Friday, 25 January 2013

The Mystery of Father Brown

The BBC is currently showing a series of nine adaptations of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and the series as a whole is something of puzzle. Chesterton's Father Brown is a diminutive man, whereas Mark Williams is a shade over six feet tall. The French detective Valentin has been transformed into the English Valentine, and the strong and towering Frenchman Flambeau has been used as inspiration for a diminutive scamp-cum-chauffeur called Sid. A gossip of an Irish parish secretary and a Polish immigrant cleaner have been added to the mix, because this is a series, and audiences need to be reassured by seeing the same characters every time. An aristocrat has been added purely to provide Father Brown with an excuse to be in some odd places, which is a striking claim, given that he turns up in the original stories without needing a protectrix. There is a short dialogue between the two writers of the series at this link, in which they explain that and other choices.

It has been a long time since I read the Father Brown stories. Indeed, I think it must be about a decade and a half if not two decades, so the memories are not fresh. Consequently, this new show led me to revisit Chesterton's work. Doing so led me to wonder what the heck was going on in this new TV show. Let me say, first, that this is daytime TV, so anyone approaching it with high expectations is over-generous or inexperienced. Having said that, the show is quite reasonable. Mark Williams is an enjoyable Father Brown, albeit one who seems less of a Catholic Priest of the 1950s and more a time-traveller from today, such are his sensibilities toward homosexuality, adultery and foreign religions. Nobody reasonable would expect a modern adaptation of The Wrong Shape to contain such sentiments as the loveable Father Brown expresses in the original. Hinduism, Indian art and India as a whole are damned as sinister and cruel. One would find it hard to sympathise with Father Brown if he had just deliberately insulted a mass of innocent people for no reason other than a dagger being made in "The Wrong Shape", which is what inspires his diatribe in the original.

Changes, I agree wholeheartedly, had to be made. Although the extent of the alterations are such that I am left thinking that this is not Chesterton's Father Brown, nor his stories. The date of the stories has been changed. Chesterton's first story was published in 1910, and at the beginning of The Wrong Shape he sets the scene in the year 18--. The characters have been altered, sometimes radically, or plucked from thin air, as I remarked in my initial paragraph. The geography is different, which is rather sad, as the original Father Brown would turn up all over the place, but is here confined to a little village. Last of all, the stories have been signally altered or, again, cut from whole cloth. If the characters are different, the date is different, the stories are different, and in some instances the solutions are different, is this really Father Brown? No, no, it isn't. The name seems to have been taken purely so that some storylines can be pillaged for elements the writers happen to like.

As to the characters, Mark Williams plays a cheerful, almost boisterous Catholic priest. Poor Hugo Speer plays Inspector Valentine, who has had one opportunity in the first six episodes to be nice, when he allowed Mark Williams illegal access to a confidential file. The whole rest of the time he is stuck playing a very surly Jones from Midsomer Murders. For those who have missed that show, there is an older detective, Barnaby, who is wise because he is old, and a young detective Jones, who is foolish because he is young. I am slightly oversimplifying. The character Sid seems to be something of a wheeler-dealer, which was mainly established by having people declare that "he may have gone too far this time" in one episode, in which he was wrongly suspected of beating up a man on a train and flinging him out the window. I can't imagine anyone would regard that as a spoiler, as the fact that he is a main character in the series establishes that he is not guilty. Well, maybe not in the last episode of the series, which is titled (and perhaps even based on) The Blue Cross, but who knows?

Sorcha Cusack seems to be having a whale of a time playing a frightful old woman. Nancy Carroll is convincingly posh enough for this middle-class man to accept that she is (although someone on IMDB has cuttingly remarked that no respectable lady should be carrying a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1950s!). Kasia Koleczek has a somewhat perplexing role as an intermittently tragic Polish immigrant. I say perplexing because she ended up thrust into a main role in the adaptation of The Eye of Apollo, which was (again) nothing like the original, reusing only the elements of a mad cult and a rich lady "falling to her death".

In short, when my mother decided not to watch it on the ground that Mark Williams is too tall, I think she had it right. If you have a great affection for the original stories, and want to see them accurately rendered, you would be a fool to expect it of this show. I shall keep watching them for two reasons. First, a sense of curiosity impels me to find out what is going to be changed next, and more specifically, whether the seventh episode, The Devil's Dust, has got anything to do with anything Chesterton wrote. I suspect it of being a bizarre concatenation of fears about radiation resulting from Fukashima and the handy fact that the show is set in the fifties, when nuclear power is becoming a real prospect, and all the world knows the danger of the atomic bomb. Second, I would like to see if The Blue Cross, the last episode of this run of nine, is anything like the original, from which Father Brown is almost wholly absent, or if they have just nabbed the title and done something weird. I would really like to see Flambeau make an appearance, but who knows what the future may bring? Not I.

In conclusion, for daytime TV this would be perfectly adequate were it not for the fact that it purports to be an adaptation of a series of books, and is actually a wholesale reimagining. For it bears about about as much resemblance to the originals as do those Robert Downey Jr. films to anything Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. Sadly, because it is daytime TV, there are fewer explosions and fistfights to provide a cinematic distraction from the eccentricities of the show. If you do fancy something good with Mark Williams in, having enjoyed him as Mr Weasley in the Harry Potter films, let me recommend the first seasons of Red Dwarf, in which he has a small recurring role as a friend to Lister. Until next time, folks!


  1. Thank you! So glad it's not just me sitting there spluttering "But... But.. But... No! Just no!"

    1. I start with a blank face, and end every episode with a screwed-up visage emblematic of the very epitome of confusion!


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