Father Brown S9 (BBC One) [2022]

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We always used to say that the arrival of a new series of the BBC’s Father Brown was one of the most reliable indicators of the end of the Christmas holiday period and the arrival of a brand New Year. Its absence at the start of 2021 was therefore a painful indicator of quite how dreadful the previous 12 months had been for everyone due to the outbreak of coronavirus. Filming on series 9 had been about to start when the first COVID cases arrived in the UK and the country went into lockdown, resulting in all TV production being suspended for months.

In a similar vein therefore, the return of GK Chesterton’s eponymous country priest to the afternoon schedules can be taken as joyous confirmation that everything is finally beginning to return to normal (bit-by-bit and omicron notwithstanding). A year later than originally intended, it was possible for the filming of series 9 of Father Brown to get underway and the results are now before us to warm our hearts at the start of 2022. And at first glance it seems reassuring familiar with few changes, the look and feel of the production very much as it was despite the onerous social distancing rules that had to be observed during production. There’s no obvious sign of those measures on the screen, and cast and crew are to be commended for producing another 10 polished instalments.

However it’s quickly apparent that something has changed, and I’m obliged to post a bit of a spoiler warning at this point. While I would never divulge the key details of individual stories (and never the who- or why-dunnit), this is something that might take long-time viewers by surprise and not something they wish to know ahead of time. However there’s no way of discussing the new run of stories without mentioning it, as it comes up almost right at the start of the first episodes and impacts everything that follows. So if you don’t want to know anything at all about series 9 before watching it then shut your browser now and only come back when you’re ready.

Okay? Got it? Then here we go with our overdue annual review of the latest season of Father Brown

The big change this season turns out to be a matter of casting. But don’t panic, because Mark Williams is back in the title role along with Sorcha Cusack as his parish housekeeper Mrs McCarthy, while over at Kembleford Police Station we still have Jack Deam as the irascible Inspector Mallory and John Burton as reliable, long-suffering Sergeant Goodfellow. All is right with the world then, correct? Yes. And … not quite.

Sharp eyed viewers will note one change from the cast we enjoyed in 2020, with Emer Kenny’s flighty socialite Bunty Windermere – always a Marmite character, with many viewers still regretting the departure of Nancy Carroll as her aunt Lady Felicia who continues to return for occasional special guest appearances – no where to be seen. There’s no explanation for her absence in the first episode although there’s also no immediate reason to do so, but the lack of any mention of the character in the following three stories does start to feel a bit odd. In practical terms, her exit is a matter of cast availability with Kenny taking up a major role in a primetime adaptation of Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie novels. However, like other departed co-stars before her, she’ll be back in a guest role later in the series – testament to the backstage spirit of the production that means everyone appears to leave on good terms and happy to pop back when circumstances allow.

In fact you probably won’t even initially notice she’s not there, because what we get instead is the surprise return of a different original cast member, Alex Price as disreputable ‘bad lad’ black marketeer Sid Carter. He was in the first four seasons but Price then got a major West End role (in the Harry Potter stage play) and left at the end of 2016, although he’s made a number of guest appearances in the meantime. Perhaps hinting that the casting was affected by all the COVID turmoil, he simply shows up here at the start of series 9 sitting at the Presbytery kitchen table with Father Brown and Mrs McCarthy and no one so much as says “What the heck are you doing here?!” Maybe it will be explained later in the run, or maybe it won’t, but it’s a special post-pandemic treat to have the prodigal son return and the old family back together. If only Lady Felicia could come back as well then it would be the ultimate New Year treat, but that would surely be too much to hope for… It does mean the main line-up now consists of only one female character. but hang on five episodes and it turns out that the line-up isn’t necessarily as fixed as it might have been in previous seasons…

And with the admin taken care of, it’s time for our brief look at the ten stories comprising this latest run.

1 “The Menace of Mephistopheles” by Dominique Moloney (3 January 2022)
Sergeant Goodfellow is appalled to witness Inspector Mallory plant evidence at a crime scene, leading to the arrest of a young man for the murder of his wealthy father. Goodfellow turns to Father Brown for help, and it soon emerges that something far darker and more dangerous is behind it all.

Notes: The show goes for full-on high stakes drama and thrills to kick off its new season, with very little in the way of humour except some nice in-character touches from Sid, including a frustrated romance with a local barmaid. Even though Mallory hasn’t exactly been a warm and likeable character, the sight of him framing an innocent man whose only vice is drink is rather shocking, and leads to one of the most extraordinary (and I’ll admit, genuinely affecting) confessional scenes that we’ve ever had in Father Brown. You wonder how Mallory can ever be the same after this experience, but an epilogue shows that he’ll be back to his old self in no time at all. While not a hard story to guess whodunnit, there’s a lot to pack in and it feels almost like a feature-length special and an excellent way to start the new season; it sets an immediate high mark for the new run that will be difficult to match, with everyone on top form throughout.

