“Silent Witness”-or Dead on Arrival

Silent Witness,  one of the longest running  BBC television series (broadcast in more than 235 countries),  focuses on a team of brilliant forensic pathologists who investigate a crime every two episodes. First broadcast in 1996, there now have been twenty-three seasons,  making  Silent Witness  the  entertainment industry’s longest running crime drama. The title character is a corpse lying on a slab prepared for a post-mortem analysis–a “silent witness”  providing evidence of a crime, suicide, or death by natural causes.   Stories untold, things unsaid. 

The crimes range  from human trafficking to  biological weapons, drug cartels, organized crime, corporate skullduggery, mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional insurance scam or  accident. The most insignificant anatomical anomaly or physical trace of soil or insect can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not.   Toxicology reports and DNA to identify a severed limb or family connection are quintessential procedural investigative stages.  Post-mortem dissection of body parts is not for the squeamish, as the pathologists, without noticeable  reaction, cut open and squeeze contents before plopping them onto a steel basin.  For those who flinch at biologically realistic appearing organs, bones and tissue, you might want to skip this series.  For those not squeamish you will find the scientific precision extolling  conclusions based on research and science to be riveting.

A brilliant, often ignored  female pathologist is commonly the key to solving the crime(s).  [Each two-episode case also features at least two corpses and two crimes to solve.]  The series has had multiple casting changes, including the actors who play the three pathologists.

It is challenging and so much fun to solve the crimes, from the viewer’s perspective.  All clues are there, if you pay close attention.  However, often an insignificant comment in a conversation at the beginning of an opening scene foreshadows who is the culprit. (Note:  It is never the most obvious suspect.) 

It is obvious why this series is such a crowd-pleaser.  Even with multiple casting changes throughout the twenty-three year history of Silent Witness, the drama keeps pace with  social change.  Nothing seems dated in any of the narratives, with the exception of some of the cases in South Africa.  In addition, not only the mystery and suspense of a whodunit plays to the audience’s interest, but also the backstories of the three key forensic pathologists.  Each is flawed with a corresponding family history and drama. The three pathologists’ unstable private lives often underscore the chaotic paths of their dogged, determined hunt for the killer, poking into their own psyches as they probe the “silent witness” to the crime.

Silent Witness is not headed to the morgue anytime soon, and certainly, is not dead on arrival.

Note:  A bonus feature to watching Silent Witness is seeing some of Britain’s most talented actors at the very beginning of their careers, mere acolytes learning the trade.  For the gimlet-eyed, some of the more notable are Idris Elba as an ambitious young boxer, Benedict Cumberbatch as a callow university student, Jodie Comer as the unfortunate subject of an exorcism,  and Daniel Kaluuya, as a teenager trying to eradicate a local gang’s influence on his family.

Availability:  Amazon Prime streaming.

“Foyle’s War”–Crime Foiled

I am addicted to the series “Foyle’s War” (six extraordinary seasons –2002-2010–on BBC Television) now available through Netflix. Set in a small coastal town, Hastings, in Great Britain during World War II, a middle-aged police chief, Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (the underrated Michael Kitchen) assumes the responsibility of solving murders in the midst of the confusion of war.  While war rages around the world, perpetrators both civilian and military assume they can commit all sorts of heinous crimes with impunity:  murder, robbery, espionage, black market trade. Foyle has to fight his own war, sometimes losing to the military and political establishments who claim that national security is the higher moral standard, in order to seek justice.

Assisted by his young driver, the charmingly unconventional Samantha “Sam” Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), Foyle is resolute and tenacious in his commitment to justice.  In the process he is the target of enemies in powerful positions. Foyle argues that the victims of crime cannot be forgotten with the excuse that war trumps all other concerns. As one of the intelligence officers advises Foyle:  “War always hides a great many dirty secrets.”

The incredibly complex storyline never ceases to amaze me, in spite of some common elements that appear in each episode.  There is always at least one local resident who is working class and unaware of his or her vulnerable position.  At least one suspect, usually in a high position within a military or government institution, is either profiteering from the war or has some other heinous action to hide.  Occasionally, the suspect owns a factory or company supplying the war effort. Finally, there is the suspect you can’t figure out–honest or foul?

Creator and writer, Anthony Horowitz, has managed to present tightly woven murder mysteries against the backdrop of what appears to be authentic historical data of the Second World War.  Archival footage is sometimes intertwined with the crime-to-be-solved.  For example, in one episode, “The Casualties of War” (2007), the technology of the “bouncing bomb”, a military device used to destroy German dams for the British war effort, is carefully explained but not in a documentarian fashion.  This is concurrent with the murder of a young scientist in a laboratory where weapons development is taking place. These incredibly complex stories will keep you riveted to the TV or computer screen, as you try to solve the murder alongside Foyle, Stewart, and Milner.

Michael Kitchen is simply brilliant as the sharp, witty, sometimes acerbic, and infinitely perceptive Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Foyle.  Distinctly British,  DCS Foyle is always  courteous, with a fastidious punctilious style in speech and dress, never raising his voice or using a harsh word.  Only his hat or his eyebrow shifts position, and even that is almost imperceptible.

“Foyle’s War” is much more than a mystery series.  It is the classic conflict of the scrupulously honest hero outwitting morally vacillating superiors who wish the hero would just walk away. (The TV series “Colombo” is an obvious example of this classic figure).  It is an analysis of human nature as seen through the eyes of the humble but extremely confident Foyle.  He knows folly when he sees it, war or no war.  Only two characters never succumb to betraying their own integrity and self-worth:  Foyle and his trusted driver, Sam.  The others who have moments of weakness are forgiven. This adds, rather than subtracts from plot development.

Because of fervent demand, “Foyle’s War” will be produced again next year with three new episodes to savor.  They will be broadcast on Masterpiece Mystery, so watch this astonishing, intrepid series or watch it again to be better prepared for the next chapter of “Foyle’s War”.