Inspiration, as every
amateur detective knows, can strike at unlikely times and in
unlikely places. In the case of Father Brown - a ten-part
TV drama based on the classic stories by G. K. Chesterton - it
struck at 11.30 on a May morning, on Radio 4.
Deep in the inner
recesses of the BBC, producers had been trying to come up with a
new crime show that could run in the daytime schedules. Various
options had been proposed. Nothing quite hit the mark.
Then, in May 2011, one of
them happened to switch on a radio documentary about Chesterton's
most famous literary creation, and a figurative lightbulb popped
"The little Essex priest"
with "a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling" had just the
right credentials for a pleasing murder-mystery serial in the Miss
Marple mould. He was unassuming, and yet something of a maverick.
He was quirky, but brilliant. His setting was a hazy but comforting
He had also enjoyed a
long and relatively fruitful relationship with celluloid: a 1954
film, starring Alec Guinness, and a 1974 TV series, with Kenneth
More. More to the point, he was out of copyright.
"We had done a lot of
research into what kinds of crime shows worked on daytime
television," explains the executive producer, Will Trotter, whose
CV includes the weekday medical drama Doctors and the
Afternoon Play strand. "I had previously done Land
Girls, which was a period show, and that had worked well.
"So the sense was: not
contemporary. And it just so happened that Ann Widdecombe had been
doing that documentary, mentioning that some of her favourite books
were these stories by Chesterton."
The Controller of LBBC
Daytime, Liam Keelan, thought that the idea was good. "So then it
was about how we could make that work - how we could reinvent
Father Brown first saw
print in September 1910, in a short story called The Blue
Cross. He had been marinating in the writer's mind for some
time before publication.
In late 1903, Chesterton
had taken a walk across the Yorkshire moors with a Roman Catholic
curate, John O'Connor: "a small man with a smooth face and a demure
but elfish expression". In the course of their ramble, Chesterton
revealed that he was working on a crime story concerning "some
rather sordid social questions of vice and crime".
The curate's response
surprised him. "To prevent me from falling into the mare's nest,
[O'Connor] told me certain facts he knew about perverted practices
which I certainly shall not set down or discuss here," Chesterton
later recalled in his autobiography.
The episode was shocking
on two levels. First, because the apparently worldly-wise writer
had been jolted out of his naïvety about the moral capabilities of
men. "I had not imagined that the world could hold such horrors,"
he wrote. Second, because the jolting had come from, of all people,
an unworldly priest: "It was a curious experience to find that this
quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses far deeper
It struck Chesterton that
most laypeople made precisely the same mistake about clerical
credulity, and the idea for Father Brown was born. "I permitted
myself the grave liberty of taking my friend and knocking him about
. . . punching his intelligent countenance into a condition of
pudding-faced fatuity, and generally disguising Father O'Connor as
Father Brown," he wrote.
UNTIL Father Brown came
along, the market for amateur sleuths had been dominated by Arthur
Conan Doyle. But, while no criminal could be unaware of Sherlock
Holmes's manifest genius, Chesterton's particular genius was in
making Brown the sort of innocuous brainbox whom everybody failed
to notice or, if they did, suspected of being a nonentity.
In The Blue
Cross, Chesterton constantly invites the reader to giggle at
Brown's outward aspect. The narrator describes him as having "a
mooncalf simplicity" and "eyes as empty as the North Sea". The
principal villain, the fabled criminal Flambeau, calls him a
"bumpkin" and a "celibate simpleton."
When the tables turn and
Father Brown is shown to have been in complete control of the story
(and Flambeau) from start to finish, the revelation hits the reader
like a thunderclap. "Has it never struck you", Father Brown asks
Flambeau, "that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real
sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?"
The character proved to
be a huge hit, and Chesterton continued to write about him up to
his death in 1936.
THE charm of the stories
is found, in part, in the deft balancing of high seriousness with
Father Brown's comic turns. This is something that the producers
have attempted to capture with the casting of Mark Williams, an
actor and comedian, who has The Fast Show and Mr Weasley
from Harry Potter among his credits.
"Mark is a really good
actor in terms of the range that he can do," Trotter explains. "He
can do comedy, and he can do really intelligent character
"What you don't want is a
two-dimensional comedy priest; that would be really uninteresting.
But, at the same time, you need someone who can be a bit
irreverent, because Brown is a maverick in the way that he deals
with the world."
Williams agrees. He was
even responsible for restoring one specific example of Brown's
maverick qualities into the adaptation of the Blue Cross mystery.
