Nobody makes period pieces or mysteries quite like the Brits. Thus a British period mystery is a cracking treat. Take Foyle’s War, the ITV detective drama starring Michael Kitchen as a country DCS battling crime, the Axis, and the odd English traitor on the home front during World War II. It’s an actioner. It’s got fabulous costumes. And there’s always an absorbing whodunit (or mad bomber, or rogue pilot, or warped priest) and a psychological twist to keep things interesting. But the best thing about the show isn’t always Foyle, or the great plots, or his dashing one-legged sidekick Sgt. Milner (Wives and Daughters’ Anthony Howell)—it’s his female driver (and possible future daughter-in-law) Samantha Stewart. She’s tough without being stony. Righteous without being preachy. Girly without being frilly. You know, pretty perfect to watch.
So in honor of the recent DVD release of series 5, and to celebrate the show’s surprise renewal (it was supposed to shut up shop after its characters celebrated the end of the war this year), Honeysuckle Weeks, the actress who plays Sam, dropped us an email to answer a few questions about the show. (Seriously, anglophiles must pick up this DVD set, which also features a great guest spot by Natasha Little and the return of Julian Ovendon. It’s the best of the series, and features my fave episode, involving the bludgeoning death of a suicidal cartographer. We snagged you the clip, embedded after the jump.)
But back to the subject at hand, this is a big month for Honeysuckle: She also gives a brilliant, terrifying turn as a wacky wife (pictured) in the Inspector Lynley finale airing this Sunday on PBS. I beseech you not to miss it!
Tell me how your Foyle’s War character, Sam, has changed over the course of the series.
She started off the show as quite a young person, and I’ve tried tokeep that youthful essence as the show has progressed over the lastseven years; partly because that is part of her appeal as a character,but also because I instinctively feel that people living during thattime had a greater degree of innocence. The war has its effects on her of course, especially in her relationships with men, but it’s her spirit of ploughing on and making do and grace under fire that shines through more than world-weariness, I would say. She brings relief from some of the plot’s darker aspects by being resolutely cheerful, which is great fun to play. During the first [season] one could say she has more pluck than sense, but as the series progresses she gradually becomes less of a spanner in the works and more of a cog in the engine, so to speak. She has a stoical attitude to adversity and puts the idea of ‘duty’ before self, and this I think informs all the characters in Foyle’s War, a selfless attitude which perhaps we’d do better to hold onto today!
Do you have a favorite episode?
My favorite episode is probably “Among the Few,” which is largelyto do with doctors in a hospital that specializes in treating burnsvictims. It sounds grim, but in fact it’s an incredibly upliftingepisode because of the moving relationships that are built up betweendoctor or nurse and patient, and the bravery of the men who struggle onthrough life even though their bodies and faces are destroyed. It’sabout the heartache of the sweethearts who have to come to terms withthe disfigurement of their pilots, and the carousing spirit of the staffwho try to improve the lot of their heroic wards. In short, it’s anepisode that I think champions all that is best in the human spirit.Oh…and of course, there’s a gripping murder case with lots ofexplosions and spitfire aerodynamics on the side. It’s also exquisitelyshot.
Have you had a favorite among Foyle’s War’s guest stars?
I don’t think I can choose a favorite guest star, although it’salways great when there are some younger actors to horse about with.Laurence Fox [from season two, episode four, “War Games”] isparticularly good fun, as was the beautiful Emily Blunt, who now knowshow to keep and tame bees! But there have been so many excellentperformances from some now very famous young actors that sometimes Imust admit I lose track of them all (watch out for James McAvoy in thefirst ever episode). I sit writing this with Michael Kitchen’s familyrunning about in the orchard garden. We’ve just been on a walk toscrump some broad beans for lunch. Anthony Howell (who playsSgt. Milner) is here, and it’s a beautiful day in Dorset. So you can see we allget along “famously” (as they might have said circa 1940!).
Watching you play a modern girl in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries made me really appreciate the period perfection you bring to Sam. Do you like acting in period pieces?
Of course, it’s wonderful to film any period piece—but especially Foyle’s Warbecause the art direction is so imaginative and yet at the same time soreal. You can open a drawer on set, and even though the camera neversees what’s inside, it’ll be filled with genuine 1940s documents. Thatand the uniform I wear (which is always so scrupulously clean, shipshape and slip shod, as they say) is most of my performance. When Ilook into the make-up truck mirror and see my granny staring back at me,it isn’t so very hard to start acting like her too! But yes, I alwaysenjoy period pieces more because you’ll get picked up at sparrow fartin the urban sprawl of London and awake in the grounds of some statelypile or a charmingly disheveled old farmstead in the countryside. On Foyle’sespecially I get to spend the majority of the spring and summer drivingabout the B roads of England in a leather-bound black Wolseley.Brilliant! The only drawback is the scratchy wartime shirt and uniform,which in anything over twenty-five degrees centigrade [seventy-sevendegrees Fahrenheit] can get unbearable, but that really is the onlydrawback.
You’ve worked with so many great people. Who are your favorite British actors and actresses?
Favorite British actors/actresses? Well Michael, obviously, Out of Africa is one of my favorites and I worked with him on two other projects before Foyle’s War: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House [on BBC Radio 4] and Lorna Doone. Who else? Well I played a young Helena Bonham Carter in a BBC film called A Dark Adapted Eye,and I thought she was a completely spellbinding person. Totally unmovedby other people’s expectations, fashions or opinions. She’s probablythe coolest English actress there is. Incredibly idiosyncratic. And A Room With A Viewis up there in my top three favorite films of all time. I think EmilyBlunt is definitely our finest young female English export. She has anuncanny grace. (See My Summer of Love—the Edith Piaf scene,cello playing, horse riding loveliness.) But she’s also got incrediblecomic timing, take one of the office scenes in The Devil Wears Prada:“Yeah, I’m hearing this,” cue hand movements of a beak flapping, “and Iwant to hear this,” single hand movement of that beak clamping shut. Asfor a youngish British actor, it’s got to be Rhys Ifans. He’s anabsolute chameleon. I saw him do the most brilliant portrayal of theacerbic Peter Cook in a British TV film a year or so ago. He got thevoice, the movements, everything, spot on. Awesome. If you compare thisto his part in Notting Hill or the brilliant Enduring Love,you’ll see what I mean. He’s also got a rapier wit. Hysterically funny.In fact I think a lot of the Welsh actors around at the moment arepretty darn good.
What are you watching on TV now? What are you reading?
Well I’m not much of a soap fan, but I loved Criminal Justice,which was on recently, and starred Ben Whishaw, Pete Postlethwaite,Lindsay Duncan and Juliet Aubrey, among others. A five-parter I’dreally recommend. At the moment I’m reading The Goldilocks Enigmaby one of our great physicists, Paul Davies. It challenges the majorityof the “facts” compounded in that hideous book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion,which I have to say I detest. [Davies’ book is a] fascinating enquiryinto the possible scientific purpose of our consciences and the pointof the “perfectness” of the Earth’s design.
What’s next for you?
I’m filming a modern day police drama at the moment where I play a Polish gangster’s moll, so that’s quite a refreshing change from thenorm, except that everybody else in the cast is Polish except forme..oh bolsche! Then I’m going on a number one tour with a BillKenwright production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singularplaying a suicidal dog-loving lunatic, and that’ll take me up toChristmas, so luckily I’m quite busy. Then next year a new series of Foyle’s Waris being filmed except it’s going to detail the aftermath of VE Day andthe various privations that went with it…I’m really looking forwardto getting back in that Wolseley!