Father Brown continues to be one of the most reliable landmarks of the January TV scene, returning right on cue for a brand new season of ten episodes featuring Mark Williams as GK Chesterton’s eponymous country priest, Sorcha Cusack as parish housekeeper Mrs McCarthy and Emer Kenny as local socialite Bunty Windermere, together with Jack Deam as the irascible Inspector Mallory and John Burton as reliable, long-suffering Sergeant Goodfellow.
That’s the same regular cast as last year, and indeed this is now surely the most stable line-up that the series has enjoyed throughout its eight years of production. But for those pining over the loss of old favourites such as Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and Sid Carter (played by Alex Price) then it’s still worth tuning in for some welcome cameo appearances. And stay tuned to the end of the run, because word has it that it’s getting unexpectedly crowded down at Kembleford Police Station, with an even more surprising returnee popping up.
With little else to add to last year’s observations (nothing ever really significantly changes in middle England in the 1950s, after all), it’s perhaps best just to get straight on with a look at the new episodes comprising the 2020 season. As ever, the accompanying notes do reveal some details of the episode in question that you may wish to avoid until after viewing, but you can be assured that we would never be so thoughtless as to give away the actual whodunnit!
1 “The Celestial Choir” by Kit Lambert (6 January 2020)
The Kembleford Choristers (which include all our regular cast, along with a delightful guest appearance from Lady Felicia who happens to be visiting) have reached the final of a prestigious singing competition to be held at Worcester Cathedral. However, their journey to the venue is hit by a series of escalating mishaps. Is someone intentionally sabotaging their chance to win?
Notes: Despite the ‘race against time’ scenario, this is a curiously slow and languid instalment. Perhaps the show is still feeling a bit sluggish after its year off our screens, or is stuffed full with mince pies. All the travel chaos depicted here just feels like a normal day’s commute for anyone used to enduring South Western Railways, so there’s not much of a sense of jeopardy involved. You just know it will all turn out okay in the end, and it’s all rather low stakes anyway. The identity of the person behind the sabotage is clear from very early on, but the clues are intelligently placed within the story and the confessional scene where the guilty party explains why they did it has surprising impact. The episode makes great use of the cathedral location, and then there’s the final scene where Inspector Mallory gets his just desserts for missing his own daughter’s appearance in the competition. I dare you not to have a tear in your eye at the end!
2 “The Queen Bee” by David Semple (7 January 2020)
Wealthy local beekeeper Miss Beattie May (Annabelle Apsion) loves to lord it over family and friends with her waspish tongue and stinging manner, so it’s no big surprise when she’s suffocated while bed-bound after a recent accident falling off a ladder. But who exactly has been trying to knock off queen Bea?
Notes: This couldn’t be more of a delightfully genteel and cheerfully humorous pastiche of classic Christie whodunnits if it tried. There’s great fun in Miss May’s withering putdowns of everyone around her, and plenty of suspects as to who might finally have had enough and snapped. There’s also the matter of a change to her last will and testament being drawn up by shady lawyer Ronnie Grunion (played by Young Ones star Nigel Planer), as well as the mystery of a missing fabulous diamond about whose location Miss May has left a series of cryptic clues behind for her adopted son to unravel. The whole thing is almost as much of a cosy treat as a lovely slice of homemade battenburg cake – which does indeed feature as a clue in the episode. All in all, the episode had me eager to go and make a lovely cup of tea with which to wash it all down.
3 “The Scales Of Justice” by Dominique Moloney (8 January 2020)
Bunty is on trial for murder and handicapped by a strangely ineffective defence barrister, so it is up to Father Brown to prove her innocence and find out who is really behind the killing of a repellant party host.
Notes: Normally I’m against episodes in which one of the main cast is the prime suspect for a murder as it invariably feels lame and falling back on easy peril. But I have to confess it’s done rather well here, with a genuine creeping sense of tension and suppressed panic building up thanks to an episode which is played almost completely straight and without the show’s usual trademark humour. Emer Kenny gets to show a whole new side to Bunty away from the usual jolly socialite as she nearly pays very dearly indeed for her past misdemeanours, and it’s lovely seeing Goodfellow get to play Father Brown’s wingman for once. Even Mallory has the good grace to look uncomfortable about his role in Bunty’s plight. It’s a cleverly written story delivered through nesting flashbacks, and if there’s a somewhat melodramatic court room climax and some tenuous ‘proof’ at the end it still does the job of delivering one of the show’s most gripping episodes, with the story of the comeuppance of a sex pest feeling very appropriately 21st century despite the 1950s setting.
