I’ve been a Father Brown fan for more than twenty years, but although I was delighted to hear that G. K. Chesterton’s classic sleuth would be coming to BBC1, my initial reaction to news of the show was negative.
- First of all, Mark Williams. He was great in The Fast Show, and showed fine form with his turns in Being Human and Doctor Who, but surely he was absolutely nothing like short, dumpy Father Brown? (If asked to select a Fast Show actor to play Brown, I’d have gone with Charlie Higson.)
- Also, who were all these other people? ‘Father Brown will be assisted in each episode by Parish Secretary Mrs McCarthy, the extravagant Lady Felicia… reformed criminal Sid Carter and the priest’s housekeeper Susie Jasinski’.
- And the setting: ‘Kembleford in the Cotswolds.’ Part of the mystery of Father Brown is that he crops up in the unlikely places. The stories are notable for their geographic scope – London, Paris, Scotland, America…
But, you know what? The ingredients of successful TV are different to those of the short story, and the various additions to the canon (ha) are explained by the show’s producer Ceri Meyrick and writer Rachel Flowerday. Comparing interviews with the chief writer of George Gently, in which he explains how he cleverly removed absolutely everything from the original books, leaving only the name, made me feel more positive about their approach. So I decided to approach The Hammer of God, the first of ten Father Brown stories, with an open mind.
It opens with the caddish Norman Bohun leaving the bedroom of a freshly scrubbed local wife, before going to crash his brother’s church tea-party waving a bottle of wine, shouting the odds and generally making himself unpleasant. No surprises, and no shortage of suspects, when he is found with his head smashed in at around 15 minutes into the show.
The freshly scrubbed wife, Elizabeth, confesses to the murder in order to protect her husband, the local blacksmith Simeon. Father Brown does not believe her, bringing him into immediate conflict with the bullish Inspector Valentine. Elizabeth is soon persuaded to confess her innocence, but the powers-that-be think she is still the most likely culprit and refuse to let her go. Brown, who only recognises one Power-that-be, sets out to find the real killer. As with Chesterton stories, this isn’t a clue-laden procedural investigation – this enquiry is more about human nature.
Williams’ version of Brown is impish to begin with – nibbling scones, winding up the C of E vicar, and teasing his parishioners. Once on the trail of the killer, he makes a fair stab at the meandering vagueness of Chesterton’s Brown by staring froggishly into the middle distance, but he doesn’t quite capture the passion of the original until he lets rip in the final confrontation.
‘God is not your scapegoat!’
… which leads me to the religion, which runs deep in Chesterton’s stories. The BBC hasn’t neglected this element (although it is perhaps inescapable in this particular story), and I’m sure the mid-afternoon student viewers will soon devise a spot-the-Bible drinking game. Brown is all about saving souls, and Williams’ version does just that. However, I don’t think Chesterton would have missed the chance to take a humourous swipe at the atheist at the tea party.
As for the rest of the cast, Hugo Speer’s Inspector Valentine is a grudging confederate who obviously has a history with Brown. He adds a welcome bit of grit to the proceedings. I’m less convinced of the value of the other regulars, Lady Felicia (who on the basis of this episode is simply annoying), Mrs McCarthy (likewise) and Susie – but of course it’s early days.
There are some comic moments, most notably between Brown and a closeted gay suspect:
‘I won’t try to convert you.’
The setting, the Cotswold village of ‘Kembleford’ is magnificently shot, and the 50s setting seems well realised, although as always the cars look lovingly preserved rather than actually things people drive around in.
Overall, it’s pleasantly watchable fare which I don’t think will offend purists and will hopefully bring some new readers to the Chesterton stories. I’ll be tuning in to the rest of the series.
Finally, along with most people it seems, I am confused by the scheduling: this would surely have sat nicely on a Sunday night.
So what do other people think?
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.