From humble beginnings tucked away in the daytime schedules back in 2013, it seems that Father Brown has slowly become a genuine break out hit for the BBC, boosted by digital channel reruns in prime time on UKTV and healthy overseas sales to the United States and South Africa. It’s now returned for its fifth season, with 15 episodes including a prestigious Christmas special that was screened on the day before Christmas Eve and the rest following on a week later beginning on the public holiday after New Year.
Things are much the same in Kembleford where Father Brown (Mark Williams) serves as the local Roman Catholic priest aided by parish secretary and busybody Bridgette McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack). The curate is still getting caught up in various local crimes that bring him into contact (and conflict) with the insufferable local senior police Inspector Mallory (Jack Deam). This time, Mallory’s longtime sidekick Sergeant Goodfellow (John Burton) gets promoted to the regular cast, but missing from action is loveable black market ‘spiv’ Sid Carter – we don’t find out the fictional reason for his absence until well into the new series (see “The Sins of Others”), but actor Alex Price has been cast as Draco Malfoy in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Sid was chauffeur to local socialite Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and she too only appears in the first two episodes of this latest run before departing to join her husband who has been newly promoted to a top colonial government post in Rhodesia. Fortunately her wayward niece Bunty (Emer Kenny) arrives just in time to effectively take over both Lady Felicia’s and Sid’s plot functions in their respective absences.
Just as the January return of Father Brown has become a welcome annual tradition on the small screen, so has Taking The Short View’s mini-episode guide and reviews. With the 2017 run now concluded, let’s take a look at all of Father Brown’s latest investigations.
“The Star of Jacob” by Jude Tindall (23 December 2016)
The series is bestowed the distinct honour of a specially extended slot for its Christmas special, and you can tell the difference because there’s a slightly under-running main plot (about a Duke’s son and heir who is kidnapped from his crib during a party) which is then augmented with all the traditional TV festive trappings which include a seasonal miracle that saves Father Brown’s ramshackle nativity preparations. While the episode cheerfully throws in many of the Christmas clichés including snowfall just in time for the Nativity, the core story itself actually had a rather sharper bitter-sweet taste to it – although fortunately the missing baby is restored unharmed and no one dies, because that simply wouldn’t be seemly for the holidays. As a result, this makes it perhaps the most perfectly pitched combination of Christmas with a regular Father Brown.
“The Labyrinth of the Minotaur” by Jude Tindall (2 January 2017)
Lady Felicia’s niece Bunty arrives in Kembleford and within 24 hours is arrested for murder after the maid at a local stately home is found dead, having fallen – or was it pushed? – from a high balcony. Father Brown investigates and soon finds a classic Gothic tale hidden away deep in the house, accessible only through a dark underground labyrinth which has already claimed one life in the past. It’s an old-fashioned mystery that’s neatly resolved, and if the episode under-runs slightly then it’s all to the good because it allows for a classic car chase, and for a proper exit for Lady Felicia that includes a rather touching farewell with her long-running sparring partner Mrs McCarthy,
“The Eve of St John” by Jude Tindall (3 January 2017)
Every season, Father Brown has one episode designed to show how anachronistically liberal and open-minded the priest is for someone of his faith in the 1950s, and this is 2017’s instalment. Kembleford responds to a group of pagan worshippers living among them in its usual fashion, which is to say by ‘welcoming’ them with a mob wielding flaming torches and pitchforks. Some of the characters and performances are a little on the ripe side which contrasts awkwardly with the tragic tale at the heart of the case of a woman found dead in the woods. John Sessions turns in a chilling performance as a fire and brimstone minister of the old school, but it’s Mark Williams who delivers the stand-out moment of the show when he confronts the lynch mob and defuses the situation with truly effective yet quietly spoken words of wisdom and compassion.
“The Chedworth Cyclone” by Paul Matthew Thompson (4 January 2017)
Father Brown steps into the world of pugilism when a championship fighter is accused of the murder of a fellow boxer who has been training at the same gym. It’s an unusually serious story for the series with Williams playing almost completely straight – only the sight of a disapproving Mrs McCarthy throwing herself into shouting ringside support for the local hero raises a smile. With a somewhat familiar story of corrupt promoters and bout fixing, there’s little to surprise here but it’s nonetheless done earnestly and convincingly. In fact the business of the murder is almost sidelined and young contender Jeb (Chris Gordon) is the main focus of the story, while the show is rather stolen by the star casting of Martin Kemp who brings genuine glamour and swaggering presence to the role of Dennis Nelson. On a production note, it’s interesting to see Inspector Mallory back on crutches just as he had been for the Christmas special, explained away by ‘recurring gout’ but presumably due to a real life behind-the-scenes injury for the actor and the episodes being broadcast out of order.
