This week’s season premiere episode of the PBS drama series Masterpiece Mystery brought two very happy things. One, the return of the series Foyle’s War for a seventh season is quite welcome. Starring Michael Kitchen as Inspector Christopher Foyle, the chief police detective in a coastal English town during and after World War II, the series includes good mystery puzzles while taking quite seriously the moral implications of all of its characters’ actions.
The second good thing was the nature of the season premiere episode. “The Russian House” dealt with a very serious moral and political issue and foregrounded an atrocity committed by the Soviet Union with British complicity at the end of World War II. The brutal nature of the Soviet Communist regime is quite apparent in the episode. (The show can be found in repeats on local stations and will be viewable on the PBS Masterpiece website.)
For progressive-leaning PBS to broadcast such a program is rather uncommon and a nice change.
“The Russian House” starts out with a bang: rather than be sent home to the Soviet Union, a Russian soldier in England deliberately leaps to his death.
The narrative establishes that there are 1,200 Russian POWs in England, who fought for the Axis during the war. Inspector Foyle is assigned to find one of them, who has escaped custody and is trying to help others avoid being sent back to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, a returned English war veteran finds that the job that was promised to be waiting for him after the war is not available.
We soon find out that the reason the Soviet authorities are so intent on repatriating the escaped Russian POW whom Foyle has been assigned to locate is his knowledge of a Soviet atrocity in Odessa after the Yalta agreement at the end of the European hostilities. A boatload of Russian soldiers being repatriated from England against their will was machine-gunned by Soviet soldiers — an act in which the British government was fully complicit.
That was the Conservative Churchill government, it is worth noting, which turned a blind eye to such horrors in hopes of ensuring the safe return of the 20,000 British POWs then still being held in Soviet territory. (A character notes that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was likewise complicit in allowing the Soviet Union to perpetrate such horrors without being called to account.) Foyle correctly refers to this as a “deeply offensive little secret.” Both the Soviets and the British government desperately want to keep it under their bloodstained hats.
It’s also worth noting here that Foyle is a bit of a prig, often seeming rather smug in his moral judgments and devotion to his particular sense of what is proper. On the other hand, his forthright defense of what he believes to be the right manners and morals is commendable and rather refreshing, in addition to being very true to the time and the character. An old acquaintance of Foyle remarks that Foyle was “always a bit Bolshy,” but from a contemporary perspective his politics look rather more like classical liberalism — which probably would have looked “a bit Bolshy” to a British conservative of the time.
In any case, one gets the sense that the creator of the show, Anthony Horowitz, drew the character to be interesting and to explore human choices, not as some one-dimensional figure through whom to make obvious points about politics.
“The Russian House” exemplifies this willingness to go wherever the story material leads. The plotline pitting anti-Communist Russian expatriates against Soviet authorities is paralleled by one indicating very dire English political divisions. The murder victim, Sir Leonard Spencer-Jones, is presented as a very good man, and he strenuously opposes the Labour Party, which he says “will bring this country to its knees.”
Interestingly, writer Anthony Horowitz emphasizes that the character’s opposition to the coming socialist revolution is not in any way a matter of prejudice or stinginess. He is helping a seventeen-year-old ex-Soviet soldier, Niko, and even plans to adopt him and make him his heir. Spencer-Jones even gives his life to protect the boy.
This latter event occurs during a very dramatic scene of crosscutting between a child’s baptism, a murder, and Soviet agents’ seizing of the escaped POW.
In the end, of course, Foyle identifies the murderer, whom no sane person would have suspected, and the Soviet Communists and their British government bootlickers are shown to be uniformly ghastly. Horowitz, however, never descends to any obvious political points.
The actual historical events, after all, speak for themselves. Horowitz shows both good taste and wisdom in allowing them to do so.