‘Foyle’s War’s’ Michael Kitchen: the best actor you’ve never heard of
by Eddie Richey
“My name’s Foyle, I’m a police officer,” is how Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle usually introduces himself in each episode of Foyle’s War. With the entire world at war, with the fabric of British society ripped apart — women working in factories, disillusionment among lower classes who are being sent off to Europe to be slaughtered, rationing of basic foods, black marketeers, police forces stripped down to skeletons — DCI Foyle fights to maintain some semblance of law and justice.
The show’s creator, Anthony Horowitz, has written one of the most complex characters ever created: brilliant, wry, and at times, almost cruel in his honesty.
Christopher Foyle fought in the trenches during World War I, but seldom talks about it. But in Michael Kitchen‘s eyes, we know he has killed, and he has seen the worst horrors imaginable. He worries about his son Andrew, a pilot in the RAF. They are very different men, not as close as Foyle would like.
He almost never talks about his wife who died from typhoid years earlier. He keeps her watercolors prominently displayed, but one of the few things we know about their relationship is he was in love with another woman first, a woman whose father refused his permission to marry. There’s a bitter subtext when he tells her “Your father understood a policeman’s son wasn’t good enough and I should never have asked.”
“You’ve become very hard,” she tells him. She then adds “a day hasn’t gone by when I have not been sorry.” The look in his eyes makes it clear her father’s words still sting, and that he still has feelings for her. He then transfers his eyes to a picture of his late wife, and his pain becomes even greater.
It is his integrity that defines him. After he arrests a young man for murder, the boy’s father pleads with Foyle that he needs him. Dunkirk. 300,000 British Soldiers lie beaten and battered on the beaches with the German Army poised to annihilate them. An armada of fishing boats is enlisted to cross the English Channel and rescue the soldiers. The boy’s father tries to convince Foyle that he needs him to man his boat, and he gives him his word he will return his son to Foyle’s custody. Foyle agrees. The bargain is kept in one of the most powerful scenes of the entire series.
After a German spy is captured, Foyle believes he witnessed a murder. Unable to save the spy from hanging, Foyle has nothing to barter. But when Foyle gives the German his word that he contact the spy’s mother and tell her his last thoughts were of her, the spy agrees to help.
In that episode, entitled “Fifty Ships,” Foyle has no choice but to let the murderer go free. But, he does solve another heinous crime — that of a group of men who loot homes which have been bombed by the Germans. “As if Hitler wasn’t enough, we have the likes of you.” Foyle takes great pleasure in telling the looter he’ll be hanged.
In 1940, with England braced for a Nazi invasion, Foyle tangles with a charismatic Nazi sympathizer trying to convince England that the cream of British youth is dying for the Jews, not for England. When Foyle investigates a murder which he may be involved with, the Nazi sympathizer asks Foyle if by chance, he is Jewish. The look Foyle gives him is what defines Michael Kitchen as an actor. No dialogue, just the look. Disgust, anger, outrage — written on Mr. Kitchen’s face. But something else as well — a refusal to allow the Nazi to unnerve him, and a confidence that eventually Foyle will nail him.
It is Foyle’s uncompromising commitment to justice which prevents him from playing the political game — and keeps him from promotion.
It will not be the last time Foyle solves a crime which prevents him from obtaining a War Department position. In an episode entitled “The French Drop,” he doggedly pursues the truth in a deadly war between rival factions of British Intelligence. When he uncovers it, he’s asked to bury it, which he does — however damned reluctantly — and makes an enemy of a powerful British Officer.
Mr. Horowitz doesn’t shy away from the more interesting aspects of the political complexities of the time, especially the alliance between the Soviet Union and Great Britain. In “A War of Nerves,” Foyle is asked to investigate a Communist who, Foyle’s superior believes, is trying to agitate a shipyard’s union into striking. Foyle discovers the reason for the investigation is personal, and in fact, the owners of the shipyard are war profiteers. The episode ends with the news that Hitler has launched Operation Babarossa, the invasion the Soviet Union, which brings hope that the war will soon end. In the episode entitled “The Russia House,” Horowitz deals with the horrors faced by Russian prisoners who fought for the Nazis when they are repatriated to the USSR, and the British Government’s complicity in that repatriation.
As great as the tapestry of Foyle’s War is — weaving historical truths, moral dilemmas, the irony of one man pursuing murderers while millions are being massacred in Europe, the interaction between the characters — Sgt. Milner, the crippled war veteran, Samantha, the young driver who comes of age, his son Andrew, who finally cracks under the strains of war — it is Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle who make this one of the greatest and most addictive shows in the history of television.
* Current episodes of Foyle’s War can be seen on PBS Masterpiece. Previous seasons I – VI can be seen on Netflix or Acorn TV.