“The Hand of Lucia” by Lol Fletcher (5 January 2017)
The author of a scandalous erotic bestseller arrives in Kembleford to tell local philanthropist Lady Ursula of Uxbridge that she will reveal her as the inspiration for the book’s lesbian protagonist. Hours later the writer is dead, sparking a sequence of revelations concerning the diverse group of people who live at Lady Ursula’s house. Unfortunately the plot fragments into a sequence of individual small stories that the murder isn’t able to make cohere into a single narrative, and it’s not entirely satisfying as a result. That said, Bunty’s bout with food poisoning provides some running comedy together with a handy clue, but it’s the sequence in which she, Father Brown and Mrs McCarthy form a book club to scour the bestseller for clues that is the highlight of the episode as they imagine themselves in the various erotic situations depicted. Mrs C gets hot under the collar, while Mark Williams must surely have been practising that mad Cardinal’s cackle for the better part of five years!
“The Eagle and the Daw” by Kit Lambert (6 January 2017)
A surprisingly dramatic and intriguing mystery faces Father Brown after he visits a convicted murderess about to be hanged in prison. He learns that she is planning another murder from behind bars but when he tries to intervene, the priest finds himself the prime suspect in the new killing. With his hands tied by the seal of the confessional, he has to solve a locked room mystery from behind bars, relying on Mrs McCarthy and Bunty to do his leg work for him. It doesn’t help that he’s soon running out of viable suspects for the crime… The ingenious solution might have been borrowed straight from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but it still makes for a compelling and satisfying mystery. There’s not much comedy here save for Inspector Mallory having a ball thinking he’s finally got the better of the meddlesome priest – although in a rare moment of humanity for the insufferable character, even he realises something is not right here. And Sergeant Goodfellow comes into his own as a newly-minted regular cast member by going above and beyond the call of duty for Father Brown.
“The Smallest of Things” by Tahshin Guner (9 January 2017)
All the series regulars are guests at an exhibition of dioramas, precise miniature recreations of crime scenes used by the police for training new detectives (based on a real-life project undertaken in the 1940s by Chicago heiress Frances Glessner Lee.) But in this case, the maker of these macabre dolls houses has a hidden reason for including Father Brown among those present as she reveals a brand new creation depicting her own mother’s death ten years previously. Then a new full-sized and very real death leads to one of the regulars being arrested for murder… This is a mainly serious story with a vague supernatural tinge and a sad outcome. Flashes of humour such as Mrs McCarthy nearly getting caught snooping for clues are few and far between. It’s an engrossing plot and the guest characters well drawn so that it’s hard not to get pulled in and gripped by the events, but it’s slightly unfortunate that the end solution ends up unwittingly confirming a few stereotypes of the period.
“The Crimson Feather” by Kit Lambert (10 January 2017)
Gosh, who would have thought that sleepy Kembleford could boast such a risqué burlesque? This is quite racy stuff for BBC Daytime! Mrs McCarthy is predictably scandalised to discover that her god-daughter Jocelyn has been secretly performing at the private gentlemen’s club, but even worse is to come when one of the dancers is found stabbed to death and moreover she was wearing Jocelyn’s costume at the time. Mrs C and Bunty go undercover at the club to try and find the culprit – and the sight of Mrs C on stage will live long in the memory – while Father Brown has to avert his eyes to avoid temptation as he tries to untangle the truth behind blackmail, corruption, obsession and illicit love affairs in an enjoyable if not particularly ambitious episode.
“The Lepidopterist’s Companion” by Kit Lambert (11 January 2017)
A local photographer surprises an intruder in his home and kills him with a blow to the head with a cricket bat. Even when it transpires that the seeming burglar was in fact the photographer’s own young apprentice, Inspector Mallory is happy to write it off as justifiable act of homicide in self-defence. Naturally that’s not good enough for Father Brown, and his investigation uncovers a nasty seam of vice running through the sleepy village. It’s an interesting story that is more successful at disguising its direction of travel than most. It smartly plays its red herrings to ensure that the viewer can’t be entirely sure quite where the story is heading until well into the running time, and while the reveal of the guilty party isn’t exactly a surprise by the end – it’s too small a cast to successfully hide that sort of thing completely – it’s still rather satisfying nonetheless. In other news, Mrs McCarthy has a busy time with a close look at some very racy photographs, taking over the running of the local mobile library, and acquiring a most unwelcome suitor.
“The Alchemist’s Secret” by Rob Kinsman (12 January 2017)
My, how our little Kembleford is growing by leaps and bounds: just the other day it opened its first burlesque, and now it turns out that the sleepy village is just a stone’s throw away from the prestigious University of Gloucester – at least, it’s close enough for it to fall under Inspector Mallory’s jurisdiction when a student is found dead from a head injury. Father Brown is already there visiting his old friend Professor Ambrose (James Laurenson), who it turns out is growing increasingly absent-minded and obsessed with the story of a 17th century alchemist’s treasure supposedly hidden somewhere on the grounds for 350 years. In fact the actual murder is oddly something of an irrelevance here, notable only for the way that Father Brown uses the killer’s guilty conscience to get them to do the right thing – a very GK Chesterton touch. Instead it’s the Da Vinci Code-esque treasure hunt that is by far the more interesting part of this story: while one clue involving a sundial is invalidated by any sense of basic astronomy, it’s still all very entertaining and comes with a genuinely unexpected twist at the end when it transpires someone’s beaten Father Brown to the punch.