2 “The Viper’s Tongue” by Kit Lambert (4 January 2022)
A series of impossible deaths (honestly, Kembleford is getting more and more like Midsomer by the week!) makes it look like someone is seeking retribution for some unknown past crime. Father Brown grows concerned that Mrs McCarthy might be next on the list for an untimely departure.

Notes: Normally in the past the series has balanced the serious and dramatic episodes with lighter, comedic ones. Not so here. Although the first five or ten minutes feel quite light and bouncy we soon get back into much serious matters. If doesn’t go to quite the same dark depths of the previous story, there’s still some major drama and very real peril to some of our favourite characters that will have some viewers biting their fingernails. In the end Father Brown gets to deliver an ethical and moral appeal to the culprit, one of the parts of the show that retains a tenuous but very welcome link to the literary origins of the character. Also of interest is a general sense of modern times starting to catch up with sleepy 50s Kembleford and intrude in unwelcome ways, from Mrs McCarthy’s dislike of the immigrant butcher and her horror at the thought of eating ‘hot dogs’ at a new American-style diner, and an oily businessman wanting to buy up local homes and properties for to sell as holiday homes.

3 “The Requiem for the Dead” by Michelle Lipton (5 January 2022)
The return of a man previously tried and convicted for the death of a young girl 14 years ago – a notorious case that even featured in the national press – reopens old wounds and leads to another murder.

Notes: The show continues in an unusually sombre mood, although this time it’s not about race against time suspense and excitement but instead consists of a rather more sad, melancholic mood with much of the focus on the Banks family. It was their daughter Maggie who was killed and her body never recovered all those years ago, leading to an all-consuming obsession for her father (guest star John Thompson), a mental breakdown for her mother, and resentment from their son/Maggie’s now-grown brother. In many ways the episode is more about healing the Banks family than it is about the question of the killer, with both the original murder and the more recent crime both needing to be solved after the police get it wrong. The solution relies on one of those tricks that are frowned upon by mystery buffs (although it uses a visual clue about a bandage that I noticed and rashly put down to poor continuity – silly me!) and Father Brown letting someone off the hook in a quite egregious way. Sid’s on hand to provide the odd bright line, but the end of the episode is likely to leave you feeling rather unsettled and subdued, perhaps reflecting on one’s own circumstances and loved ones.

4 “”The Children of Kalon” by Tahsin Guner (6 January 2022)
Convicted wife killer Gerald Firth (guest star Michael Maloney) is released thanks to character testimony provided by Father Brown. But within days of Firth returning to Kembleford, there’s a suspicious death at the religious cult he originally helped to found. Has Father Brown inadvertently enabled a killer to strike again?

Notes: It’s slightly unfortunate that the scheduling means we have two stories in a row that begin from the point of a notorious killer being released and returning to the area. But after that starting point, things go in very different ways. Most of this episode is spent with Father Brown digging into the odd people and strange practices of the cult, and trying to determine Firth’s true reasons for wanting to return to his cult and be reinducted. There’s an inevitable tension between a Catholic priest and a strange New Age cult and at one point Father Brown is called out for blatant bias, but the episode itself goes to great lengths not to be too mocking or satirical, unlike similar scenarios in previous seasons which were often the source of broad humour. Once again there’s very little in the way of laughs in this episodes, with the supporting cast making only short appearances meaning there’s not even much opportunity for Sid’s wisecracks. The Cult’s peculiarities are somewhat distracting but the religious tensions are well presented, and there’s a solid and ultimately surprisingly secular solution to the murder case and a nice nod to Christian salvation toward all sinners at the end. There’s also a one line ‘throwaway’ of special import to longtime viewers, when Mrs McCarthy mentions that Firth’s original crime so upset someone called Susie at the time that she left Kembleford and ‘ran off with a Buddhist’. That’s surely a reference to the character of Polish immigrant Susie Jasinski played by Kasia Koleczek, who was one of the original regulars when the show started in 2013 and whose abrupt exit at the end of season 1 has always been an unexplained mystery, with Koleczek the exception to the rule that departed cast members are sure to pop up again once in a while.

