The start of a brand new year has these days become somewhat synonymous with the delivery of a freshly baked batch of stories for BBC One’s Father Brown daytime television series, and happily 2016 hasn’t let us down in that regard.
After a supersized run last year, this year sees a return to the regular ten episode stint. Very little has changed in Kembleford in the intervening 12 months and the show quickly settles into the same comfortable cosy feel with Mark Williams back as the eponymous clergyman, Sorcha Cusack returning as his parish secretary Mrs McCarthy and Nancy Carroll as local socialite Lady Felicia, along with Alex Price as her chauffeur (and the local good-natured spiv) Sid.
The one change to the line-up this year comes in the form of yet another new face at the police station, with Jack Deam arriving as Inspector Mallory. There’s no handover or explanation as to why he’s taken over from his predecessor (Inspector Sullivan, who had been played by Tom Chambers) but perhaps the events of the final episode of season three – in which Sullivan was forced to go on the run after being framed of the murder of a young PC and only saved by Father Brown’s snooping – speak for themselves as to why the character has moved on. In any case, the new boy in the inspector’s office is a determinedly odious character pretty much loathed by everyone including his own sergeant, so it seems certain that there will be no thawing out in relations or any hint of grudging respect developing between Mallory and Brown’s Scooby gang anytime soon.
Otherwise though things are so much the same as they ever were that there is very little to say in a review of the latest series that hasn’t been covered already by my individual pieces on the very first episode in 2013 and then about series two and series three in turn. In summary, while purists of the GK Chesterton short stories may well take serious umbrage at the liberties needed to reformat Father Brown for an ongoing television series, for most people these should be a delightful bit of classy gentle and genteel entertainment, and a real jewel of the otherwise largely tat-filled daytime TV schedules.
Even though there’s not much else to add in terms of a review, I’ll nonetheless carry on a Taking The Short View tradition by producing instead a thumbnail episode guide of the latest 2016 stories for handy reference. It contains some basic plot details of each story but no whodunnits.
“The Mask of the Demon” by Jude Tindall (4 January 2016)
The new run gets off to a slightly wobbly start by having a little too much fun for its own good satirising the world of 1950s B-movie pictures and conceited actors, directors, writers and producers in general. It means that the episode has just a bit too much of a sense of arch satire and pastiche, but it does manage to pull itself back before it can go too far over the top. When Vivian Wolsey is found dead on the set of his latest sub-Hammer horror movie which is shooting on location in Kembleford, Father Brown finds there’s almost no one on the crew who doesn’t have good cause to have wanted him out of the way for one reason or another.
“The Brewer’s Daughter” by Kit Lambert (5 January 2016)
Sid wakes up from a boozy night out and his head spinning in more ways than one, as the poor lad finds himself head-over-heels in love. Unfortunately the object of his affections, Grace Fitzgerald, is married as well as being heiress to a local brewery. When her father dies and she comes under suspicion, Sid is her alibi for the night in question – but she can’t risk their dalliance becoming known or else the divorce from her husband will ruin her. What follows is a truly delightful and nicely intricate tale of red herrings each of which we leap on in turn with glee thinking that we’ve solved the crime, only to realise that the solution was elsewhere all along.
“The Hangman’s Demise” by Dan Murden (6 January 2016)
Henry Lee (Rob Jarvis) is a retired hangman haunted by the final words said to him by the last man that he hanged two years ago, whom he now realises was innocent all along. Before he can say anything, Henry is poisoned and lays dying. While Father Brown seeks to solve two crimes – one from the past and the other very much of today – Mrs McCarthy has a little autumn romance with retired copper George (and it’s always lovely to see John Duttine back on the screen). If the episode slightly overstays its welcome, it’s all so good-spirited that we really don’t mind.
“The Crackpot of the Empire” by Lol Fletcher (7 January 2016)
An odd shift from cosy whodunnit to revenge thriller as Father Brown, Mrs McCarthy and several others accept a mysterious invitation to a party only to find themselves locked in an abandoned warehouse rigged with death traps. It seems that former music hall comedian Uncle Mirth is seeking payback on those who had him committed to a mental institution several years before, even though they genuinely did it for his own best interests. One person dies in a booby-trapped elevator and Mrs McCarthy falls prey to poison intended for Father Brown, making it a race against time for the dwindling group to escape. But is Uncle Mirth really behind it? All in all, a really satisfying change of pace even if the solution and guilty party isn’t too hard to figure out.
