Perhaps it was by design, or perhaps not, but the attention to period detail in the crime series Foyle’s War is remarkable and rare in a seemingly simple way: it gets teeth right.
Foyle’s War is a police drama featuring Detective Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchens). Many of the crimes he investigates in Hastings, Sussex during WWII are related to the conditions on the homefront including profiteering and sabotage, but jealousy and madness also provoke ordinary people to behave wickedly. The show premiered in 2002 and ended in 2015 after 28 90-minute episodes. The last episodes following the war find Foyle in London, working for MI5.
Foyle is a quiet, highly principled man. He is compassionate, but he does not suffer fools. He’s a widower with one son, Andrew, serving in the RAF. From the first episode onwards he is accompanied by Samantha Stewart (Sam) as his driver, and in the first five seasons he works with Sgt. Milner, a policeman who lost part of a leg in the war.
There are perhaps a half dozen other characters who appear in more than one episode, but for the most part, the cast is fluid.
Its creator, Anthony Horowitz, has attributed Foyle’s War appeal to the tone of the show. It defies the sentimental nostalgia for the war years, and Horowitz based many of the situations Foyle investigates on historical events. The New York Times acknowledges that Foyle’s War is typically “celebrated for the ‘historical accuracy’ (those are the words always used) achieved by its creator and writer, Anthony Horowitz. . . . The better word is probably scrupulousness — the special texture of the show owes to the faith we feel in Mr. Horowitz’s depiction of the clamped-down, suspicious yet doughty atmosphere of 1940s Britain, and to the trouble and expense to which the production has gone to recreate those times.”
In contrast, consider the criticism of Downton Abbey, which historian A. N. Wilson called a “sanitized fantasy.” Downton may get the place settings right, but “the servants in the program are far too clean,” according to historian Jennifer Newby: “The reality would have been a lot more grubby, I don’t think people realize that the servants stank.”
All I think you need to do to understand why Downton is fantastical and Foyle’s War is not, is to look at the teeth.
Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) has acceptable, ordinary teeth. There are no obvious flaws, other than a little yellowing. Foyle smiles easily – he has a very expressive face – but his smiles are usually closed.
Samantha (Sam) Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks). Sam’s mouth seems to change from the start of the series to its final episodes. In the opening episodes, Sam’s teeth seem to be a bit small for her mouth and there appear to be spaces between her teeth.
In the last series, her teeth seem capped and bonded.
Sgt. Milner has good teeth, as does Foyle’s son, Andrew. The actors who portray them, Anthony Howell and Julian Mark Ovenden, were stage actors. I expect it would have been hard to find experienced actors to play young men in their twenties who have not had good dentistry.
What’s interesting is that the characters who have obvious problems with their teeth represent all social classes. A fisherman, a police commissioner, doctors, army brass, industrialists – all are at risk. Not everyone has bad teeth: a daughter of a wealthy family in Series 1, episode 1, has perfect teeth, as does a burn victim.
Let’s see some examples:
Some do have good teeth:
I don’t know if in the between-the-wars period imperfect teeth could be fixed to look like what is considered normal today, but the family of Downton Abbey would have had the resources for cosmetic dentistry if needed and available. So it isn’t too surprising that Lady Mary, Mrs. Crawley, and the rest of the Granthams have 21st century American teeth.
But it would be very surprising if the servants of the house also have perfect smiles. And they do. This is a huge oversight for a series that claims to be true to its historical period.
Let’s face it: imperfect teeth are taboo. There can be no glamour when there’s a crooked tooth.
But there can be no pretense of historical accuracy when the scullery maid has a smile that rivals an aristocrat’s.