Anthony Horowitz is the author of over 50 books, including the bestselling Alex Rider series for young adults, which follows the gripping adventures of a teenage spy for Britain's secret service. Plus he is the creator/writer of Foyle's War, Collision (seen on Masterpiece in 2009), and several other heart-stopping television series — not to mention he adapted 11 episodes of Poirot.
The war may be over in Hastings, but the battle against crime isn't. DCS Christopher Foyle is back in three new episodes of the revered Foyle's War series. Foyle's War creator/writer Anthony Horowitz spoke to Masterpiece's Richard Maurer in May, 2010, about the return of Foyle's War, the compelling history behind the series and the new episodes, and a transatlantic trip that may be in Foyle's future.
Select a topic from the list below to see Horowitz's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
The series is such a different take on the war, how did you get the idea for it?
Having written for a great many murder mystery series over the years, I had come to realize that to spend three months of my life — and to invite audiences to spend two hours of theirs — in a drama which simply boiled down to "the doctor did it" or "the butler did it" was — not exactly a waste of time — but a missed opportunity. And I began to think of ways of using the genre to tell different sorts of stories. As it happens, I've always had a strong and keen interest in the war, particularly the early years of it, and it suddenly occurred to me that if one started looking at murder at a time when murder was at its lowest currency, when it was at its least important, then that would be something quite interesting. How can you investigate one dead body in a library in Hastings, when on the same day five thousand people are being killed fifty miles away? That's what interested me, to take the genre and to use it to tell different sorts of stories and to look at a world that was so unique — the home front.
Do you see Foyle's War as a traditional murder mystery series, but one with a twist?
I've never called it a murder mystery series actually. As the series has continued, the murders have become almost an excuse. They haven't become the center of it at all. There are many episodes where you have to wait two or three acts for the murder to take place. There are two episodes where there is no murder at all. And although the main character is a detective, he is a detective who doesn't really want to be one. He wants to be working for the war effort. So it's almost an anti-murder mystery series in some respects. That said, we do work very hard to make them satisfying mysteries, because that is the excuse for watching. What makes me proud about this series is the large number of stories we've told for the first time on British or probably American television, including, for example, the three episodes that are in this current season.
Do you strive for great accuracy in the series — not just in the stories but in the sets, costumes, and props?
Indeed so. Before writing a script, I read at least five books on every single subject. I've now written nineteen two-hour films; that's an awful lot of books! That attention to detail has been respected by everyone involved, so that whoever you talk to, whether it's the production designer, the costume designer, or the props people, they are all totally committed to the ethos of Foyle's War, which is to be absolutely accurate. The reason for this is very simple: there are people still with us who fought in that war. Out of respect to their sacrifices and to the many lives that were lost, we feel duty bound to be honest about what was happening and to get every detail as accurate as possible.
What has been the viewer response to the inevitable mistakes?
In Britain, I'm afraid to say, the media have had a lot of fun every week pointing out the errors that will inevitably creep in. My favorite criticism was that we used a 1944 Spitfire in an episode that was set in 1943. It made me laugh. I wanted to say, "Where do you think we're going to get a Spitfire? Go down to the Spitfire shop and buy the right one?" The biggest note that we got objected to our actors having their hands in their pockets, which they wouldn't have done at that time. Also, it came up that you don't salute an officer if he's not wearing his cap.
A couple of years ago, you had to wrap up the plot of Foyle's War rather quickly because the series was cancelled. Now, thanks to popular demand, Foyle is back. Was it difficult to start it up again?
Re-sewing it all together again in a way that made sense and worked wasn't easy to do. But one of the things I'm most pleased about is that the experience did us all a lot of good. We looked at the new series as an opportunity to kick-start our films; to up the pace a little bit; to position some of the characters in a different way; to give viewers what they wanted, but not just to give them what they expected. And that, I think, is very good for a series, particularly one that got started in 2000. It's great that we can still be fresh and different and daring.
These three new episodes deal with the betrayal of the Russian POWs, the situation of black GIs in Britain, and the British Free Corps. Could you describe how you came upon these stories?
I'd always been aware of the story of the Russian repatriation. I think it was because of a legal case that took place many years ago, in which Nikolai Tolstoy, a historian, was sued by Lord Aldington, whom he had accused of being a participant in the forced repatriation and indeed death of the Cossacks. This was a big legal case, and it was one of the things that as a writer I found in the back corner of my brain for use one day. I always thought it would be interesting to write a story about what happened to the Russians, because it is a shameful incident for both America and for Britain. The deal that Roosevelt and Churchill made with Stalin is understandable in the context of the time. One can recognize the need for it at Yalta. But even so, it goes against our feelings of what these great men were about.
David Kane wrote the script about the black GIs. He has a keen interest in racial issues, being married to a black woman. But again it was something that I had been aware of — that unfortunately the black GIs in England were fairly badly treated by their own side, while the British were very much more amicably disposed towards them. That in itself was interesting, that racism existed within the American bases, rather than outside them.
