Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Father Brown - Style and Sunny Skies, But No Substance

[Note: this concerns series 1 - I'm halfway through series 3 at the moment, and my impressions are somewhat different.

I’ve long been excited about the new Father Brown adaptation. I read several volumes of short stories featuring G.K. Chesterton’s clerical sleuth last summer, and enjoyed them immensely. In typical fashion, Chesterton used them to tote his own views, but included a fascinating howdunnit mystery, often hinging on paradox. The quirky, child-like character of Father Brown, the humorous philosophical discussions, the hilarious Chestertonian one-liners, and the gorgeous, glorious descriptions easily set the stories among the classic mysteries.

The old series with Kenneth More was quite good, but suffered from being made in the 1970s. The writing, mostly lifted directly from Chesterton, was witty and well-delivered, and elevated it beyond most shows of its time.

n Mark Williams as Father Brown, with Nancy Carroll as Lady Felicia, Sorcha Cusack as Mrs McCarthy, Hugo Speer as Inspector Valentine, Kasia Koleczek as Susie and Alex Price as Sid
Lady Felicia, Mrs. McCarthy, Brown, Valentine, Suzie, Sid
Unfortunately, the new adaptation bears little relation to its source material. It starts off sticking to the original plot, but things quickly spin into embellishment. Father Brown (Mark Williams) has lost his air of whimsical befuddlement and dithering curiosity, and appears altogether too keen-minded (which, in the books, he only became during the final unveiling). He’s been turned into a much more wise, sagely, liberal Cadfael-esque figure. 

Another thing: Father Brown’s figure was always described as rather roly-poly. Williams is too tall to pull that off, but he does occasionally get in the childishness. Yet it's only very occasionally. Some joys are granted by the supporting cast: Sorcha Cusack is hilarious as the neighborhood busybody, and Hugo Speer makes a convincing and relatable Inspector Valentine, considering its never easy playing the Lestrade/Japp figure. Nancy Carroll's Lady Felicia is there for seemingly no reason. Kasia Koleczek as Susie, Father Brown’s Polish housekeeper, serves to advance the plot at times, but her boyfriend Sid (Alex Price) is truly interesting, being a some-time petty thief.

The show can’t quite decide what it wants to be. At times, it’s whimsical to the point of silliness, but at others serious on the level of a police procedural. It’s a disjointed effort to fuse the lightheartedness of 1990s Poirot episodes with the darker tone of modern shows such as Lewis. At times, this does work. In The Bride of Christ, Father Brown chases a killer accompanied by an eccentric, bright nun with a penchant for Christie and Sayers novels. But in The Devil’s Dust, the disappearance of a teenage girl lends a grisly cast to the tale. In general, however, it sticks to the light-hearted investigations, to which it lends itself well.
George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc, and G.K. Chesterton

As a mystery series, it is passable, but when compared to the original, one scratches the head. Gone are the theological discussions, the vivid evocative scenery, the brilliant paradoxical crimes. While, as I said, it’s not bad as a mystery, the real mystery is why one would want to change from the originals. In fact, five of the ten are entirely new stories. Making them longer is necessary, of course, and I can understand some changes being made, but watering it down to such an extent is ridiculous. Chesterton’s stories were masterpieces of the genre, why change them? Lacking are the gorgeous dialogue and occasional soliloquies:

Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, “Thou shalt not steal."

There is the occasional line directly from GKC:

"A socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it."

"But who won't allow you," put in the priest in a low voice, "to own your own soot."

Yet, in general, if there is a quote, the point is missed:

Mrs McCarthy: "He's a thief. And a thief is just a man with no respect for property."

Brown: "On the contrary, Mr. M. Thieves respect property, they merely wish it to be their own."

Missing the witty addendum: "--that they may more perfectly respect it."

Alec Guinness as Father Brown in 1954
Also, the show obviously has no interest in the Christian or Catholic side of Father Brown. In the show, Williams’s Brown says that it is dangerous to take the Bible too “literally.” At one point, in order to speak to a criminal, he forgives a constable “an egregious infidelity.” No true priest would take his job that lightly. There are many other slip-ups. To give an example - at one point, Father Brown tells a criminal “God is not your scapegoat!” which, though true in that case, is a very unfortunate choice of words, considering the original origin of the word scapegoat. (Hebrew: Azazel, used to describe the propitiatory sacrifice of a goat to cover sin - often considered to be a prophetic picture of Christ’s death.) There are many others, often involving details in Catholic ceremony.

The entire Brown-Flambeau interaction is a travesty - missing all of Father Brown's best points. Flambeau has become an angry man with a grudge against the church, since his father was executed as a deserter by the British army. What? Kalon the sun worshipper is not given any plausible arguments from Father Brown, just a snarled retort: "There are no astral spirits!" Very much lacking in reason. Speaking of which...

I think my most Righteous-Indignation-worthy moment was when they changed Father Brown's statement to Flambeau (and also a description of his method) from...

"He attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."

