Christmas and New Year is all over: the presents have been put away, the tree is outside waiting to be recycled, and the decorations are back in the attic awaiting their annual recall in December. That can only mean one thing: it’s time for a new ten-part series of Father Brown on the BBC daytime schedules!
Naturally Mark Williams returns in the title role as the sleuthing cleric, aided once again by his parish secretary and general busybody Bridgette McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) in the face of opposition from the local police Inspector Gerry Mallory (Jack Deam) with Sergeant Daniel Goodfellow (John Burton) discretely treading the middle ground.
Also on hand is local socialite Penelope “Bunty” Windermere (Emer Kenny) who has proved a bit of a Marmite figure for long-time fans of the show, many of who find it hard to be reconciled to the absence of the wonderful Nancy Carroll as Lady Felicia Montague, the Countess of Windermere and Bunty’s aunt. Perhaps some of the negative feeling toward Bunty will be dissipated by Lady Felicia’s return for the first and last episodes of the latest run, even if it is just a limited engagement now that the actress is so busy and in demand elsewhere. Sadly there’s no sign of her former chauffeur Sid Carter (Alex Price), another fan favourite; but someone quite different makes a genuinely surprise return mid-run.
Otherwise everything is pretty much the same as it was last year, with most of the writers also returning to pen more original tales of GK Chesterton’s enduring priest. To my eyes the production looks a little richer – the visuals more vibrant, and some extra time taken on slow pans, aerial drone shots and lots of interesting angles and framing, suggesting that the show’s budget has received a bit of a fillip this time around – quite right if so considering its successful worldwide sales bringing in extra money to the BBC.
So in terms of an annual review, all that remains is Taking The Short View’s now-traditional mini-episode guide and reviews. If you’re avoiding all spoilers or related commentary then skip the ‘notes’, although care has been taken not to give away the actual whodunnit in any case:
“The Great Train Robbery” by Jude Tindall (7 January 2019)
Lady Felicia and Mrs McCarthy are taken hostage when a midnight train robbery goes awry and renowned opera singer Dame Bianca Norman shot dead in front of her husband and adopted children.
Notes: A dramatic start to the new season, although it’s soon clear that the two inept train robbers are no match for the combined force of Lady F and Mrs M. Their scenes taming the hapless Cudlips are a hoot, leaving you wondering how on earth Father Brown can engineer a happy ending to the mess the dim-witted brothers find themselves in. For once, Mallory is allowed to get on with the job of tracking down the culprits on his own and does a surprisingly decent job of it, although his zeal for breaking out the firearms is a little disturbing. Meanwhile, Father Brown himself is following a different trail, suspecting that the shooting had nothing to do with the attempted jewel robbery after all; but in that case, which of Dame Bianca’s loved ones could possibly want her dead? It seems briskly resolved, but there’s a twist when a used match proves a deeper lie.
“The Passing Bell” by David Semple (8 January 2019)
A new musical director for the bellringers of St Marys leads to discord, disharmony and the blood-curdling sound of murder.
Notes: A body in the bell tower at the church! It’s all very Lord Peter Wimsey. And indeed, this is a nice, solid, old-fashioned murder mystery with lots of suspects who were afraid that Mervyn Glossop was about to spill all their deepest, darkest secrets. Glossop himself is massively over the top, but the suspects are drawn sensitively with a variety of surprisingly hard-edged motives (perjury, lesbian love affairs, an abused wife) while the police look rather institutionally racist when Mallory’s main suspect is an immigrant farm hand from the West Indies. The plot isn’t quite as water tight as might be hoped (the question of how the murder weapon left the scene leads to a teddy bear coming under suspicion, only for the whole line of investigation to be quickly forgotten) but it’s nice that despite plenty of wrong doing, the only truly evil person in the story is the deceased.
“The Whistle in the Dark” by Tahsin Guner (9 January 2019)
Father Brown intervenes when it appears that a dark spirit has murderous intent during a dark and stormy night at a remote country house.