4 “The Wisdom Of The Fool” by Lol Fletcher (9 January 2020)
A jesters convention comes to Kembleford featuring a variety of old-school clowns, jugglers and magicians. But then a local doctor – accused of gross negligence in the deaths of several patients – herself dies of an overdose at the fairground. Father Brown uses the woman’s dying words to find the real scene of the crime and prove it was murder rather than misadventure, but by then he and his friends are in mortal danger themselves.
Notes: The painted faces and carny atmosphere provide a surreal background to the story, which starts off bright and jolly and light hearted enough but then turns much deeper and darker toward the end. The clown makeup adds a genuinely creepy and sinister feel to the story, but even so the ultimate reveal is almost too big and far-reaching to be taken seriously against the bucolic background of a little English country village. Fortunately Inspector Mallory provides some light relief with a wardrobe malfunction, and Sergeant Goodfellow adopts some lovely expressions as he grapples with his coulrophobia. It’s also a delight to see guest star Neil Pearson deadpan his way through the story in full clown attire as the company’s manager Sir Toby Dobson, a former chief inspector and colleague of Mallory’s who has had quite the midlife career change.
5 “The Folly Of Jephthah” by Kit Lambert (10 January 2020)
Master thief Hercule Flambeau (John Light) asks Father Brown to officiate a contest between himself and a brilliant new rival on the crime scene. The stakes couldn’t be higher: whoever loses will have to give up their thieving career for good and go straight. Could this be the end for Flambeau?
Notes: A new run of Father Brown simply wouldn’t be complete without the priest’s arch-nemesis making an appearance. Stories featuring Flambeau make for a nice change of pace, foregoing any sense of whodunnit in exchange for a battle of wills featuring twisting tales of lies, deception, sleight-of-hand, double-crosses and misdirection to keep us all on our toes to figure out exactly what’s going on, who is telling the truth, and which of them is really on top at any given point. This episode also tells things more from Flambeau’s point of view, giving an unusual perspective on our regular cast who are seen from a remove, serving almost more as background extras than the principle focus. It’s a nice variation on the theme, and for once Flambeau doesn’t hurry away at the end but stays to play a different sort of game with Father Brown that gives us an insight into the true nature of their relationship underneath the usual sparring.
6 “The Numbers of The Beast” by Dan Muirden (13 January 2020)
Mrs McCarthy wins a big prize in a local bingo competition but finds it is more of a burden than a joy, as others petition her for a share of the money – including her estranged sister Roisin who happens to be visting Kembleford. But what’s really agitating Mrs M is the way she received unholy inspiration for the winning numbers from a passing Romany traveller.
Notes: Often, Father Brown stories are quite simple and straightforward, meaning that there’s no problem seeing where it’s going let alone guessing whodunnit. That’s what makes an intricate tale like this such a delight: there are lot of a different little strands, seemingly disconnected and pulling in alternative directions, but actually all intertwining into a satisfyingly coherent resolution. For the viewer, the trick therefore is trying to work out how it does all tie together, and when it finally does so as neatly as this one it’s really quite an achievement. The icing on the cake is the casting of Heartbeat star Niamh Cusack as Roisin, and while the two sisters have very different personalities there’s undeniable real-life familial resemblance and chemistry between the actresses. It’s actually a wonder that the show hasn’t paired them together before now, and we can only hope it won’t be the last time we see Roisin in Kembleford.
7 “The River Corrupted” by Kit Lambert (14 January 2020)
Having returned from Rhodesia, Sid Carter is now in a serious relationship with Maeve Lochlin who lives on a narrowboat with her widowed father Pat (Ian Puleston-Davies) transporting freight up and down the canals. When Pat is accused of the murder of a local factory owner following an altercation in a local pub, a desperate Sid turns to Father Brown for help to find the truth.
Notes: Naturally the emotional heart of the story is catching up with Sid after two years away from the series, and he’s become quite the reformed man from the black market spiv and chancer we used to know. Now his budding relationship with Maeve is under pressure from the allegations against Pat, and it even causes a rift with his old friends especially a suspicious Bunty. Sid isn’t the only familiar face in this episode, with Alan Williams returning as Mrs M’s eternally optimistic vagrant paramour Blind ‘Arry. This time he is shown in an honourable light rather than a purely comedic one, and shares a remarkably touching and revealing scene with Father Brown about how their respective military experiences shaped their very different fortunes. The mystery itself is also a strong one, playing its cards carefully until all the pieces start to drop into place and reveal a picture that seems inevitable but never obvious, with a rather sad and poignant outcome at that.