"You sponsored reason to attack theology. Something no true cleric would ever do. Even an Anglican."

The point was reversed. It's insulting to Chesterton, and tremendously arrogant of the writers to think they could re-invent a beloved literary character. I wonder what would've happened if they tried that with a Dickens invention. Despite Peter Jackson's faults, he was devoted to portraying Tolkien's ideology correctly, even if he did not agree with it (emphasis on "was"). David Suchet treats Agatha Christie's creation, Hercule Poirot, with almost religious reverence, down to the size of eggs that Poirot prefers and the number of teaspoons of sugar in his tea. Ironically, if you want a more theologically friendly picture, go to the secularly-written Foyle’s War. 

It is best to resort to Father Brown’s original words: “My brain and this world don't fit each other; and there's an end of it.” We can’t really expect any better from secular British writers, but the wild joy and illogical grace of the originals is missing. That said, I’ve enjoyed their nostalgic setting and plots. The supporting cast are fun, and though Mark Williams is not my ideal Father Brown, he’s grown on me. Overall, entertaining escapist fare, but lacking in substance.



  1. Aw, that's too bad that it's deviated from its original tone. I hate it when they do that with modern adaptions!

    1. But not surprising. Again, I can't recommend Foyle's War too highly. Anthony Horowitz (of Alex Rider fame) created it, and despite the fact that (I think) he's not a Christian, it often aligns itself with Christian morality.

  2. I have to admit I found these programmes sadly unsatisfying, but on the bright side they have prompted me to search out the original stories. I had read no Chesterton since my youth, the last being the brilliantly funny "The Man Who Was Thursday". In this series we get good literature reduced to depressingly predictable, export-friendly British TV fare - all tea and scones and chocolate box villages. It is a long way from the quirky and opinionated originals, with (typical BBC) bizarrely transplanted 21st Century metropolitan attitudes, prejudices and morality made all the more incongruous by the priest into whose mouth much of this is put. Chesterton's Father Brown ranged the world; the BBC's is trapped in a claustrophobic reinvention of ITV's Midsomer. There is not much authentic about the programme as a presentation of what Chesterton intended; it does even begin to represent either the world of the 1930's in which the original was set, nor indeed the 1950's to which it has been updated. At any date since the 16th century, to find a Catholic church in a Cotswold village would be a major surprise, but even if you did find one it certainly wouldn't look like this beauty which has Anglican written all over it. Paradoxically, I have to disagree to some extent that a priest would not say the Bible must not be taken too literally; biblical criticism had already taken root at least among priests who kept up with current thinking by the 50's (I can't say about the 1930's), and Father Brown strikes me as one of those. However I do agree that overall the programme's makers seem to have removed surgically any Christian elements beyond those which are unavoidable. The unbelievable shoddiness of the research has Father Brown conducting a funeral service in the kind of Oxbridge pronunciation of Latin which would have had any priest either stopping up his ears or rolling around with laughter.
    Mark Williams comes across as usual as an extremely likeable man, but I don't find his deliberate delivery of every syllable to my taste, and he is physically some distance away from the character Chesterton describes. But he does sometimes capture the playfulness of the character very well.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I have somewhat softened in my opinion of the series since I wrote this a year ago. They're definitely very similar to Midsomer (a series I try to avoid), though with the occasional more interesting religious element thrown in. There's really no comparison to the politically incorrect, flamboyantly funny originals.

      Perhaps my reaction to the Biblical inerrancy comment reflects my own American Protestantism - I was probably thinking it didn't sound like something Chesterton would've said. Even if he did question the Bible, he would've done it more cleverly (probably with some nifty paradoxes....) These writers obviously have an idea of what their ideal Christian should look like, and I can't see them doing anything with the character that would offend their modern sensibilities, but you never know.

      I do quite enjoy Mark Williams - he's playful, but he's not quite foolish. Alec Guinness was much better on that score, capturing the childlike-ness (not childishness, as the stylish man-child Sherlock) of the character.

  3. Thanks for this excellent review. I too enjoy the series but as you say it is a pale Cypher for the original. The series has sent me to the originals. They are excellent. I love the short stories but I can see why they have been liberal as I doubt they would translate to modern television well. The very generous changes they have made ensures the viability of the series. I like the more thoughtful adaptation of some of the originals in series three. I love the novels and I love the show but I see them as virtually different like when one takes premium tea and just swishes it briefly through the water. Its a taste an echo but an enjoyable one. Cheers.

    1. I really enjoyed season three as well. I gather that they gained a spiritual adviser between seasons two and three, and you can really tell the difference.

      If you're interested in Chesterton, I highly recommend his other books. My favorites are Orthodoxy, The Man Who Was Thursday, Manalive, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

  4. Thank you for this. And it's not 'longish'.
    I've been watching the more recent series, don't know which one, and Father Brown has become terrible. He actually condones lesbianism. And no word of reproach for an abortionist.
    The series has sunk to degeneracy and needs to be wrapped up for good.


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