Notes: The opening scene in which an English professor reads an MR James Ghost Story to his grandchildren sets the tone nicely for a haunted house story. Father Brown intervenes when Professor Wiseman (the ever reliable Jeff Rawle) tries to sell a historical relic which he claims was the genuine inspiration for the classic “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come to You My Lad” short story, only to seemingly unleash genuine ghosts. Of course it’s all a con – but that leads to escalating horror and a spiral of deaths, resulting in so much carnage by the end that by the time Mallory arrives all he can come up with is “Gordon Bennett!” It’s a great story full of flickering lights, guttering candles and eerie moans but Father Brown is never fooled – for a cleric he’s conspicuously against the supernatural, although he has a surprising soft spot for the self-proclaimed ‘medium’ Dorothy Parnell (Maggie Steed).
“The Demise of the Debutante” by Lol Fletcher (10 January 2019)
Father Brown uncovers secrets, hypocrisy and murder at a finishing school for young ladies. And Mrs McCarthy finds herself unexpectedly in harm’s way.
Notes: A significantly more ambitious story than usual for the series, starting with the arrest of a school nurse as she’s about to perform an illegal abortion on one of the students. Six months later she’s released from prison only to be run down in a freak ‘accident’, sending her heartbroken husband to the school run by Cynthia Rosewood (Amanda Drew) for revenge against the hardline fundamentalist Reverend Willard (Forbes Masson) who is hiding some dark yearnings of his own. By comparison Father Brown is the very model of liberal thinking when it comes to sex and abortion, while Mrs McCarthy takes a more old-fashioned judgmental view of things. In fact its religious fanaticism and intolerance that is at the heart of this story, resulting in a surreal view of heaven and hell albeit as the result of a hallucination suffered by a deranged mind. Bunty provides most of the humour as she revives an old feud; and you’ll be happy to hear that despite the title, no debutantes were hurt in the making of this story.
“The Darkest Noon” by Kit Lambert (11 January 2019)
Father Brown and Inspector Mallory answer a mysterious summons. When they go missing, it is up to Mrs McCarthy, Bunty and Sergeant Goodfellow to work out what happened and to save them from a man hellbent on revenge.
Notes: An unusual story, since despite three dead bodies in the course of the investigation, for once there is no whodunnit and no last scene twist to reveal the culprit. Instead it’s a race against time to locate Father Brown and Inspector Mallory from an underground prison where they are slowly suffocating to death. Rather than cutting back and forth in the normal fashion, the first 20 minutes leaves the audience as much in the dark about what’s happened as Mrs M and company are, which allows Goodfellow to get a welcome turn to shine in the spotlight along with occasional guest star Alan Williams as Mrs M’s vagrant paramour Blind ‘Arry who contributes an explosive finale. It also means the priest and the inspector are forced to collaborate, and Mallory looks to be at risk of getting uncharacteristically mushy when he decides to reveal what he truly thinks about the cleric’s meddling…
“The Sacrifice of Tantalus” by Kit Lambert (14 January 2019)
Mallory and Goodfellow are both seriously injured while pursuing a fugitive, leaving the investigation in the hands of a familiar face – albeit with a new name.
Notes: ‘Names’ seems to be the theme of this unusual outing, given that it hinges on a notebook containing a list of potentially corrupt police officers. The solution is easy to guess but is muddied by a father and son pair sharing the same surname. And as for Inspector Truman who shows up to take charge … It’s a genuine surprise to see Tom Chambers return to the show! He was a regular in series 2 and 3 from 2014 until 2015 until he was replaced without warning or explanation by Mallory (after Chambers was cast as the lead of a West End show). This episode confirms the reason for the character’s sudden departure which was the result of being framed for murder by a high level conspiracy, and his reinvention as a Special Branch officer feels quite natural. He’s also learned a lot in his time away: always the most sympathetic of Father Brown’s police foils, here his response to the priest’s attempts to once more inveigle himself into the investigation leaves us – and Father Brown – genuinely speechless. Even so, it’s the dynamic between Mallory and Goodfellow that steals the show in this episode and is quite utterly delightful. And while their characters’ first names might have been mentioned in the past (I don’t recall it myself), their use here – especially in the final scene – is without doubt enough to cause a sniffle or two among the viewers.