“The Sins of Others” by Tahsin Guner (13 January 2017)
After the oblique toast to ‘absent friends’ in the Christmas special, it’s finally time to find out what happened to Sid Carter. It turns out that he’s been in prison for the past year after being convicted of assaulting a local prostitute. He maintains his innocence, but this time not even Father Brown could clear his name. Now Sid has returned a changed man, bitter and bearded, determined to confront his defence lawyer whom he believes withheld a crucial eyewitness statement that might have exonerated him. But then the lawyer is found dead, and worse still there’s a witness to the latest crime who says Sid did it, meaning Father Brown has to go to extraordinary lengths not only to save Sid from the gallows but also to save his soul from the very dark road it’s on if the old Sid is to be recovered. It’s a great story with real impact, although it does get uncharacteristically melodramatic when Father Brown is targeted by a professional assassin and bullets start flying. It’s another tearjerker ending to proceedings when Sid decides to leave Kembleford to travel abroad to recover – although at least the door is left open for his return.
“The Theatre of the Invisible” by David Semple (16 January 2017)
After an unusually serious run of episodes, it’s time for Father Brown to let its hair down and have a ball poking some satirical fun at show business, specifically BBC radio light entertainment of the 1950s. A popular quiz show is set to be recorded in Kembleford, and Mrs McCarthy, Bunty and Sergeant Goodfellow are all keen to be contestants. The stars of the show take lodgings at a guest house run by the waspish Mrs Rudge (a great cameo from Lynda Baron) until a fire leaves someone dead, so Bunty invites the party to stay at Lady Felicia’s estate – where soon there’s another death. Overall it’s a delightful period piece on how radio shows of the era worked and the cast is all in on the joke, with Allo, Allo’s Arthur Bostrom particularly enjoying going well over the top before taking an early bath. Fortunately it’s also rather neat and satisfying in the mystery department, making this a cheerful return to ‘old school’ Father Brown.
“The Tanganyika Green” by Catherine Skinner (17 January 2017)
After the previous episode’s look at 1950s wireless shows, this story takes a forebear of Antiques Roadshow as its inspiration. The locals in Kembleford are searching for cash in their attics in order to have their heirlooms valued by pompous expert Wynford Collins (a delightfully smarmy cameo from Miles Jupp) at the local county fair. But overnight, a colonial postal worker staying at the local inn turns up dead – and the only clue Father Brown has to work with is a sidearm found discarded in a herbaceous border. Regular mystery addicts won’t take long to spot what this is all about, and there’s only ever really one viable suspect in the whole affair, but the whole concoction is so charmingly delightful that it’s nonetheless impossible not to watch with a smile on the face.
“The Fire in the Sky” by Kit Lambert (18 January 2017)
An absent parishioner at Sunday service leads Father Brown and Mrs McCarthy to make a house call where they uncover a case of apparent alien abduction and a subsequent murder. Zoinks! It is indeed a serious case of the Scooby-Doos in Kembleford, with the outbreaks of UFO sightings and close encounters realised on a what is clearly an absurdly low budget. Naturally there turns out to be a more earthly reason behind the events, but not before the wave of panic results in a truly astounding spectacle: Inspector Mallory actually turning to Father Brown for help, next to which the possibility of an invasion of flying saucers appears positively run-of-the-mill. While the episode is having too much fun with its alien guests to make for an especially deep mystery, the writing is strong enough to successfully conceal the culprit in plain sight despite the small line-up of available suspects. There’s also a very effective conclusion in which Father Brown’s specialist subjects of guilt and conscience are very much to the fore.
“The Penitent Man” by Tahsin Guner (19 January 2017)
The final episode of the season brings with it the always highly anticipated annual return of Father Brown’s wily nemesis Hercule Flambeau, played once again by John Light. However this time it appears that justice has caught up with the master thief, as he’s been jailed and is awaiting the gallows for the cold-blooded murder of one of his associates. But in that case why is Flambeau so calm and acquiescent, and can his sudden new-found conversion to Catholicism possibly be genuine? Father Brown is forced into committing a highly illegal act in order to save not just Flambeau, but also Mrs McCarthy and Bunty who are being held at gunpoint in a dramatic season finale. As is often the case with Flambeau episodes, this story breaks the show’s normal format and there is little in the way of mystery to unravel; but instead we get an effective thriller shot largely on location inside a renovated prison of the period and which contains more than a few echoes of The Shawshank Redemption, all of which means that the 2017 run ends very much on a high.
The DVD and Blu-ray of Father Brown Series 5 will be released on February 6, 2016. The previous series are already available.