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While the multiplex never tires of finding new angles on World War II as over the course of the last few years we were presented with Black Book, Valkyrie, The Counterfeiters, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Miracle at St. Anna, The Reader and many others-- when it comes to episodic television series, it's one that isn't nearly quite as explored as say-- the popular crime and punishment paradigms, hospital dramas, or sudsy soaps.
However, in the late '70s, Britain's ITV launched two seasons of a fascinating original series, Enemy at the Door-- which the British Film Institute notes was initially dismissed by some as "ITV's answer" to BBC's 1977-1979 drama Secret Army, since both shows "looked at Nazi occupation from the twin perspective of the invaders and the civilian population and shared many of the same writers, including John Brason, N.J. Crisp, Robert Barr and even [Enemy's producer Michael] Chapman himself."
Hitting the airwaves originally in 1978 and concluding in 1980, Chapman's show managed nonetheless to set itself apart from not only from its frequently cited BBC competition but more importantly most World War II styled dramas as it takes a nearly Upstairs, Downstairs like view of the war by showing both sides of the conflict in the form of the little studied occupation of the British Channel Islands by Nazi Germany during the summer of 1940.
Essentially keeping the inhabitants of the islands as their "free" prisoners for five years-- the show primarily centers on On Her Majesty's Secret Service star Bernard Horsfall as Dr. Phillip Martel who has the unforgiving task of being the go-between between the Nazis and the islanders not only as a physician but also as a committee member who represents the Guernsey residents during the conflicts that arise from the very first episode as the boyfriend Peter Porteous (Richard Heffer) of his daughter Claire (Emily Richard) attempts an escape into London which leaves him injured and his co-escapee dead.
With the German side being represented by varying levels of villainy from men who seem to be somewhat stuck in the middle or forced into their duty such as Major Dieter Richter (Alfred Burke) and others-- like the show's main antagonist, the SS Officer Hauptmann Reineke (Simon Cadell) being simply perceived at monstrous-- producers Tony Wharmby and Michael Chapman managed to walk the difficult line in showing flaws in both sides of the situation (and instead of the masters and servants of Upstairs, it's the Germans verses the Brits) as we're drawn into the episodic nature of its thirteen part first season.
Although the central characters remain more or less the same throughout with a few surprise additions here and there (including Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Anthony Stewart Head in his acting debut), essentially Enemy at the Door worked as though it were an hour long film each and every week by introducing us to a novel worthy plot-- some that I know will stay with me for quite awhile-- and keeping us so riveted that we're sometimes left with an overwhelming sense of melancholy and lack of closure due to the nature of its often abruptly tragic endings and refusal to follow-up on certain characters later on in the season.
While it could have certainly been easy to develop a regular sense of push and pull among the islanders and the German occupiers with the same characters consistently squaring off-- the success of Enemy at the Door is in deliberately approaching its story-lines with the idea that at any moment something as upsetting but commonplace in WWII such as the banning and burning of books quickly finds one librarian locked up when she objects to the practice and a soldier falls to the ground in a struggle, losing face in front of the other officers.
Choosing to make an example out of her-- the image of the strong-willed librarian remains etched in our mind although often the episodes aren't clear-cut in the least by opting to wallow in the gray area between right and wrong as Claire finds herself resorting to murder to protect her brother, Porteous rebels in a way that stuns audiences and a much younger objecting vandal is caught in his place, and in one of the most startling episodes, a young virginal daughter takes part in a German propaganda dance to get her father's car returned to him which leads to a surprising turn of events as she accuses an innocent soldier of rape.
And while, of course, there some definite standouts among the first season, the most affecting episode ("The Jerrybag") and the one in which its 400 Blows reminiscent image is used for the DVD set's cover art concerns a young Guernsey woman named Betty who is surprised to find love with a young German officer which leads to a heartbreakingly powerful conclusion in an episode that was so instrumental in the series that producers followed it up with a continuation to the tale in the second season.
Although the series has been made available on disc before-- the high quality treatment given to it by Acorn Media with this brand new release makes it one series I know I'll want to finish when the U.S. based company (specializing in bringing UK's best works to our shores) releases its concluding season as the last few episodes of this 1978 thirteen-part beginning ratchets up the tension as a surprise character arrives that gives the nefarious Reineke an exciting back-story that adds depth to his loathsome character and Dr. Martel's daughter Claire continually acts out, jeopardizing the lives of those nearest to her as she struggles with the decision on how and when to rebel against her captors without quite understanding if the consequences are worth the risk being taken.
An overlooked aspect of England's involvement in the war and one that engages viewers into wanting to learn more not only about the Channel Islands (which are covered in a historical overview extra on the four disc DVD set) but also more about the inhabitants of Guernsey to discover just how much was taken from fact in the emotionally rich, draining, yet unforgettable story-lines.