“The Daughter of Autolycus” by Jude Tindall (8 January 2016)
The return of Father Brown’s ongoing nemesis – jewel thief Flambeau (John Light) – is always a highlight of any season and that proves just as true again here. This time, Flambeau is working under duress after his daughter is kidnaped by a ruthless rival who wants him to steal a priceless jewel-studded cross that has been sent by the Pope from the Vatican under heavy guard as a gift for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Just when Flambeau is about to make his move, the cross is stolen by someone else entirely which throws everyone into confusion. It’s a terrific and very well written tale combining half a dozen cross-cutting different plots and intrigues each of which conspire to trip up the others.
“The Rod of Asclepius” by Jude Tindall (11 January 2016)
This episode starts with a rather cruel black joke: the pre-titles show Lady Felicia giving Mrs McCarthy a lift in her new sports car and the pair bickering just before the vehicle crashes; then after the opening credits we fade up to the sight of a double funeral at St Mary’s … Fortunately we’re quickly reassured that it’s not in fact a service for Lady Felicia and Mrs McCarthy, who are actually in the local NHS hospital. Their continued bickering and the arrival of a fearsome stand-in parish secretary bestows something of a Carry On feel to the first half of the episode, but then the death of fellow patient Mrs Garrity during a supposedly routine procedure is quickly followed by the undeniable murder of a nurse who had just declared that she was certain the first death had also been a homicide. Any viewers with a phobia about surgery will find the final ten minutes a hard watch as there’s a race to prevent Mrs McCarthy from suffering the same fate as Mrs Garrity as she goes under the knife herself.
“The Missing Man” by Rachel Flowerday (12 January 2016)
A wedding is stopped in its tracks by the sudden return of the bride-to-be’s first husband, recently declared dead following seven years absence after World War 2. However, only his now-teenage daughter Millie is actually all that pleased to see him. Before anyone can find out where Ned has been or why he’s chosen this moment to return he is emphatically shot dead – for good this time – while asleep in his bed, and the hunt is on for a woman seen climbing into his room after dark. It’s one of those stories that has a simple solution at its heart that you’ll see coming halfway through, and yet the ramifications of it still manage to tug at your heartstrings and keep you firmly watching right through to the end regardless.
“The Resurrectionists” by Rob Kinsman (13 January 2016)
A young baker is decapitated in a horrible road accident, but the day after his funeral the body goes missing from its grave. The corpse is then seen alive and well walking through the town overnight (making this oddly the second story in a row featuring a ‘resurrection’) but the following morning the body shows up again in the workshop of the local undertaker and is now very much dead – albeit no longer decapitated. It’s such a bizarre set-up that it’s actually a very simple story to resolve (even if it still doesn’t really make sense) and the rest of the time sees Father Brown getting to the bottom of a bitter feud between the dead man’s mother and the undertaker. However there are few surprises, making this the only episode of the current season to significantly under-run despite some spirited coffin-related comedy antics from Sid.
“The Sins of the Father” by Al Smith (14 January 2016)
An unusually serious and sombre case starts with a businessman telling his psychotherapist that he’s been receiving threats saying that there will be dire consequences unless he confesses publicly to a past crime. That very night the man’s young son is indeed murdered, and while initially it appears that the butler did it a further death soon changes the situation. There’s something about the murders here that gives them more genuine pathos than the usual ‘cosy crime caper’, and even the supposedly ‘light’ B-story about Lady Felicia losing her singing voice has an unexpected emotional power to it (especially in a final scene between Lady F and Mrs McCarthy) that is really rich and unexpected in the midst of what should by rights just be mere light throwaway daytime TV entertainment. Overall, the one-off change of tone and pace succeeds in delivering a true gem.
“The Wrath of Baron Samdi” by Tahsin Guner (15 January 2016)
When a group of mainly black jazz musicians meet with closed door racism from Kembleford guest houses after their tour bus breaks down outside town, Father Brown opens his doors to them – and soon finds himself beset by bodies piling up. Despite the fact that you couldn’t hope to meet a more scrupulously politically correct series on the BBC, there’s still an inherent uneasiness with some of the broad characterisations and scenes of voodoo worship involving Baron Samdi together with the inevitable sacrificed chickens and zombification tropes, although the actual murder story could hardly be a more traditional Christie-esque affair at heart. For the second time this week we climax with a race against time to save the life of a regular cast member going under the knife, albeit under markedly different circumstances from those previously faced by Mrs McCarthy. While there’s no last-minute thawing out for the loathsome Inspector Mallory, the fourth season does manage to end with a rare moment featuring all five series regulars sharing a scene – even dependable old Sergeant Goodfellow (John Burton) gets included in the curtain call this time.
The DVD and Blu-ray of Father Brown Series 4 will be released on March 21, 2016. The previous series are already available.