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.
The 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.