Everyone is talking about austerity. Britain is horribly in debt. Foreigners, particularly new immigrants, are the subject of heated debate. Unemployment casts a long shadow over the country. The rich minority are despised. “Selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent” are the words that a frontline Labour politician uses to describe the upper classes. Politicians themselves are mistrusted. Mavericks speak out with new, possibly dangerous ideas. There is a general sense of gloom.
The words above could so easily describe the present day, but of course this is the world that I inherited when I found myself writing the new series of Foyle’s War, which is set in 1946 and 1947. It’s actually been an extraordinary transition. The series has now been running for 12 years and if you look at the early episodes, they’re bright and sunny. There’s a sense of optimism, not just the “stiff upper lip” of the war years, but a real feeling of cohesion and community. As soon as the war ends, it all becomes much grimmer. “There is no general feeling of rejoicing,” Cecil Beaton wrote. “Victory does not bring with it a sense of triumph – rather the dull numbness of relief…”
I have tried to fight against this. Nobody wants to watch two-hour films that leave them feeling miserable. But even so, the move from Hastings to war-torn London has created a very different atmosphere. Gone are the cliffs, the rolling waves, the seagulls. I’ve found myself touching on stories that are often dark and disconcerting, all the more so because they are absolutely true.
Take the first episode, High Castle, which looks at the so-called IG Farben Trials in Nuremberg, the attempts to bring the German industrialists, who both supported and supplied Hitler, to justice. If ever there was an unholy alliance, it was the one between Big Business and the Nazis.
I don’t want to give anything away, but the central thread of the story – concerning several barrels of malt whisky, supposedly being shipped to America – is so shocking it’s unbelievable. But as usual, we’ve worked closely with the Imperial War Museum and I can assure you it’s true.
For this episode, we actually built a recreation of Monowitz, the concentration camp next to Auschwitz that IG Farben demanded to house its slave labour. Children as young as ten worked – and died – here and I had to ask myself if we were justified in using such a terrible setting as a backdrop for a TV drama. But it seemed only right that Foyle should come face to face with the evil that has fuelled the series for so long.
The second episode, Trespass, looks at the problems of “Mandatory Palestine” and the almost impossible position that the British government found itself in, trying to balance Jewish and Arabic interests. This is a notoriously difficult subject to dramatise. It’s complex and there are strong emotions on both sides of the argument.
One of the pleasures of writing Foyle’s War is that although we are primarily seen as an investigative/crime series, our audience doesn’t seem to mind when we tackle weighty issues. It was impossible to ignore the devastating explosion at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on 22 July 1946 and its fallout and the episode is also inspired by a true story. A French Zionist came to England in 1946 and planted a bomb in the Commonwealth Office. The bomb failed to go off and what particularly interested me was that the terrorist was a young woman.
It was also very exciting to be able to film the race riots that took place in the East End of London. The politics of the fascist leader, Charles Lucas (played with sinister panache by Richard Lintern) reflect those of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement that surfaced after the war. Mosley called for an end to immigration on the one hand, but closer ties with Europe on the other – an interesting twist on a very current argument. Trespass refers to a secret operation masterminded by the British government to limit the number of Jews entering Israel. Once again, it is based in fact.
And finally we come to Elise, for me one of the saddest episodes I have ever written. The main thrust of the story goes back into the war years and looks at the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret army created by Churchill and one that has always fascinated me.
It’s only recently that a terrible scandal has come to light (again, I don’t want to give too much away), but it seems that the Nazis were informed about a great many of the agents who were being parachuted into the Netherlands and northern France. This resulted in their immediate capture, torture and execution.
The only explanation was that the Germans had intercepted SOE radio signals – and this was indeed the case. But the SOE did nothing. They continued to send agents into occupied territories. This incomprehensible decision resulted in a great number of unnecessary deaths.
Writing Foyle’s War, it’s not my job to make accusations, and although all the main players in the episode – the French pilot, the head of communications, Elise herself – are based on real people, I have given them different names. I have even fictionalised the department they work for. But as I write this, the Chilcot Inquiry on Iraq still has to report, and as responsibility swirls around in the air without actually being pinned on anyone, I can’t help wondering if things will ever change.
Every year, when we think about a new series of Foyle’s War, I meet with Michael Kitchen and producer Jill Green. We always ask the same question. Are there any more stories to tell? Together, we’ve travelled from the start of the war and the disaster of Norway to Dunkirk, the Blitz, Pearl Harbor, Dresden, the D-Day landings, VE day, VJ day – and then into the Cold War with Soviet spies, traitors, war criminals and the atomic bomb.
There have been perhaps two dozen murders along the way, a whole crowd of grieving relatives and suspects. Where next? By the end of this series, you will know.
Foyle’s War returns tonight at 8:00pm on ITV