It’s that time of year again! The end of the Christmas and New Year holiday season means that Father Brown is back in business once more, with a new series in the daytime schedules on BBC One.
Last year’s run proved quite contentious, as a quick look back at the comments on our series five review will confirm. Many fans were deeply disappointed by the departure of two of the series regulars, Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and Sid Carter (Alex Price) and found it hard to warm to newcomer Bunty (Emer Kenny).
The good news – or possibly bad news, depending on your point of view – is that the current line-up remains stable for the sixth run. Mark Williams is of course irreplaceable as the eponymous Father Brown himself. He continues to be assisted by Bunty as well as parish secretary and general busybody Bridgette McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack), to the exasperation of the local police team headed up by the irascible Inspector Mallory (Jack Deam) and his redoubtable sidekick Sergeant Goodfellow (John Burton).
But there’s also good news for die hard Sid and Lady Felicia fans, too. In the past, characters who have left the show have never been seen or referred to again, so it’s a delight that both make brief returns to the show during this run. Sid pops up first for the Christmas special which kicks off the new run, and Lady Felicia also puts in a vocal cameo reading out a festive missive. Both then are back for a further one-off return to the show midway during season six. It gives rise to hope that they may one day return to the show full-time, even if that’s yet not the case.
The somewhat disappointing aspect is that the sixth series is reduced to just ten episodes. While that’s the same as 2016, it compares unfavourably to the 15 we got in 2015 and 2017. Possibly it’s down to actor availability, but in a year that’s seen the cancellation of the thoroughly decent The Coroner and the maiden run of the super-low budget (if still entirely enjoyable) Armchair Detectives, it does make you wonder whether the BBC’s daytime drama initiative is being somewhat staved of funds at the moment. Which would be a great shame, as it’s genuinely the source of some of the BBC’s greatest low-key gems.
Fortunately the January return of Father Brown remains a most welcome annual tradition. As has Taking The Short View’s mini-episode guide and reviews, so without further ado here’s a look at all of Father Brown’s latest investigations:
“The Tree Of Truth” by Jude Tindall (18 December 2017)
For the second year running, Father Brown gets a prestigious Christmas special commission – although this year the scheduling means it arrives a full week before the big day. This time it feels like there’s a full-size mystery plot – the manslaughter conviction of a simple-minded young delivery man is thrown into doubt when the body of the victim is finally discovered in the woods – but that it’s been squeezed into a half pint glass in order to make way for the much more fan-pleasing spectacle of the cast going undercover in the local Christmas pantomime. And to be sure, the scenes with Mallory and Goodfellow as panto dames are every bit as delightful as you could hope for. In fact there’s even a slight softening of the usually loathsome inspector’s character as he’s forced to turn to Father Brown for help solving the case in the face of opposition from his former superior officer. Sid’s brief return as Father Brown’s strong right hand is also very welcome, even if it primarily serves to remind us how much he’s missed overall.
“The Jackdaw’s Revenge” by Kit Lambert (2 January 2018)
Katherine Corven (Kate O’Flynn) is about to be hanged for the murder of her husband, largely thanks to Father Brown’s testimony. When someone else confesses to the crime, she’s released and appears to embark on a campaign of revenge that brings Father Brown to his lowest ebb, disgraced in the press and forced to grapple with what is surely the ultimate moral quandary. It’s an unusually dark and dramatic opening to the new series with genuine jeopardy for the regular cast. Father Brown doesn’t handle the situation particularly well as he’s outwitted time and again by his adversary, but the cast is certainly well up to the challenge of the meatier material.
“The Kembleford Dragon” by David Semple (3 January 2018)
Fans of steam locomotives will love this episode, which focuses on the threat of closure of Kembleford’s local railway station. The stationmaster takes it so badly that he suffers a heart attack, but that’s just the beginning. Before long there’s a body in a luggage trunk, a missing person and a case of arson for Father Brown to investigate. The first half of the episode has the guest cast delivering some slightly over-ripe performances which is a slight surprise after the previous episode’s gravitas, but the final act dispenses with the humour and delivers an effective punch. It’s also very nice to see Doreen Mantle in a brief cameo role.
“The Angel of Mercy” by Dan Muirden (4 January 2018)
A number of sudden deaths of elderly and terminal ill residents in Kembleford leads Father Brown to suspect someone is carrying out a series of mercy killings. Or is the motive a more insidious one of murder for inheritance? Bunty fears that the next victim might be her old nanny Ellen, played by the wonderful Wanda Ventham (who starred in UFO and is also Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum). Meanwhile a too-good-to-be-true house guest at St Mary’s Presbytery leaves Mrs McCarthy feeling she’s being eased out by the cuckoo in the nest. It’s a rich mix of plots and sub-plots essayed with nuance, intelligence and depth making for a more involving story than usual, with plenty of red herrings to keep viewers guessing. There are also some moral ruminations on suicide, assisted killing and finding courage even in the face of death which would have pleased GK Chesterton.