8 “The Curse of the Aesthetic” by Lol Fletcher (15 January 2020)
A local artist plagued by visions of his former model who recently took her own life has his latest exhibition suffer from a series of mishaps: a mutilated sculpture, an accidental electrocution, and the murder of his nanny-turned-housekeeper. What – and who – is behind the campaign of terror?
Notes: A straightforward tale simply told but with strong and interesting characters in which no one turns out to be quite who they appear to be initially. Thank goodness for the regulars who provide the necessary light touch to balance what is actually a rather dark tale underneath the artistic surface, with Mrs M and Bunty at odds over modelling, an effective female empowerment subplot, and a superb stunt stumble from the Inspector that actually ends up pointing the way to a crucial clue as to who is behind the misdeeds at Milton Manor.
9 “The Fall of the House of St Gardner” by Rachel Smith (16 January 2020)
Bunty brings a touch of high society to Kembleford by agreeing to host the latest fashion show of the House of St Gardner. But a vindictive journalist disrupts the proceedings with threats and accusations, only to be subsequently found dead with her head staved in by a blow inflicted using her own vintage typewriter…
Notes: Father Brown rarely takes itself all that seriously, but just every now and then it teeters perhaps a little too close to self-parody than is good for it. The very idea of a London fashion house holding a major show in a remote English village can only be swallowed with a very large dose of salt in itself, and one can only hope that the scenes between Bunty and her latest beau really are intended to be satirical or else there should be serious questions asked about the stilted dialogue and wooden acting on display. Nor does the episode exactly play fair dispensing the clues, making this one of those infrequent instalments where the guilty party is not only not obvious, but probably unguessable with the information as provided. That’s not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable 45 minutes, with a Golden Age feel to its juggling of comings and goings around the time of death, and definite value to be had in the exaggerated ragings of the scandal columnist before she’s emphatically written out.
10 “The Tower of Lost Souls” by Tahsin Guner (17 January 2020)
When a body is found at the foot of a local monument owned by the prominent Helmsley family, Mallory is quick to dismiss it as a suicide. But the death has links to an eight-year-old murder case, leading the original investigating officer to return to Kembleford to take a deeper look into the matter. When he in turn becomes the prime suspect in a second murder, it’s time to send for further assistance from Scotland Yard!
Notes: Given that it had been touted in advance publicity, and his name even appears in the published cast list, it’s still a jolt when Hugo Speer makes his entrance just before the opening titles. As Inspector Valentine, he was one of the original Father Brown line-up when the show started in 2013. In part it’s his ‘founding father’ status within the show that makes this return feel so special, and also because unlike other former regulars Speer (who left to star in the BBC’s prime time Musketeer series) hasn’t put in an encore appearance since making his departure way back in the first episode of season two, which saw him promoted to Scotland Yard and hand over the keys to the village police station to his successor Inspector Sullivan (Tom Chambers). As I recall, Valentine didn’t exactly relish Father Brown’s interventions back then, but absence has evidently made the heart grow fonder and there’s a lovely warm relationship between the two of them throughout this episode, and especially in the epilogue which will have long time fans just a little misty-eyed.
Valentine’s return is reason enough for this to be a special instalment, but it’s turned up to 11 by what happens next: even though Chambers briefly popped back last year as Sullivan, the advance publicity was rather more coy about his character’s surprise return here, meaning that it’s a real shock when he arrives without warning. Scenes featuring Mallory, Valentine and Sullivan in the same room (or indeed cell!) together with Father Brown and Sergeant Goodfellow will be utter catnip for fans who have been with the show since the very beginning – you could even say that it has something of the emotional import of the 1972/3 on-screen reunion of Doctor Who stars William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. The chemistry between them all is beautifully well-judged, with Mallory increasingly irate at being sidelined when Valentine and Sullivan prefer to rely on Father Brown’s assistance instead. Happily, Mallory still gets his hour of glory and proves rather the hero in the end.
Fortunately there’s also a rather good story to warrant this police reunion, one that has well-thought-out valid reasons for bringing Valentine and Sullivan back to their old stomping ground when they do, and expanding the former’s character quite considerably in the process. And Father Brown’s address about the roots of bigotry and intolerance couldn’t come at a better time with the world being how it is right now. All in all, one of the very best episodes the show has produced; congratulations to all involved.
In many ways the reunion aspect of the final episode of this year’s run of episodes brings Father Brown full circle and home again after eight years. If there was any question that this was to be the final time we saw the detective cleric then it would be a fitting end. But don’t worry, the BBC aren’t about to bring one of their most popular exports to a finish just yet and a ninth series will be with us in 2021. We’ll see you again then…
Father Brown airs on BBC One on daytime afternoons at 2.15pm and is available after transmission for 11 months on BBC iPlayer. It will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from February 10 2020.