Episode one of the BBC Father Brown: The Hammer of God

Father Brown

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.

Mark Williams as Father Brown

Mark Williams as Father Brown: ‘I don’t go looking for mysteries. They find me.’

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.’
‘Likewise.’

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?

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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19 Responses to Episode one of the BBC Father Brown: The Hammer of God

  1. Rich – Oh, it’s so very good to hear that this episode stayed close to the original. Now I admit I am somewhat of a purist and my view is by no means universally held. But it is great to hear that the episode didn’t distort the story. Thanks for the excellent review.

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  2. Where can we find it on US TV?

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    • westwoodrich says:

      I did a quick survey on Goodreads a while ago and there was a lot of interest in when the series would reach international markets – the US, Australia, New Zealand, even Italy. I put the question to the producer and she said:

      “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.”

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  3. curtis evans says:

    These are such brilliant stories I am happy to see the series being done, I hope it holds up overall.

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  4. curtis evans says:

    “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,”

    Urk!

    I also noticed he explains he doesn’t enjoy the whole whodunit conceit. I don’t believe Gently is a series I’ll be watching….

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  5. Skywatcher says:

    Curtis: You are extremely wise. It’s a very revealing interview, showing the contempt held by some ‘serious’ writers for anything smacking of entertainment. I mean, God forbid that he should do anything as downmarket as attempt a proper whodunnit plot, with a bit of humour mixed in.

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  6. curtis evans says:

    It’s really rather demeaning to the author, to say all you are interested in of his work, is the name of his detective. Of course Hitchcock changed 95% of the plots of some of the books he “adapted” but, hey, it least you’re getting your book mauled in that case by the very best!

    For myself, when I watch a mystery series, I’m not afraid to admit that I like for there to be a mystery.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      I like the George Gently series, but reading that interview made me feel bad for Alan Hunter’s wife/children/whoever. He basically casually dismisses the guy’s life’s work.

      I also think licensing a property and then not using it is a waste of money. And the BBC is funded by me* so that’s my money.

      Constable are reissuing the Gently books – I reviewed one for Eurocrime a while ago and thought it was a good compact mystery. However, I imagine most new readers will share my surprise that they’re unlike the show.

      *Not on my own.

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  7. Moira says:

    I have enjoyed the episodes I’ve seen so far – but you do have to forget a lot of your memories of the stories. And the RC background is completely unconvincing – NO English village has a Catholic church that looks like that, that is a CofE church. Plus various mistakes in etiquette and rituals. But all that said – a splendid way to kill an hour, great fun. But – like you – can’t imagine why they’re on in the afternoons and all on together, would have been an ideal Sunday night series. Is it the religious content? – which is actually quite unusual for a modern BBC programme.

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  8. Reblogged this on Hobbit House and commented:
    I thought this was really good!!

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  9. Must admit I found the first episode a bit of a chore to sit through and haven’t watched any fo the others yet. That bit of a dialogue with the gay character is amusing, but on the other hand the gay element is remoulded for the villain’s motive in a way that one might think could easily cause offence. I thought it singularly lacked the requisite charm to work though – and yes, spot on about th card looking too darn clean!

    I also think the Gently series is actually pretty good and has definitely improved as it went along (hope they resolve the cliffhanger from the last series). Without wishing to cause offence, I don’t think the Hunter books are generally held in particularly high regard, are they? I’m glad they are being re-released though.

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  10. Apologies for the many typos: ‘card’ = cars …

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  11. Micky R says:

    Just watched the first episode which screened on Australian TV last night and won’t be watching any more. The opening credit of ‘based on a characer by GK Chesterton’ was a big clue. As with the Hollywood style of ‘based on a true story’, it usually signals that all the screenplay owes the source material is a name, which indeed turns out to be the case here as it conjures up a cliched cast of thousands for some sort of pre-‘Heartbeat’ meets ‘Midsomer Murders’.

