The executive producer of Foyle’s War can’t have been too happy when she read the first page of my first script for the new series. Re-creating the test detonation of an atomic bomb in the emptiness of the New Mexican desert was never going to be an easy ask – particularly as we’d be shooting in the middle of Dublin. As has been the case for the past 12 years, the producer in question is my wife, Jill Green. And as always, she didn’t complain. In the past she has blown up airports, crashed Spitfires, re-created the bouncing bomb and blown up Dresden. Once again, she set about making it happen.
The scene was there for a reason. I wanted to show what the stakes were from the very start. It’s not so much Foyle’s War now as “Foyle’s Cold War”, a phrase first coined by the journalist, George Orwell. We are in the atomic age and all the rules have changed. In Britain, rationing is tighter than ever (bread has been rationed for the first time) and after a dismal, cold winter, people are disillusioned, wondering what the war was all about. Demobilisation is taking far too long. There is even talk of mutiny in RAF bases in Karachi [then in India, now Pakistan] and Kanpur [India] as thousands of men find themselves trapped and housed in disgusting conditions.
Although there is a great deal of sympathy for the Russians, and much support for communism in the intelligentsia and scientific communities, there is a slow realisation that Hitler has given way to a new enemy who may be even worse… Joseph Stalin. You may notice the balalaika music in our opening credits. And the familiar typewriter that has appeared before every episode is now typing in Russian!
My challenge, writing the series, was how to reflect all these changes, how to give our very loyal audience, both in the UK and around the world, everything they expect and like about the show, while at the same time moving them forward, into a new scenario.
Before we even began, Jill and I met with Michael Kitchen (left) to discuss if it was even a good idea to return. It’s an extraordinary thought that the three of us, along with Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays Sam Stewart, have now worked together for 12 years, more than twice the length of the war itself. As production costs have soared (with budgets remaining the same) we have had to fight to keep the show looking as solid and realistic as possible. We have never wanted the episodes to become formulaic. But this time we did wonder. Would we be outstaying our welcome? Was it perhaps time to call it a day?
In the end it was the sense of “all change” that inspired us. Here was an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, at least to a certain extent. Foyle would no longer be a police officer. In fact, he had retired before the end of the last season and had set off for America, tracking down a villain from one of the early episodes. I played the part of the purser in the last episode, The Hide, checking his ticket and allowing him to board the Queen Mary on his way to New York.
At the time, I genuinely didn’t know if the ticket was one-way. The new series finds him returning to Liverpool Docks where his old nemesis, Hilda Pierce (played by Ellie Haddington, a series regular and our very own Judi Dench) is waiting to recruit him into the intelligence service. This is much less unlikely than it sounds. At the time, MI5 was run by an ex-policeman, Sir Percy Sillitoe, and one of the outcomes of the Bland Report of 1944 was to widen the class, the gender and the work experience of new recruits. In story terms, Foyle himself had tried to join intelligence several times over the years. The new series illustrates that you should be careful what you wish for.
Once again, assisted by Sam Stewart – it would be impossible to do the show without her – Foyle finds himself in a world where nobody can be trusted and where the truth is not just hidden, but wilfully buried under layers of dissimulation. He is still investigating. There are still mysteries, red herrings, scattered clues. But this time we’re not just dealing with murder. In fact, murder was never the whole point of Foyle’s War. Over the years, I’ve been proud of the number of true stories we’ve managed to tell about life on the home front from 1940-45, often for the first time on television. 1946 was no different and gifted f both myself and co-writer David Kane with a whole archive of secret history.
There are the scientists Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May, who turned traitor not so much because they believed in the communist cause but because they were arrogant enough to think that they could save mankind from itself. I came across a high-ranking Nazi – his real name was Horst Kopkow – who ended up working for MI6, showing just how quickly allegiances had changed. It’s hard to believe that British intelligence ran interrogation centres using methods not that dissimilar to Guantanamo Bay, but David Kane found the evidence in a book (The London Cage) and uses it as the basis of the second episode.
The defection of a Russian cypher clerk that features in the first episode is also based on fact, as is the massacre in episode three. Filmed by director Andy Hay and using footage that we shot in Northern France, this is like no other sequence you’ll have seen in Foyle’s War.
And then there’s the new Labour government. Sam Stewart has moved on in her role as Foyle’s driver… in fact she’s now Sam Wainwright, married to a prospective Labour MP (right) and one of the pleasures of the new series, for me, has been developing this relationship and giving her a life of her own. Not that she was ever a mere “sidekick”. One piece of re-casting was forced on us by the absence of Max Brown, who played her husband – yet more British talent stolen by Hollywood. However, Daniel Weyman does a brilliant job as Adam Wainwright, particularly when he’s drawn into a political scandal with very modern echoes, this one inspired by the true story of Crichel Down, a farm allegedly stolen by the government, that caused the resignation of a Conservative minister in 1949. I insisted that Sam and Adam should live in a pre-fab, incidentally, another major headache for the producer and the design team. But once again I felt that it epitomised the age.
One star of the new series is the city of Dublin where we did much of the filming and which stands in for 1946 London. When I first conceived the idea of Foyle’s War, it was actually called The Blitz Detective and was meant to be set in the capital, but we very quickly realised that it would be prohibitively expensive and insanely difficult to film there. That was why we moved it to Hastings: a very good idea as it turned out. Being so close to the action, with people dying just 50 miles away on the other side of the English Channel, gave the series a sense of urgency and underlined the whole point – that murder has almost no significance in a time of war. However, with some adroit use of CGI (dropping St Paul’s in behind those pre-fabs), Dublin stands in perfectly and has a wealth of period buildings allowing the camera to roam freely.
And we even managed to shoot the nuclear explosion there – not in the streets, but on the beach just outside the city. Our director Stuart Orme and producer Jeremy Gwilt constructed the set in pieces, drove it onto the sand in the middle of the night, assembled it and then filmed the opening scene in just two hours – before the tide came in.
Nothing is ever certain – and Foyle’s War can always return without me – but I think this series will be my last. I’ve written 22 episodes. That’s an awful lot of crimes, clues, bodies, suspects, mysteries and chases. Although I've had great support from the Imperial War Museum, I’ve still read four or five books for every episode and frankly there’s no more room on my shelves. Also, although it’s dangerous to say it – the audience will decide for themselves – I think this series is my best work. I’ve loved exploring this labyrinthine world, the feeling of early John Le Carré. As sad as I was to say goodbye to Hastings (and with it Sergeant Milner, gallantly played by Anthony Howell), I think the move into London and espionage galvanised all of us. In other words, it might be best to quit while we’re ahead. We’ll see.
The new series of Foyle's War begins on Sunday at 8:00pm on ITV