Father Brown – The Hammer of God (BBC1) [2013]

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I’ve never been much of a devotee of GK Chesterton’s Catholic cleric detective, but I did become rather partial to the BBC Radio 4 adaptations which starred Andrew Sachs in the title role. Sachs, rather than Chesterton, is therefore my base reference for the character and the stories.

fatherbrownThe BBC have now made a new ten-part series of Father Brown stories, with Mark Williams (of the Harry Potter films and more recently seen on TV as Rory’s dad in Doctor Who) as Father Brown. He’s not exactly how I saw the character – he’s rather more down to earth, and rather than being genteel and self-effacing to the point of invisibility, this Father Brown is quite forthright and even downright pushy when he needs to be. Fear not, it’s nowhere near as extreme as Margaret Rutherford’s reinterpretation of Miss Marple from the Agatha Christie version – but it’s a definite shift from the source stories that won’t be welcomed by the strictest Chesterton adherents.

Such devotees might also take exception to the way that the first episode in the series has to do a lot of expansion work to the source material. “The Hammer of God” is a very short short story – only 12 pages in my paperback copy of the tales – and would struggle to fill even half the 50-minute running time of this show, so instead a whole host of new supporting characters have been created and red herring motives for murder sketched in for a good number of them. There’s also the invention of a neat new clue (about the church clock being fractionally slow) that is very satisfying, even if it does rather send up a massive flare as to whodunnit.

For the most part this upscaling of the story has been done well and will be fairly inoffensive to all but the most ardent of Chesterton purists, even though the overall result is to make Father Brown feel less like one of Chesteron’s tiny miniature precision pieces and more like the slow-moving Joan Hickson Miss Marple series from the BBC in the 1980s. There’s the idyllic small English country village; the usual array of 1950s stereotypes attending a church fete; and murder ensuing in the picturesque graveyard. I really did expect Miss Marple to amble by and peer over the hedgerow at some point, just to check that Father Brown was up to the task or whether she might have to step in. The only difference is that whereas the 1980s Hickson shows are now very much worse for wear having been filmed on inferior 16mm film stock, this new modern show is sparkling and vivid in glorious high-definition (surely that’s wrong – everyone knows that 1950s England was in black-and-white, or at best was a drab faded palette? You can’t have such rich greens on display in post-war austerity times!) and with some stylish modern directorial touches such as the single take slow zoom on the face of the prisoner in a cell as she makes a lengthy confession to her priest.

I have to say that I loved the new Father Brown show and sank willingly into its warm embrace of nostalgia. People older than I will be nostalgic for the actual period, whereas in my case it’s fond memories of the 1980s Hickson Marple show that lull me in. It’s the perfect balm to help me get over the latest bastardised Marple adaptations put out by ITV which are just crude and unsubtle.

Still, there’s one note of caution and criticism I have to strike, Among the changes made to “The Hammer of God” is the introduction of a gay lovers plot, which instantly sticks out like a sore thumb as something wholly inauthentic to Chesterton’s time. The fact that a 1950s Catholic cleric would be kind and considerate about the matter also feels like a glaringly obvious modern insertion into the story to make Father Brown seem infeasibly enlightened and compassionate. A real priest of the day (let alone the 1900s which is when Chesterton wrote the original story) would have been bringing down the wrath of God in fire and brimstone on the sinners, which after all was also a serious criminal offence at the time. It wasn’t as if this strand was even needed by the story – the killer already had a perfectly good motive for his actions, so this seemed thrown in to titillate and ‘update’ the story in the crudest way possible, just as ITV’s recent Poirot adaptations with David Suchet have similarly crow-barred in inappropriate gay love motives into Dame Agatha’s plots. One such Poirot story managed to introduce no fewer than three such strands as motives for murder in a single episode, which only served to make the writers and producers appear to be unhealthily pathologically obsessed about gay and lesbian matters. It was noticeable that gay relationships only ever seemed present in that series to cast suspicions on those involved, as though ‘gay’ was show shorthand for ‘prime suspect if there’s a homicide, otherwise suitable only to be a victim as a result of their sexual orientation.’

Let’s hope that Father Brown doesn’t end up having the same predilections and that the appearance of the subject here and in this context is a one-off matter, in which case it’s just an awkward anomaly and miss-step but not one that should undo the great amount of good material there is to offer. I very much hope this new show is a success and goes on to many series in the future – there are an awful lot of Father Brown stories to get through, after all, and it would be a delight to see Mark Williams on TV on a regular basis for years to come.

One thing that did leave me a little sad though was the time slot for the show. Whereas Hickson’s Miss Marple was an 1980s ‘event’ production in the BBC prime time evening schedule, apparently the best home that the 2013 BBC could find for Father Brown is 2.10pm on a weekday afternoon where few people will find it. Even sadder is the realisation that when I tried to work out where it should go in a modern TV schedule, I actually couldn’t justify it going anywhere else either. The evenings are full of soaps, reality shows, dark and gory detective programmes and celebrity panel quizzes; there really is no where for Father Brown to fit in other than into a mid-afternoon backwater, however much of a waste of a quality 45 minutes of drama that is in a world that needs more such little gems, not less.