“The House of God” by Dan Muirden (15 January 2019)
St Mary’s itself becomes a crime scene after a woman who recently lost both her faith and her job – but found the bottle – collapses and dies during Mass. Mallory sees a chance to pin the death on a local troublemaker, but Father Brown has other ideas.
Notes: Mrs McCarthy has a serious crush on a local bachelor who is handsome, charming, rich and pious. Naturally she’s destined for heartbreak when she starts to learn the truth behind his unusual household, which includes a housekeeper and his widowed niece and her young son. The dead woman was his former gardener, but it turns out that no one is who they initially appeared to be. It’s a lovely episode for Mrs M and it’s hard not to feel for her, but whodunnit-wise it’s a bit of a bust as there is no way for the viewers to figure out the culprit until Father Brown explains all. Arguably the only clues – cherry pips on the floor and a wine glass held out – show a level of premeditation that simply wasn’t viable given the victim’s arrival on the scene. Even so, such quibbles do little to detract from an engrossing and enjoyable story.
“The Blood of the Anarchists” by Lol Fletcher (16 January 2019)
Not a good day for the Kembleford constabulary when members of a performance troupe of anarchists are systematically attacked under their very noses, even though Mallory attempts to write the first one off as suicide.
Notes: So were ‘performance troupes of anarchists’ genuinely a thing in 1950s Britain? Okay, that’s news to me. Usually when the show features one of these unconventional groups, Father Brown manages to see their point and sympathise with them – but it seems that ‘smash the system’ anarchy is beyond even his ability to build bridges, although he leaves overt hostility to the likes of Mallory and Mrs M. There’s a nice howdunnit looked room feel to the initial death, but the final attack is so inexplicable that it points unerringly at the true culprit. With no notable guest stars or interesting character pairings compared to the preceding episodes, this one unfortunately (and unfairly) feels a little thin.
“The Skylark Scandal” by Rachel Smith (17 January 2019)
Lord Hollingworth is found dead, incongruously in a local youth hostel where the Kembleford Ramblers and Twitchers Association are staying. But can it really be down to a row about public access to footpaths across the lordship’s estate?
Notes: It’s a pleasure to see our regular cast ‘off-duty’ which means a rare costume change for Father Brown and also for Mallory and Goodfellow whose double act continues to delight especially when they’re teased by Bunty and her old school friend Hetty Hollingworth (Miranda Hennessey). The tale itself is a nice stew of various long-buried intrigues that takes a good deal of untangling, but the eventual solution is a properly satisfying one. There’s also a lovely country house and several delightful period automobiles on display, making this a very enjoyable outing all round.
“The Honourable Thief” by Peter Bullock (18 January 2019)
The theft of a priceless heirloom leaves Lady Felicia facing financial ruin. Father Brown is certain that the culprit is exiled Russian aristocrat Nicholai Solovey (Mark Umbers) but there’s no proof to take to the police, leaving the priest looking outside the law for redress. But is that wise?
Notes: A season of Father Brown without an appearance from Hercule Flambeau (John Light) just wouldn’t be right. Here, the master thief is Father Brown’s last resort to retrieve Lady Felicia’s necklace, and it means it’s time for the traditional ‘heist’ annual episode. In this outing, Father Brown, Bunty and Mrs M are all part of the plan, while Lady Felicia steals the show – and possibly the entire season – by going undercover as a hotel maid and engaging in some sparkling repartee with Flambeau himself. Naturally the thief can’t be trusted and it’s only a matter of time before he double crosses everyone, but the show itself isn’t above a last minute ‘switch’ to deliver a beautiful, touching and fitting end to the latest run of episodes.
As mentioned at the start of the article, there’s no return this time for former regular Alex Price as Sid Carter. But the final episode does feature the guest character of Daniel Winks (Ben-Ryan Davies) in an oddly prominent role of a helpful bright eyed bellboy and former black sheep chorister. He’s even allowed into the final scene comprised of the main regulars, and a line from Mrs M – “Can we expect to see you back at St Mary’s?” – rather seems to suggest that he could be a candidate to return if and when the show returns for an eighth season at the start of 2020.
Season 7 of Father Brown is available on the BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 11. Previous seasons are available on DVD individually and as a Season 1-6 boxset.