5 “The Final Devotion” by Kit Lambert (7 January 2022)
A senior Cardinal from Rome (Hinterland‘s Aneirin Hughes) tasks Father Brown with retrieving a long lost Papal treasure which is believed to be hidden somewhere on the grounds of a local castle, but he faces stiff opposition from multiple sources in the race to find it.

Notes: A new season of Father Brown wouldn’t be complete without a return appearance from the priest’s longtime nemesis, master thief Hercule Flambeau (played as always by John Light). Such episodes are always more a treasure hunt than the usual whodunnit in which the key fascination is more down to which of Father Brown or Flambeau will outwit the other in their ongoing game of double cross and deception, and that’s the case again here where the pair join forces to track down the clues in local archives only to find a third man is on the trail as well, and willing to kill to get his bounty. The episode is given extra sparkle by the return of Lady Felicia, with the reason given in the story being that she’s back for an indefinite period after a bad falling out with her husband Monty in Rhodesia (also prompting the first mention of Bunty this season), with Nancy Carroll taking Alex Price’s spot in the opening credits as Sid takes the episode off. It’s by no means a case of one character switching in to replace another due to cast availability, as Lady Felicia revives her lively back and forth sparring with Mrs McCarthy that was always such a delight, and also indulges in some unexpectedly hot and heavy flirting (on his side at least) with Flambeau that threatens to turn her head in light of her own marital problems. You certainly can’t imagine Flambeau trying to talk Sid into eloping with him to New York, now can you?!

6 “The New Order” by Neil Irvine (10 January 2022)
Tabloid newspaper proprietor Lord Hawthorne (Matthew Marsh) decides to retire to Kembleford, where he expects everyone to jump to his every command. When Father Brown refuses to do so, he finds himself suspended for allegedly breaking the seal of the confessional. And then someone takes a shot at Lord Hawthorne at a garden party…

Notes: Neither Sid nor Lady Felicia are featured in this story (and their shared spot in the opening credits is accordingly blank) but there are enough guest characters to more than make up for it, with Lord Hawthorne accompanied by a large entourage including his wife, son and compliant former priest from Chelsea who takes over when Father Brown is suspended. It’s quite a shock (and played for some nice, enjoyably light comedic moments by Mark Williams) to see him out of clerical dress and in ‘civvies’ for once. There’s also a young man in the village who has been publicly exposed and shamed for being homosexual, and mentions of chemical castration revive disturbing memories of the injustices faced by many gay men of the time such as Alan Turing. Mostly though the story ends up with Lord Hawthorne getting hoist by his own petard and coming to a spluttering reckoning with his own failings as a husband and father, and I’m sure everyone will take a large degree of satisfaction in seeing a hubristic tabloid editor coming to such a humiliating fate.

7 “The Island of Dreams” by David Semple (11 January 2022)
Father Brown, Inspector Mallory and Sergeant Goodfellow are guests at Chummy’s holiday camp when the matriarch of the business is strangled to death while making an announcement over the loudspeaker. Mallory soon has his culprit, leaving Father Brown and Goodfellow to team up to find the real perpetrator.

Notes: I approached this one with caution, as it was only a few months ago that the ITV series Grantchester (which also features a crime solving parish priest) had a similar holiday camp-inspired episode which was really quite painful to watch. Fortunately Father Brown knows how to handle such a mix of lighthearted frivolity and borderline Hi De Hi! spoof without sending up its regular characters in the process making this a better balanced blend of comedy and serious detection. In fact the main way they do it is to cut down the regular cast to the bare minimum – even Mrs McCarthy is absent (for the first time in the entire series that I can recall), packed off on holiday to Ireland; and there’s no Sid, Lady Felicia or anyone else in attendance, meaning the opening credits are the shortest they’ve ever been. It leaves Father Brown better able to get to know the colourful cast of camp entertainers and to dig down into old grudges and festering grievances, but it’s the story of a tragic accident years before that really seems to haunt the place. The best part of the episode is the way that Goodfellow steps up to become Father Brown’s right hand man in this episode, and they make a lovely pairing although the sergeant does have to avert his eyes on occasion to some of the priest’s less orthodox ways of gathering evidence.

8 “The Wayward Girls” by Dominique Moloney (12 January 2022)
After being caught speeding, Bunty is sentenced to community service involving giving a speech to the girls at a local borstal. Inevitably, within hours the governor of the institution has been violently assaulted and Father Brown is on the case.

