While die hard purist fans of GK Chesterton might not all agree, I’ve been very pleased to see his Father Brown creation return in a second eponymous season of ten episodes in the daytime BBC One schedule.
Story-wise I think we’ll just say that the show has veered off from any genuine fidelity to Chesterton’s original short stories in favour of the TV production practicalities of giving the priest a stable base in the Cotswolds and a recurring supporting ensemble cast. If you can get around these liberties then what you’re left with is a very nice and pleasant cosy murder mystery series, albeit one that actually has more heart and head under the surface than you’d usually expect from such apparently easy-going fare.
Chesterton’s stories, while nominally crime stories, are mostly about Father Brown using his understanding of human nature and his desire to save the criminal souls – and this series does a laudable attempt at sticking to the same spirit in a surprising number of its stories. While purists will understandably decry the changes that the adaptations have ended up making to the character, I personally see a genuine love and respect for the source material in the efforts made by the producers and writers to stay true to Chesterton’s intentions, perhaps more so in this latest run than in the first where the alterations were occasionally somewhat less adept.
That’s not to say that season 2 doesn’t make its own missteps. There’s a slight tendency afoot to ‘over egg’ situations, such as in the first episode “The Ghost in the Machine” which throws just about every haunted house cliché into the mix in the first 20 minutes before finally settling down and telling a genuinely interesting tale of a long-missing woman and a forgotten priest hole from the time of the Reformation. The next episode, “The Maddest of All”, stretches credulity beyond breaking point with a corpse rising from his coffin during his own funeral and Father Brown then going ‘undercover’ in a mental hospital by feigning a hopelessly unconvincing impulse control problem.
Once these early hiccups were out of the way, however, season 2 settles into being a consistent delight. “The Pride of Prydes” is a family murder mystery of the oldest school (although one character telling another to “Man up” is a dreadful anachronism to the light 1950s period setting); “The Shadow of the Scaffold” is a race against time to save a woman from the gallows that features an effective twist of moral ambiguity and salvation; “The Mysteries of the Rosary” sees Father Brown team up with old adversary Flambeau (John Light) on a treasure hunt; “The Daughters of Jerusalem” has a distinctly Rear Window vibe with Father Brown solving a mystery while laid up with a broken leg; “The Three Tools of Death” is a tragic tale of guilt and regret; “The Prize of Colonel Gerard” a juicy whodunnit after the nasty master of a country house gets his comeuppance; “The Grim Reaper” which is a tale of how the best of self-sacrificing intentions can potentially lead to the worst of outcomes; and finally a tricksy howdunnit “The Laws of Motion” set against the backdrop of a motorsports event featuring some wonderful vintage sports cars.
Much depends on how you take to Mark Williams’ portrayal of Father Brown. He is as close to Chesterton’s version of the priest as Margaret Rutherford was as faithful to Agatha Christie’s idea of Miss Marple, which is to say not at all; and yet just as I still adore Rutherford’s 1960s films even though I’m something of a Marple purist, so I also love Williams’ portrayal of a pugnacious and interfering clergyman despite how very different it is from Chesterton’s more meek and mild priest on the printed page.
It helps that he’s surrounded by a really strong ensemble, which includes the ever-delightful Sorcha Cusack as parish secretary and busybody Mrs McCarthy and also by Alex Price as reformed petty criminal turned chauffeur Sid Carter, who can be Father Brown’s strong arm when a little action is required. Nancy Carroll is somewhat more peripheral as bored socialite Lady Felicia Montague, while housekeeper Susie Jasinski (played by Kasia Koleczek) does not return for season 2 and Hugo Speer only makes one encore appearance as Inspector Valentine before being replaced by Tom Chambers as Inspector Sullivan. For my money, Chambers makes for a better fit with the overall feel of the show – still resentful of the priest interfering but in a smoother, more pained way than his predecessor’s tiresome shouting.
I know the show hasn’t been universally well received – my original post on the first episode of season 1 attracted some interesting comments from the less-enamoured – and this was very much on my mind as I sat down to watch the second set of ten episodes. While do I understand such concerns and reservations, my original feelings on Father Brown broadly remain and are on the whole very positive. If anything, I think I’ve begun to admire and appreciate what it’s achieving even more than I did before. Certainly as far as television daytime schedules go, this is surely one of the under-recognised crown jewels of quality.
Father Brown has been airing on BBC One at 2.15pm. Episodes from season 2 are on BBC iPlayer at time of writing. Episodes from season 1 take over and air in the same time slot from Monday January 20 2014. Somewhat inexplicably, there seem to still be no plans for UK or US releases of the series on DVD.