The British Free Corps story, which is the third episode, came because we have an advisor from the Imperial War Museum, Terry Charman, who has been with us from the very start of the series. He told me, "You really should write about these people." The idea that Hitler should have tried to put together a propaganda unit of British POWs to fight against the Russians and persuade the world that Britain and Germany were really on the same side seemed so bizarre and so desperate in the last years of the war that it just struck me as the most wonderful story. The notion of someone who is a traitor during the war is a very powerful and potent image.
As we get farther away from World War II, we're starting to see it in a broader historical perspective. Do you think it was a unique time for Britain?
Oh, utterly and completely! Just the five days in May 1940 were the five most extraordinary and exceptional days this country has had in its entire history: where we were on the knife's edge, where domination by the Nazis seemed certain, where the war was practically over. It was only thanks to Churchill that we came through it. Those days were one of those crossroads in history, where if things had gone differently, I could be talking to you in German, frankly. Why are the British so fixated by the Second World War all these years later? I think it's because we found something in ourselves, and in our character, and in our national resolve that we have never really found again.
In these three new episodes, it's the early summer of 1945, the war in Europe is over, and we get a feeling of anticlimax from the returning soldiers. Could you describe this period?
There was a real sense of anti-climax here in Great Britain and a sense of disappointment and a sense of almost loss. For the young pilots, for example, who had flown in the Battle of Britain, those had been the most exciting and adrenaline-packed days of their lives and to suddenly return to civvy street to jobs, if they could get them, was the end of a dream for them. Don't forget rationing was still very much in force, Britain was close to bankrupt, and jobs were hard to get. Every book I read about the period immediately after the war impressed me with this sense of almost pointlessness that people were feeling.
In America, the victory in Europe was seen as the next-to-last act, with attention then turning to Japan. I take it that in Britain there was more a sense of closure with the defeat of Germany.
What's interesting is that people here have even forgotten that the war continued until August. In this country, now, when you ask people when the war ended, they say V-E Day. They forget that British people were still being held prisoner by the Japanese, and the British army was still active in the east. So the war wasn't over, but your comment is absolutely correct. V-E Day was such a big occasion that for most people in this country the war did end on that day. You have to also remember that it took a long time for British prisoners and for British soldiers to return. It was a very slow process of getting everybody home again, and that I think adds to the sense of anticlimax.
How have the major characters changed?
The fact that Foyle has resigned from the police force is a fairly major change. Sam has a completely new relationship now and a new romance, and has left her uniform behind and is beginning to think about her own life. Milner is grappling now with being a detective inspector; he's been promoted and in the first episode of the three, he reacts quite badly to this; his behavior is rather disappointing. And I like that. If you look at detective dramas, particularly British ones, the sidekick part tends to be very much a cipher; he's there to help the investigation. All three characters have managed to remain very solid and stalwart, but nonetheless, they have in different ways all changed.
Foyle's character relies so much on Michael Kitchen's wonderfully subtle acting style. Has the character evolved with him and in consultation with him?
Absolutely. Michael is as responsible as I am for the character of Foyle. Michael Kitchen has always been one of our most revered actors here in Britain. He had never done a long-running television series until Foyle's War. The only reason he took it on, I think, was because I was able to persuade him that it wouldn't just be a case of him getting a thud of an envelope through a door every two weeks with a new script; he would be very much part of the creative process. That is what we have done for nearly ten years. It's not always been easy. Michael is very demanding. One of the funny things about him is that he's the only actor I know who demands fewer lines. He'll look at a speech and say to me, "Actually I can do all of that — five lines — with one look." And the annoying thing is, he's always right; he can — which means I have to write more dialogue for the other actors to fill out the episode.
What is it like to work with Honeysuckle Weeks?
Completely different. Honeysuckle Weeks, who was a late piece of casting back at the beginning of the series is absolutely wonderful — a joyous discovery. In life, she has many similarities to Sam Stewart — that slightly eccentric intelligence and quirkiness and smiley quality. Of all the parts in the series, Sam is the one I most enjoy writing, because I know exactly what she's going to say and when she's going to say it.
How about Anthony Howell?
Anthony Howell has taken what is the most unrewarding part in a television murder mystery, and he has really built something out of it. If you look at episodes like "The White Feather," where he flirts with fascism, or "The Russian House," where he is getting used to being a senior officer in his own right, he is a real character on the screen, quite apart from the fact that he was wounded at Trondheim in Norway which gives him an interesting back story.
In the new series, Foyle mentions several times that he's going to America, and at the end of the third episode we see him boarding a ship. What's he up to?
If you go back to an episode called "Fifty Ships" [from Series II], you'll find that there's a character named Howard Paige, played by Henry Goodman, who was a murderer who got away. Foyle swore that after the war he would track him down.
So this is the "unfinished business" Foyle alludes to?
Unfinished business indeed. Yes. It is very much our hope that we will come to America next year and shoot it.
Can we look forward to a new series?
It depends on the financing falling into place. Certainly there is a huge appetite for that next show, and we wouldn't just do one. We would take Foyle into the Cold War. 1946 is a fascinating time in Britain. A lot is happening. Stalin is a new enemy. You could think of Foyle as being a prototype Smiley.