"In the original story, there's a moment where Father Brown throws
some soup up a wall as he leaves a restaurant." It was a nice
detail; so they added it in.
"Those are the kinds of
moments that I like," Williams explains, "where he does something
very shocking in terms of social behaviour. We tried to get a few
of those in there."
Something else that he
was keen to retain from the books, he says, was the spiritual
animus that imbues Brown's detective work. "I didn't want to make
any apologies for the fact that he's a deeply committed Christian
who solves murders," he explains. "As far as I'm concerned, Father
Brown is Father Brown. His vocation is intense, and I wanted to
This is well observed.
Father Brown's vocational intensity is the thing that distinguishes
him from most other fictional detectives. Sherlock Holmes may be
said to be driven by the thrill of the game,
Miss Marple by the riddle
of human nature, and Hercule Poirot by the notion of justice.
Father Brown's motivation, by contrast, is eternity.
"With him it's not just a
question of solving a little puzzle," Williams says. "The fact that
somebody has committed a crime also means that their soul is in
peril. So when he knows who the criminal is, this guy is riven by
it. There's 'blood in the sky'. The world becomes a terrible place
because he can see that.
"So there's a hugely
religious element to what he does. He does it to save souls. It's
not like Miss Marple, and that: 'Oh well, that's all right then;
let's have a cup of tea.' He will make somebody confess to
something, knowing that they are going to go to the gallows."
Williams is coy about his
own beliefs. "I wouldn't describe myself," he says simply. "I think
it's counterproductive and will be used, and I'm not going to
He is slightly cagey, too,
about the research he did for the role. But his reading appears to
have been extensive ("Everything I could get hold of on the
Catholic Church, pre- and post-Vatican II") and seems to have taken
in Cardinal Bernardin's "seamless garment" theory of a consistent
life-ethic. His aim, he says, was to get under the bonnet of
Brown's belief system. "He's obviously a very intelligent man, and
I wanted to know what his manuals and documents were."
Williams also spent some
time with the show's script consultant, Fr Gwilym Lloyd, a parish
priest in the archdiocese of Birmingham. Fr Lloyd offered the actor
a few tips on authentic clerical practice. "He lent me his little
folding pocket stole," says Williams. "It's a kind of spiritual
emergency kit, which I thought was wonderful. I also wanted to ask
him about how you deal with the dead, what obeisance you would make
for a dead body that had just been stabbed, for instance - that
kind of detail."
IF Williams's portrayal
cleaves closely to Chesterton, many of the show's larger set-pieces
are quite different. Brown's locale, for example, has been
relocated to a village in the Cotswolds. Trotter is candid about
the commercial reasons for doing so. "The environment that
Chesterton set him in was London, but the stories jumped around all
over the place. To make that work on the amount of money that a
daytime budget allows meant that one had to find a precinct, if you
like, where the stories could be told.
"The other thing is that
BBC Worldwide [the Corporation's commercial subsidiary] co-funded
this series. They're looking for a global sales market. What they
want is to show off England across the world, and the Cotswolds is
a perfect area for that. First, it's timeless: you can almost shoot
through 360 degrees once you've moved the cars out of the way. And,
second, it has these amazing houses - quite moneyed and full of
antiques and looking lovely - that we can tell the mysteries
An even bigger tweak
involves the time-zone, swapping the Edwardian and inter-war period
for the 1950s. The reasoning here was to move the series "away from
that Art Deco/Poirot world", Trotter says, while allowing the
writers to append modern themes. "Things like nuclear threats and
thalidomide," he suggests as examples.
Will Chesterton fans baulk
at these changes? Possibly, Trotter, says. But he thinks that the
author would approve. "I assume that, if Chesterton were writing in
the 1950s, he would put [those kinds of storylines] in. He was not
unaware of social issues."
Besides, he says, TV
constantly reworks the classics. "Are the Conan Doyle purists happy
with the new Sherlock?" he asks, referring to the BBC's modernised
Sherlock, which has won nearly universal praise from Canon
The trick is to capture
the spirit of the source text, Trotter says, and, in that sense,
Father Brown is a faithful rendering, he reckons. "In its
essence, we're still saying the same thing: it's a Catholic priest
who seeks redemption in people.
"I mean, the purists will
say: 'It's not set in the right time, he should be more passive,
more thinking. . .' I don't know: they could come up with all sorts
of things. But, ultimately, it gets Chesterton's character on the
screen. And that's the most important thing."
Father Brown starts on BBC1 on 14 January at 2.10