“The Face of the Enemy” by Tahsin Guner (5 January 2018)
The show’s usual whodunnit format is thrown out in favour of a cloak-and-dagger spy story and a torrid romance for Lady Felicia who makes her long-awaited on-screen return to the show, arriving from Rhodesia in raunchy circumstances. She finds herself in the middle of a Cold War espionage plot, with her lover Benedict (Hinterland star Richard Harrington) suspected by MI5 agent Whittaker (Daniel Flynn) of selling state secrets to the Soviets. It all gets delightfully Hicthcockian with a roll of film proving to be the crucial MacGuffin, and the magnificent Nancy Carroll is very much the star of the whole show. Sid is also back, and it’s a joy to see the pair of them back in the thick of it again. It’s just a shame that they’re heading back to Rhodesia so soon…
“The Devil You Know” by Jude Tindall (8 January 2018)
Another interesting tweak to the formula, with this episode mainly being told from Inspector Mallory’s perspective and Father Brown largely limited to a supporting role. The inspector is present at a local bowling match when a visiting officer from Scotland Yard is garrotted. As a result, he can’t investigate as he’s technically both a witness and suspect. Inspector George Ironside (Clive Wood) arrives to takes over and Mallory finds himself literally consigned to the broom closet, forcing him to rely on Father Brown to help him solve the murder which has its origins in a recent war crime. Mallory has certainly evolved in this run and is now a more tolerable character – he’s never going to be entirely likeable, but this episode allows him to show a more vulnerable, human aspect especially when it comes to his reasons for now wanting to stay in Kembleford, while the more over-the-top odious side of his portrayal is increasingly a thing of the past.
“The Dance of Death” by Rob Kinsman (9 January 2018)
Father Brown goes all Strictly this time, as he attends a local fund-raising ballroom dancing competition. Naturally it’s not long before one of the competitors turns up dead, and another dancer is accused of the deadly deed, motivated by a dark secret from the past. If you can get round some really shaky acting from the younger guest cast who find it very hard to ‘act posh’ in the early scenes, this settles down into a nice, straightforward country house murder mystery type of affair. Eventually a process of elimination narrows down the suspect list to the last person standing, so it doesn’t require much deduction. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of the dancing in the episode – especially from Goodfellow, whose dark secret leads to plenty of enjoyable mockery from Mallory – but at least Bunty gets to have a romantic interest, as she takes up with a talented young dancer who lost his sight several years before.
“The Cat of Mastigatus” by Mark Hiser (10 January 2018)
In this case, a much-noted black cat proves to be a complete red herring. A school girl is found badly injured in the basement boiler room of the neighbouring exclusive boy’s school during an end of term fête. There’s a further shock when it’s found that she’s pregnant. Daniel, the grandson of the school’s headmaster played by James Wilby, is the prime suspect for both deeds. However Father Brown looks deeper into an institutionalised culture of harsh bullying which has already destroyed at least one pupil’s life in the past. In the episode’s stand-out scene, he makes an impassioned appeal for change in the future. There’s also some continued sparky interplay between Mrs McCarthy and Bunty, which is gradually becoming a nice replacement for the on/off antagonism that marked Mrs M’s old relationship with Lady F.
“The Flower and the Fairway” by Rachel Flowerday (11 January 2018)
Local residents are upset when hard-nosed American millionaire Raylan Reeve (Guy Paul) buys up land and opens a prestigious golf course outside Kembleford. (Honestly, where do they find such fanciful plot ideas?) Vandalism and anonymous threats inevitably culminate in the discovery of a body in a water trap during the inaugural ladies tournament – but surprisingly, it’s not Reeve. After a new crime takes place, Father Brown has to work out not just who did it, but the ingenious means by which it was done. The solution leads him to the darkest of family secrets as motivation – but even so, can his conscience allow him to sit back and allow someone else to confess to the crime? It’s an absorbing episode, not too difficult to guess but still possessing more than a few surprises for the viewer. And once again, the Mrs C/Bunty investigative team proves thoroughly delightful.
“The Two Deaths of Hercule Flambeau” by Kit Lambert (12 January 2018)
A new run of Father Brown wouldn’t be complete without an appearance from the cleric’s arch-nemesis, Hercule Flambeau (played once again by John Light.) It turns out that reports of the master thief’s demise in Italy are very much wide of the mark: when Father Brown receives a mysterious posthumous letter and finds a weeping widow on his doorstep, he quickly realises that Flambeau is alive and has his sights set on the Iron Cross, a priceless holy relic currently in the care of Bishop Golding (the wonderful Oliver Ford Davies). Episodes featuring Flambeau always bring out the best in Father Brown and are always a delight, with some inventive heists, sparkling verbal jousts and any number of double and triple crosses to savour. There are a couple of directorial or editing mishaps in the episode and a scene-stealingly bad bit of green screen back projection, but nothing to spoil the fun of the season finale.