    The original story’s characters are completely unrecognisible, rewritten completely so as to accommodate a paint-by-numbers post-modern secularist world view. The thundering Presbyterian blacksmith becomes a stripped to the waist hunk seducing his wife in the kitchen; the buxom wife becomes a slight creature blackmailed into adultery; the boozy old lecher Colonel Bohum becomes the ascerbic young sexual blackmailer of women and men alike; the amusing atheist village cobbler is transformed into a homosexual natural scientist tormented by his cruel bisexual lover and the threat of ‘chemical treatments’ if exposed. The screenplay then lands the ‘Law and Order’ style sucker punch of making Christians mad killers, homophobes and abusers (preferrably all three in one), or acceptably willing to bend to 21st century liberality, no matter how anachronistic it may be in a historical setting.

    Thus the curate, who in the original story threw the murder weapon in a blind rage, is transformed into a calculatingly insane gay hater (‘I would forgive… even murder but not that’) who takes careful (if lucky) aim then cold-bloodedly allows an innocent woman to potentially face the gallows, an innocent woman he apparently harbours some sexual attraction to and of whom he inexplicably and highly improbably carries a photo. Meanwhile, now only nominally Catholic Father Brown exchanges sympathies and cheery banter with the gay character and is portrayed more as some sort of Anglican ‘rev’ that a priest of the Church of Rome.

    Good grief.

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    • Gerard Barns says:

      Could not agree more Micky R. I have read a number of the Father Brown stories including THe Hammer of God. This TV version bears almost no resemblance to CHesterton’s original story; not just in the plot, but thematically as well. The whole anti gay theme was just utterly ridiculous. Sure, we all watch shows based on stories and works of fiction and that the TV version will alter a number of characters and scenes; no problem, but to change the ideas and themes that Chesterton was making in a Christian context to some kind of post modern secular morality play is disingenuous at best.

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    • Ian Miller says:

      Well said – I was hoping for good things, since though he’s not completely physically to type, I think Williams has the ability and charm to play Brown well, but this and the other two episodes I saw were absolutely wretched, not just on a theological/moral/religious/adaptational level, but on a writing and structural level. Ideological conflicts are consistently twisted to mean exactly the opposite of the original stories, politics are injected at every opportunity with a transparency that’s insulting in its laziness, and the storylines are padded beyond all real tension or enjoyment.

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  12. Studio 139 says:

    I am a purist, the series brings nothing to the stories, and takes everything away from them.
    Even looking at them as unrelated to the source material did not improve the plots or dialog.
    Not worth the time invested.

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  13. inchoative says:

    I agree with some of the other replies, though my overall perspective on it is probably different. I was well aware of who Chesterton was, but had never read his works. After seeing the series premiere on the US PBS network, I found the short story upon which it was based. His writing didn’t appeal to me at all. Compared to other early 20th century literature, “The Hammer of God” seemed dated, precious, and marred by a kind of haughtiness of moral certitude. The being said, I think every work supposed being adapted for screen deserves – apologies for the cliche – a modicum of respect. This adaptation both completely loses the spirit of Chesterton’s work and the spirit of the times it inhabited! Why bother even branding it “Father Brown”? Not to say he would have said to the murderous Anglican vicar, “good job you did there, let’s head down to the pub for a pint”…but no Catholic priest (or any other Christian preacher of the time) would have had that kind of blase reaction to the subplots involving homosexuality.
    I’m beginning to think that real problem is that historical settings have become a kind of sweet candy that drama writers and producers are addicted to. Dramas are in competition for how many things they have on offer that people can talk about the next day…and pre-modern costumes and customs are enough of a curiosity that they become an “intellectually inexpensive” way to drive interest in the story. Thus setting becomes the star in a faux-historical drama that blends “the best” – i.e., the most anodyne – of the past and modern, liberal sensibilities. Though I loved the first season, Downton Abbey, especially, helped me to see this. Its handling of Thomas’s later entanglements was similarly platitudinous and historically inaccurate.

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