Notes: Bunty returns, but there is nothing said about where she’s been or why she’s back now. No matter: it’s good to see her again, although it’s unfortunate that neither Lady Felicia nor Sid are around to share scenes. In fact it’s another radically reduced main cast for this episode, with Mrs McCarthy still away and even Inspector Mallory on annual leave, leaving Sergeant Goodfellow minding the store and having to step up as senior investigating officer – which of course he does admirably, as noted by Father Brown in a particularly nice scene between the pair. If the fluctuating cast is indeed due to the pressures of filming under COVID restrictions (and for the first time, there are scenes here oddly staged outdoors with everyone carefully spaced apart that suggests this was early days in the production) then I have to say that it’s actually proving quite effective. Having a ‘pool’ of recurring regulars that the show can dip into as needed is working very nicely, as it clears space for a larger guest cast that enables more interesting stories to be told – as is the case here. It looks like the usual medley of conflicts between the inmates and also between the governor and her senior staff, but in fact rather than being the typical assortment of distracting red herrings it all coalesces very effectively into a single, solid drama that’s very satisfying when it all comes together.

9 “The Enigma of Antigonish” by Lol Fletcher (13 January 2022)
The owner of a local health spa is still recovering from the physical and emotional wounds inflicted upon her in a violent attack four years ago. The perpetrator (Musketeer‘s Ryan Gage) returns and swears to Father Brown he’s a changed man, having found God in jail, but minutes later he’s shot dead. Another victim and one arrest later and the pool of suspects is dwindling fast – but maybe that’s the whole idea?

Notes: We’re back up to full cast strength this time, with Mrs McCarthy and Sid back and Inspector Mallory returned from annual leave to be as obstructive as usual. It’s perhaps a little unfortunate that this is the third story in this run featuring a horrible crime that took place in the past and the culprit returning to Kembleford after a long sentence, and for me I found the start of the episode rather confusing. As a whole the story didn’t come together as well as others in the run, although it was nice to see Sid and Mrs McCarthy between them upping the comedy quotient that’s been somewhat subdued this season. In the end the solution will be somewhat glaringly obvious to die-hard mystery fans as it relied upon one of the axioms of detective fiction (which I can’t specify here or it will give the game away) not to mention a significant clue in the title, and as a result the climax rather lacked the impact it might have hoped for, although a deadly threat to our regulars certainly holds the attention and there’s a nice epilogue in which one of the guest characters talks of a valuable healing life lesson that she’s learned from the whole experience.

10 “The Red Death” by Kit Lambert (14 January 2022)
Montague House is holding its famous annual New Year masked ball and the guest of honour is the Minister of Defence Sir Charles Hakeworth (Richard Dillane), who is tipped to be in the running to replace Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. Unfortunately he doesn’t live long enough to see midnight.

Notes: This is a genuine landmark moment for Father Brown, marking the 100th episode to be aired since the series began in 2013. You’d expect the production team to pull out all the stops to make this a special event – and happily, they really do. For one thing we have all the current recurring cast united for the first time in ages, so much so that the opening credits have to dig deep into the archives to find some of the retired animations used for character cards in years gone past but which have since fallen by the way side. Among the returnees, Lady Felicia is hosting the ball with Father Brown, Mrs McCarthy, Bunty and even Sid all attending as guests, while Mallory and Goodfellow are providing extra security due to death threats having been received by Sir Charles. Appropriately enough for the occasion, the main story is a lovely quintessential country house classic murder in which conflicting alibis make it hard to unscramble the identity of killer before a second guest is attacked. But really it’s the wonderful little moments involving the main cast that make this a stand-out instalment: a touch of nostalgia seeing Sid back in his chauffeur’s costume, plus his choice of who he wants to dance with; Mallory’s response to Goodfellow starting to get ambitions about promotion (perhaps inspired by his recent experiences in this run?); and the resolution of the earlier sub-plot concerning the deterioration of Lady Felicia’s marriage to Monty – a character who has been much mentioned over the years but never before seen in the show. This time he makes his long overdue debut, as played by Alexander Hanson, which is a particularly delightful treat for long time viewers. And if that’s not enough, there’s even a wonderful long distance cameo from another popular recurring character. It all contributes to an extra fine outing for the show; and the final scene has everyone line up to take what is in effect a well-earned curtain call, set against a backdrop of fireworks – a fan-pleasing moment that truly could not be bettered.

It might have been a rough couple of years for everyone coping with COVID, but if the quality of the latest season of Father Brown is anything to go by then it looks like 2022 is set to be a much better time for all.

Father Brown airs on BBC One on daytime afternoons at 1.45pm and is available after transmission for 11 months on BBC iPlayer. Series 9 will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from February 7 2022.

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