Sleuthing Our Tendency to Repeat the Past

Andrew Hill
Aug 10 · 6 min read
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Recently, I finally got around to checking out the celebrated British TV series, Foyle’s War — and found it impossible to ignore the way this echo from the past foreshadowed two news events that occurred the same day.

The first was Donald Trump’s visits to El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in the aftermath of last weekend’s mass shootings. The second was the mass arrest of 680 undocumented immigrants at seven agricultural-processing plants across Mississippi, the largest raid of its kind in American history, topping the previous record of 595 in 2008.

You know that old saying about how there’s 20/20 vision with hindsight? And the one that says those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them? Well, that’s why my first viewing of the Foyle franchise keeps rattling around in my brain.

Longtime fans may have forgotten that the very first episode has to do with the vilification of German immigrants to England during the early days of World War II. The episode was released in 2002 when I was entirely too busy with grad school and preparing a collection of short stories for publication. A TV show, even a good one, was the last thing on my To Do list, especially since I was also unemployed. Like a “red wheel barrow glazed with rain water,” so much depended on getting those stories finished.

I was so engrossed in my work that I failed to notice Justin Timberlake’s breakup with fellow Disney-kid girlfriend Britney Spears. But I did manage to catch the much-replayed footage of Michael Jackson dangling his infant son from a hotel window in Berlin. And I wasn’t so blocked off from the world at large that I missed the orchestrated build-up to the 2003 Iraqi War. Or the 50th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England. But I had neither time nor energy to pay attention to much else.

Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash

So here I am 17 years later entering the Foyle universe for the first time. Queen Elizabeth was only fourteen in 1940, the year in which that first episode of was set. Since only 79 years have passed since those early days of World War II, it’s probably unfair to expect humanity to have grown very much since then.

Episode 1 of Season One is called “The German Woman.” In it, we hear a politician spewing hatred and mistrust of German immigrants in a radio broadcast. We see everyday citizens who look upon any and all Germans with suspicion and hate. We see an academic couple in their sixties, who have immigrated legally, swept into a caged internment center during an overnight raid. We watch one of them die during the confinement. We see a malicious and brutal murder blamed on anti-German sentiment. We see good people do bad things. And we watch as wealthy folk in big houses use their power and influence to file false reports and turn a blind eye when a member of their own circle wants to marry an attractive blonde — a German with questionable links to Hitler’s government.

I watch this video, and the recent events of 2019 flood my consciousness. Because this is the day of those anti-Trump protests in El Paso and Dayton by people who believe his rhetoric fueled the recent mass shootings there. It’s on this day that the White House released a musically orchestrated video of Trump consoling the survivors of those shootings, barring the press in order to create a campaign-style record of the event that looks as if nothing else were going on. At the same time, his ICE agents came down hard on an “alien” population in Mississippi.

So here I am I’m watching Foyle’s War, but with this news in the background images of Don Corleone from the first Godfather movie creep in along the edges. You know — where scenes of a baptism are intercut with ones showing Corleone’s henchmen annhilating his adversaries.

I know, I know. ICE didn’t kill anybody during the Mississippi raids. But there’s a similarity. You do one thing in front of TV cameras to distract from what your forces are doing elsewhere. Why else did Trump go to El Paso and Dayton on the same day as an ICE raid that had been planned for nearly a year? There’s a case to be made that a man who repeatedly denounces the immigrant “invasion,” stoking hatred and fear in the electorate, might have wanted to shift attention away from this heavy-handed ICE attack on the Latino immigrant population. An attack that came just three days after the El Paso mass murderer specifically targeted the same group.

But getting back to Foyle’s War — there is one scene in that first episode, which particularly resonates with the current news cycle.

About halfway through the episode, Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle is talking with his young driver Samantha (Sam) Stewart. Foyle’s character is played by a 54-year-old Michael Kitchen, who may be familiar to movie fans from the cast of Out of Africa.

His driver is 22-year-old Honeysuckle Weeks, still fresh-faced and freckly enough to pass for a teenager. There is an avuncular aspect to their relationship. He’s trying to solve the mystery behind the murder of a German immigrant while coming to terms with the political and cultural events that surround it. In the car, Foyle and the young woman have the following conversation:

“You know Sam, I think we’ve got it wrong.”
“The case?”
“No, enemy aliens.”

Before he can continue, Samantha says she’s been reading a tabloid newspaper (the Mail) and repeats the view promoted by its editorial staff. She looks and sounds like lots of people today who mindlessly prattle opinions found on social media and their favorite news outlets.

The newspapers would prefer that you not think, Foyle tells her. “That’s the whole point.”

To which he adds this: These people have fled their own country, a step ahead of concentration camps and God knows what. They’ve had to give up everything — their homes, their possessions — and if getting out of one country is hard enough, getting into another one is even worse. They have to be sponsored, there’s the British Counsel, tribunals, the local police. And when they finally do settle down what do we do? We arrest them and lock them up again.”

I’d be suspicious of dialogue like this if it were written today. Certainly, I would not have appreciated its relevance to our current immigration crisis had I watched the series in 2002.

Watching it today gives me the benefit of hindsight. Although it’s a fictional program, it reminds me that history keeps repeating itself. Maybe we’ll always have to contend with rich men in big houses who manipulate the masses and bend the law to suit their own whims. But at least a series like this shows us what another type of man looks like. The kind one wants to be. Fair-minded. Hard-working. Long-taught by life to be guided by principles, respect for others and reverence for the truth.

That first episode also showed me what the young Rosamund Pike looked like a dozen years before Gone Girl. And James McAvoy before Atonement and X-Men. Also Julien Ovenden before Downton Abbey and Person of Interest. Without looking too far ahead on IMDB, which spoils things for me, I see episodes featuring my favorite Dr. Who, David Tennant, and Emily Blunt before she became Mary Poppins and The Girl on the Train.

Since Foyle’s War is about solving mysteries against a historical backdrop, I expect there will be many more echoes from the past, which resonate with the news of today. There are 27 episodes left to watch now, and I’m already as hooked on the series as the silvery trout snagged by one of Foyle’s hand-tied flies while he’s out fishing with his soon-to-be-shipped-out son.

I don’t engage in the dubious practice of binge-watching. So if I’m careful, I may be able to savor this critically acclaimed series for at least a few months. Maybe longer. I’ve already watched “The German Woman” twice looking for clues I may have missed the first time around. Maybe that’s the whole point of history. To look twice — and find out what was missed. ​

Originally published at

Andrew Hill

Written by

Award-winning writer with a background in talk radio, newspapers & TV news. Short Stories, Essays, Novel. On Twitter @jazprose

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