I blogged a few weeks ago that Ceri Meyrick, the BBC producer of next year’s Father Brown series starring Mark Williams, had very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the series.
Ceri started as a Radio Production Trainee at BBC Wales, and has worked as a Script Editor and Producer in the UK and Ireland for the BBC, Carlton, World Productions, Granada Kids, Chatsworth, RTE, Parallel and Accomplice. As a Development Producer at BBC Drama she ran the BBC Drama Writers Academy with John Yorke, training writers for BBC series including ‘Casualty’, ‘Doctors’, ‘Holby’ and ‘EastEnders’. ‘Father Brown’ was developed using these writers. She is currently Series Producer of ‘EastEnders’.
Here she answers questions from Past Offences visitors, members of various Goodreads crime and mystery groups, the Golden Age Detection Yahoo Group – and from me. Thanks for everybody that contributed.
So, to begin with the basics, what does a Producer actually do?
A sort of project manager. I oversaw the whole ‘Father Brown’ project, from development to final cut.
What led to the decision to film Father Brown? Did you ‘audition’ any other detectives before deciding?
BBC Daytime wanted a home-grown detective show for the afternoons on BBC1 . Initially, we had pitched them some original ideas from our writers, but they wanted something that was already a brand and therefore less of a risk (in Commissioner-speak). Father Brown fitted that bill perfectly, and hadn’t been filmed since the 70s (with Kenneth More). Our Executive Producer John Yorke came up with the idea after hearing a radio documentary about G. K. Chesterton presented by Ann Widdecombe.
Assuming all the episodes are based on the original stories, how did you go about selecting which ones to film?
Writers pitched ideas for episodes. I gave them the choice whether to adapt an existing story, or to come up an original idea. In the end only half of the ten episodes we made were based on GK’s stories.
You tweeted mysteriously about nuns, and I saw something about underwater filming… are you allowed to reveal which stories you filmed?
We filmed ‘The Blue Cross‘, ‘The Eye of Apollo’, ‘The Hammer of God’, ‘The Wrong Shape’ and ‘The Flying Stars’. Nuns were involved in one episode – yes – but I can’t recall any actual underwater filming – unless you could the appallingly heavy rain we were filming in most of the Summer.
The series is set in the 1950s, unlike the stories. What led to that decision?
The stories are set all over the world and in lots of different times – GK wrote them over a period of several decades, of course, but he died in 1936, so moving them to the 50s was a big change. We were advised that period shows work better if they are set within living memory, so that’s why we updated it. We wanted the TV show to be anchored in a time and a place – unlike the stories. My feeling was that the stories had a timeless feel to them anyway.
Did you ever consider the full 21st-century update, a la ‘Sherlock’?
No – we wanted to keep it as a period show with the detective figure solving the puzzle using their minds and knowledge of human nature – rather than getting into the world of mobile phones and DNA testing. Although we changed a lot from the stories – I wanted to keep the essence of the character of Father Brown himself. I guess you could bring it right up to date, thought, as they did with ‘Sherlock’. It would be an interesting exercise.
And why anchor Brown to Gloucestershire? In the stories he gets around a bit.
We wanted a sense of place for the audience to come back to every week. Plus, we needed to film near our base in Birmingham. The Cotswolds is gloriously beautiful and also, quite easy to film as period, with little in the way of modern buildings. Also, we didn’t have the budget to go to Mexico, New York and all the other places GK sent Father Brown. Maybe next series!
Is there the currently fashionable story arc, or do you make each episode a self-contained episode?
We decided to go self-contained – so there is no serial. Each episode stands alone so they can be viewed in any order and the emphasis is on the story of the week.
Is there a single writer, or is this a team effort?
On this series we used eight writers. Two lead writers (Rachel Flowerday and Tahsin Guner) set up the world and the characters, then the others all contributed episodes. What this gave us was ten very distinct and individual episodes.
Mark Williams seems to be a very popular choice, but he’s not exactly the Father Brown as described in the stories. How did you come to cast him? Does he play it for laughs?
Mark’s acting style has a huge amount of heart and empathy. For me that is the essence of Father Brown. He can also do comedy of course- which is essential. He can and does do both in the part.
Is Mark a fan of the stories?
Mark is hugely well read – not just the stories, but also about clerical history, and the history of the area we filmed in.
Was he influenced by Alec Guinness’ performance as Brown in the 1954 film?
I don’t think he’d seen it.
Are you allowed to say who else auditioned?
We didn’t audition.
Who are all these other characters, Susie Jasinksi, Lady Felicia, and so on?
We gave our Father Brown a gang of ‘helpers’ – as part of the process of making this work as a 45-minute TV drama , rather than a short story. It enabled us to flesh out the stories more and give them more of a 3D feel. We’ve given him a Polish refugee cleaner (Susie), a Parish Secretary (Mrs McCarthy), the lady of the manor (Lady Felicia) and her ne’er-do-well chauffeur (Sid), plus the local copper (Inspector Valentine). Different types of characters from different social strata gave us and Father Brown access to different worlds, and therefore gave us more ways of telling the stories.
Is there a Flambeau?
There is! But you’ll have to wait and see.
There was a lot of interest from Goodreads users in when the series would reach international markets – the US, Australia, New Zealand, even Italy. How does this process work?
BBC Worldwide will be selling the show to other broadcasters. They did put some money into the show for us up front, so they are really interested in marketing it around the world. We have tried to get the essence of the English countryside into the show – which hopefully will appeal to an international audience as well as BBC1 viewers.
Religion was right at the centre of the Chesterton stories. Is that reflected in your series, or have you gone more secular?
Interesting question. What a cleric at the centre of the show gives you is a strong moral code and authority, plus a huge sense of humanity. I think we did make it more secular – but our religious adviser was quite happy about our portrayal of a Catholic priest. He is the hero after all.
G. K. Chesterton became a Roman Catholic only after writing the Father Brown stories, and Alec Guinness also converted after playing the character. Any signs of spiritual reawakening amongst the cast and crew?
Not yet. But I think Mark’s Latin has improved immeasurably. Mine too.
And did you rein in the whimsy?
I hope we’ve preserved it where we can.
Finally, when will the series air, and are you planning more episodes?
January 2013 on BBC in the afternoons – and yes – series two is already being thought about. Fingers crossed we get it made.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.