For the past few weeks I have been watching the television drama Father Brown, which has been on daily at 2.15pm on BBC1.
This crime drama lasts an hour. It is set, I assume, in the late 30s just before WWII and is – like most of Agatha Christie who-dun-its – set in an upper-class, vintage car-ed, Edwardian village. It is a visual feast of beautiful English countryside, Cotswold brick and sunshine. It’s complex plots are full of outrageous coincidences with concluding dialogue to reveal the underlying mystery in the denouement being laughably implausible, incredible. Like believing in God some would say. But more of the religious aspect of the programme later.
These GK Chesterton who-dun-its are set in a English village where the extremely ‘curious’ Father Brown is the resident priest. A village with such unsavoury goings on it must rival Midsommer village for crime statistics. However whereas Midsommer has about four murders an episode this is much more genteel as often there is no murder at all, and if there is murderer, he or she is often forgiven and the perpetrator is allowed to disappear in a miracle of justice.
Father Brown is brilliantly and perfectly played by Mark Williams. The casting is perfect. It is one of those roles that will never be better played – like Jeremy Brett in Sherlock or Rupert Davies in Maigret. And the casting of his three three sidekicks, all dreadful sinners, is almost as good. He is often assisted by an elderly Irish woman Mrs McCarthy, a gossip who would certainly kill if any rival baked better cakes. She snootily looks down at her partner of investigation, the Lady Felicia, the head-turning lady of the manner, a man-mad beauty with Thespian tendencies. Next is the cocky young man, Sidney, a pick pocket with wandering fingers in every sense but who comes in delightfully useful when some safe-cracking or house-breaking is required. Despite their internecine conflicts, this motley crew have a commanding loyalty towards maverick priest Father Brown. After flying through the sunny green countryside on his bicycle like some avenging bat to confront the dangerous antagonist in the black moment of the plot, it is often this support team that come to his rescue.
The conclusion to the plots are often resolved by ludicrous coincidence – standard fare for much of this genre – but the plots in this series are fast, colourful and highly visual which is useful for a television drama. Even though I am mainly laughing at it more than laughing with it – which strangely I think is part of its deliberate charm – I enjoy the programme immensely. In fact I think it is one of the most concise and entertaining dramas the BBC has put on the past ten years. It is laughable, unbelievable, rather silly, whimsical, lightweight and yet it is thoroughly enjoyable and compelling.
When Father Brown comes on I stop tapping on my laptop and switch off my phone. I stop everything and engage. It’s amazing; so tightly packed with plot, character and humour. I often laugh out loud at some of the subtle vignettes of character – and intrigue. It is packed into an hour, and works with the same efficiency as the Jeremy Brett/ Sherlock Holmes back-catalogue.
It is the perfect antidote to the dark, moody,’The Killing’ or or the neurotic and interminable ‘Spiral’ or even ‘Inspector Montalbano’ (one of the greatest TV detective series in my opinion), because it is so condensed yet jam-packed with event. It is great drama but certainly not in the way of the very serious and sublime ‘Wolf Hall’, which is more about what is unsaid that what is actually spoken. Like ‘Midsommer Murder’ this it totally unbelievable, whereas ‘Wolf Hall’ requires a suspension of disbelief for it to work.
These days television portrays anything Christian as antiquated, implying it is so stupid and medieval, it is laughable. This series occasionally takes the rise out of the church occasionally but in a light and non-malicious way. Plots use the Catholic church backdrop – spats with bishops, stolen relics, murdered nuns, novices with backgrounds, confessional revelations, murderers who repent, etc. These TV plots were not written by GK Chesterton but by scriptwriters who were no doubt highly inspired and influenced by the plots and characters in his many stores. They have done a cracking job. What amazes me is how MANY they have produced. An hour every day for about two months!
Much of television drama these days is disguised public notice or propaganda! Is this trying to reinstall today the values of Christianity that were still strong in the 30s? Likely. Interestingly, there are occasional moot points of Catholicism that are brought to our attention, which I think is quite brave in this secular age. (some of them they have got wrong however, I note, out of date after encyclical II).
The series of Father Brown plays to the tune of nostalgic community, it appeals to the old who remember salad days of perfection, where all the summers were hot and and all the winters were white. Not surprisingly, as a product designed for today’s consumers, it is often soft on its historical accuracy, citing North Korea as a dreadful place and going on about women’s rights – hardly the case in the 30s. Often the prose and one-liners emit a tang of the Noughties rather than the 30s.
And don’t get the idea I am a sucker for nostalgia drama – I can’t stand 60s dramas like Heartbeat but this – dare I say it – is a masterpiece of entertainment and more…
Well done to all who contributed to this series. Another please.