The ten-part series 1 of Father Brown airs on BBC 1 at 2.10pm on weekday afternoons until January 25, 2013. No release date for a DVD of this series has yet been announced, but the 1970s version starring Kenneth More is available as is the 1954 film starring Alec Guinness. Audio versions starring Andrew Sachs are on sale on CD and are often repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

10 thoughts on “Father Brown – The Hammer of God (BBC1) [2013]

    Charles Hedges said:
    January 22, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Sorry Andrew, this is not a little gem, it is a turnip. It may be enjoyable tosh, but it should drop the references to Father Brown. Rather like filming Moby Dick in the Sahara, or setting Noddy in the House of Lords.

    andrewlewin responded:
    January 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Sorry you’re not enjoying it at all. What about it is really putting you off? Specific episodes?

    It’s worth adding that my piece was based on the first aired episode only, which seemed to me to be a good and respectful way of adapting a slender story to full running time. But some of the subsequent episodes have been less successful – I was particularly irked by “The Eye of Apollo” which unless I’ve got things mixed up seemed to bear no resemblance at all to the original Chesterton story, much to my disappointment. And Williams’ Father Brown is definitely becoming increasingly Rutherford-esque as the series goes on …

    Adrian Drew said:
    June 11, 2013 at 7:38 am

    The show really is a painful “painting by numbers” affair! It is incredibly badly written. The production values are wonderful and the cast excellent but the simple minded plot construction and dreadful dialogue are more akin to the patronising excesses of badly produced “children’s television” than prime time programming – which is presumably why it has been relegated to the afternoon slot. This, plus the inclusion if the ludicrous anti-gay justification for the murder – and the historically inaccurate “acceptance” of such “behaviour” by Father Brown is the final nail in the coffin of this “turkey”. My mixed metaphor being totally deliberate! That said, I did enjoy your thoughtful review and agree with several of your insights – it’s just you are much more tolerant of mediocrity and “dumbing-down) on public service broadcasting than I am. Father Brown could have been a real gem and shame on the BBC for not being more careful over it’s conception.

    andrewlewin responded:
    June 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for commenting, it’s always great to read alternative takes on the topics, even (or perhaps especially?) with a very different view of my own. I certainly appear to be in the minority in liking this!

    I still feel warmly disposed to this series and think of it less harshly than you do, although we’re in total agreement on the clunking ‘gay’ plot line which is not only unnecessary and intrusive, it sticks out like a sore thumb as some dreadful in appropriate way to make the show ‘relevant’.

    Maybe I’m simply a softer touch on this one because I saw it in the lowered-expectations mid-afternoon slot where it was a pleasant surprise – I assume you’re catching the early evening rerun showing, which sets a different level of expectation. Or maybe you know your Chesterton and Father Brown rather better than I do? If so, gay sub-plot aside, this was one of the more faithful adaptations of the original short stories, so if you didn’t take well to this one then I heartily advise you to steer clear of the liberties they take with the later ones – which started to grate even with me!

      Adrian Drew said:
      June 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      I certainly understand where you are coming from. I feel much the same and yearn for a well made series to replace so much of the dross that we have on prime time BBC One etc. It is just that watching that first episode of Father Brown, I really couldn’t believe how they had reduced (and inflated – a strange concept!) a clever little short story and filled it full of such a predictable load of old cliches – without any realism whatsoever or proper character development – though admittedly it had a perverse charm – probably a result of sets, locations and costume – as well as some very good actors! In all events – keep up the good work and writing – we need more honest, informed and well-written perspectives like your own – even if one cannot totally agree with them.

    Adrian Drew said:
    June 22, 2013 at 7:07 am

    I have persisted on IPlayer with the other episodes and although the naive and over-obvious scripts still irritate me the series seems to be improving – they just need more talented script writers to do justice to the stories. The production values and acting are both terrific – it’s just a shame about the simple-minded tele-plays.

    delightful said:
    October 3, 2013 at 3:24 am

    Loved it. Hope we get a lot more episodes. Very refreshing and warm to see such a nice series for a change.

    Studio 139 said:
    February 16, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Personally, I felt the series miscast, poorly written and lacking any really appreciation of the source material. Setting the stories in the 1950s seemed somewhat arbitrary, as younger viewers would relate to the turn of the century as readily as the 1950s. I would say that you were wrong on one count, Father Brown’s character was highly sympathetic and understanding of behavior that was consider sinful according to the theology of his faith. It was that nature that allowed him the insight into motivations and eventual revelation of the criminal. Overall I have to say the series is not worth the investment in time, read the short stories instead.

    Mike Walker said:
    May 15, 2015 at 4:20 am

    Has anyone noticed that Mark Williams as Father Brown makes the same facial expressions that Margaret Rutherford made when she portrayed Miss Marple? I wish I could ask him if he made a study of those movies and used them to learn the expressions he uses as Father Brown.

      andrewlewin responded:
      May 15, 2015 at 4:16 pm

      Yes, there’s something about the exaggerated pugnacious set of the jawline when he’s getting his teeth into something and refusing to back down. I thought exactly that too, probably why I name-checked Margaret Rutherford so early in this review come to think of it.

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