain. Yes, that Hastings. As in the battle of, when the Saxons lost to the Normans in the year 1066. I think it’s a metaphor for what happened during and after the Second World War, because here again, Britain lost and then had to find itself. I think that process is still ongoing.
I guess my curiosity about the show has to do with the fact that my late father was an airman in Britain in the early Fifties, when there was still a draft and you had to do your service. This was the environment that he lived in. He spoke little about it, but what I do remember is that he liked the British that he was able to meet–the ones who were not prejudiced. He stuck with the other black “Yanks.” But he saw the bombed out neighborhoods, and the food rationing that continued all the way up to 1954, and the island blacks who had come in with the war effort. He saw some of the sights to see in London on his free time. I think that I get his love for the island from his genes because from the time I was about eight or nine, I liked reading the history and the literature. He even dressed like a Brit in his business, wearing a three-piece suit (vest) when no one else did, and smoking a pipe.
In this recurring series, Hastings is just a small, borough town in East Sussex (the south coast of Britain, facing France) with a big battlefield. However, there’s a lot of simmering anger under those stiff upper lips, anger that that invariably results in murder. Accidental or deliberate cold-blooded murder–that’s where Foyle comes in, and he doesn’t care if he does manage to piss off his fellow Brits getting to the bottom of something. Nothing gets past him. As a result, among the military, the intelligence community, and other law enforcement officials, he’s known as a very untrustworthy loose cannon who won’t take “advice” from higher-ups. Meaning, he follows his own code.
DCS Foyle’s a World War I vet and a widower who’s raised a son by himself. The son, Andrew, later becomes a fighter pilot with the RAF, and appears here and there in the earlier episodes. Foyle comes out of retirement to help with policing Hastings, which has a military outpost nearby. He was usually accompanied by his female driver, Sam(antha) Stewart and has the help of a rising underling, Sergeant Milner. His murder cases usually had a basis in something underhand, like war profiteering, for instance. Or they concerned state secrets about a new scientific weapon, or when using German PoWs to help on British farms complicates matters when soldiers return home.
I was able to follow Foyle’s War to the day when VE (Victory in Europe) Day was announced, and I was sorry to see it go. For while he’s a basically conservative, quiet, quite dry and ironic individual, I was drawn by that touch of integrity that Kitchen imbues with Foyle. One of his nastier superiors (and adversaries) in last week’s show called him “Bolshie,” which is Britspeak for Communist or Commie. It seems that Foyle just doesn’t have much time for jingoism, baiting and racism that a lot of people bought to fight the first World War, and got a lot of his compatriots pushing up daisies in Europe. He’s not doctrinaire, left or right. Thus, his perceived “liberalism” is informed by his high moral standards.
Foyle was liked so much by the British viewing public that commercial ITV-1 (for Independent Television 1; the BBC in contrast, is owned by the British government), after cancelling the show, was persuaded to bring him and creator and author Anthony Horowitz back for yet another 3-part series. And why not? The show is historically as well as aesthetically accurate, all the way down to what people wore and ate and drove. Last week, in the middle of hunting for a murderer, Churchill got kicked out of Downing Street (it’s 1946, and Labor took over with Clement Attlee). Most of Series VI concerns Foyle immediately after the war is over and the Cold War is just beginning. The disillusioned British are asking themselves once more, as they did in 1919, what then, was this war all about?
Take for example, the second in the series, “Killing Time”:
Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) and Samantha “Sam” Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) see a swell of prejudice as black American GIs stationed near Bristol are fighting a war against intolerance. Mandy Dean (Charlotte Riley, Wuthering Heights), a young, single mother, has trouble finding a home, ostracized even by her own family. To make matters worse, a random crime spree seems to be targeting Bristol. After all that suffering in the war, has nothing changed? Mandy finds relief in the capable hands of Sam, now helping to operate a guest house run by her budding love interest Adam Wainwright. But when Mandy’s ex-boyfriend, conscientious objector Tommy Duggan returns to find the baby he didn’t father, the simmering tension in Hastings turns deadly. Foyle steps in, and before it is over, he’ll confront the US Army as well as the deep roots of bigotry.
One of the first scenes has to do with the town council deciding to segregate the town, not only at the behest of the U.S. Army, but because the burghers are racist, too. Naturally, Foyle’s not digging it. The Empire, both he and we know, is dead along with Hitler. It’s illogical that matters should go on as it did before, and that means that racism can’t be upheld either, not with the newly liberated concentration camps. It’s a hard lesson for both the Army and the townspeople to learn. (It’s a bit before President Truman desegregates the Armed Forces, too.) Eventually, the British will lose India, and then one by one, all the other Asian and African colonies.
And this is also about sexual rivalry and competition. Black American Yanks were more different, tantalizing and exotic than the white Yanks, and difference always appeals to women, as it did the young white Englishwomen. So locking up the bars and restaurants and cabarets as well as the homes meant that there would be no fraternization between the Yanks of color and the white girls. It happened anyway. Not all of the brothers were after a good time. Gabe Kelly wasn’t.
Obi Abili plays Gabe Kelly, the black GI accused of murder. (Like most of the above actors, he’s known and trained mostly on the British stage, and not on film. Look him up.) There’s one scene in the episode that looks exactly like a lynching party, only it’s in England. As in merry olde.
Not ‘Bama or ‘Sippi.
Creator and writer Anthony Horowitz wrote the Foyle series as film only; there are no Foyle books. Horowitz is primarily known as a children’s writer in Britain. He has also adapted Agatha Christie’s Poirot books into several series, and created the Midsomer Murders series shown here on the A&E Network.
You can access a preview of “Killing Time” on the PBS website here. Sorry, I can’t grab the video for your enjoyment here. If you are not able to see “Killing Time” on Sunday (Treme!), you can see the show in its entirety on the PBS website above for a week.