When I heard that BBC 1 had a new adaptation of some of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, I was naturally curious as to what they were going to do with them. It is of course impossible for any tv company to make a straight adaptation of anything; there has to be a spin, an angle, some sense of novelty. To an extent, this is understandable. To suggest that TV adaptations should involve a simple book-to-screen transfer is to be naive and to fail to understand that one is dealing with two entirely different media. On the other hand, I also know that if given a free hand, the dramatist and production company can and will run riot. One only has to look at the more recent Miss Marple productions, featuring Julia McKenzie, to see what I mean: Miss Marple’s character is shoehorned into stories where, previously, she had never been, and frequently in a most unsatisfactorily bitty way. A number of the late Poirot adaptations similarly played extremely fast and loose with the original story, with no discernible artistic benefit. In one instance I could barely bring the original to mind, the adaptation was so distorted. File that one under ‘because we could’.
Yet it is also possible to adapt stories for other media in such a way as to make it clear that we’re stepping beyond the text without entirely butchering it in the process. The Radio 4 dramatisations of Sherlock Holmes were very satisfactory, contained as they were within an ongoing discussion of the business of adaptation itself. Radio 4’s recent dramatisations of Simenon’s Maigret stories are framed by discussions between Simenon and Maigret about the story, blurring the boundaries between author/narrator and character in such a way as to suggest that Maigret was in the bar with his friend, who goes home to write down the stories. Yes, it’s Holmes/Watson again but I like the anecdotal flavour and, given this is Maigret, it underlines the curious way that Maigret tends to go about his business.
The radio adaptations of Father Brown stories are often framed by a narrative in which Father Brown is presented as a great detective, a remarkable and newsworthy man whose fame precedes him, particularly when he is travelling abroad. This, though, is a label he always self-deprecatingly brushes aside. In the short stories, Father Brown often doesn’t appear until part way through the story, although the reader is quickly attuned to the idea that he is in the background somewhere, and the sense of his having any kind of fame is soft-pedalled. On radio it’s difficult to be invisible when you’re the titular character so the adaptations have tended to focus on Father Brown’s ongoing relationship with Flambeau, the criminal whom he thwarts in ‘The Blue Cross’, but with whom he establishes a friendship, based on their intellectual equality. Flambeau is, eventually, ‘saved’ and crosses the floor to become a detective rather than a criminal. Who knows the criminal mind better? Well, Father Brown, for one, as he explains in ‘The Secret of Father Brown’ how he solves crimes by committing them; that is, he works out how they would be done, placing himself in the mind of the criminal. For, as he notes, a priest is by no means unaware of evil in the world.
And this, of course, is one of the interesting things about Father Brown. We might think of him as a person who is always in the right place at the right time, the place where he is most needed. Indeed, there are moments when Chesterton seems to suggest that Father Brown is a corporeal representative of divine intervention, somehow sent to bear witness to crime and then reveal it. It is as if he can only exist where an act of evil is being carried out. We can, if we want, think of him as a man of the people, or even, if feeling a little Poeish, as a man of the crowd, absorbed by it, constantly on the move, occasionally emerging, blinking, to alter the balance of things. Father Brown is firmly established as both a metropolitan character and one who is remarkably peripatetic. Unlike other fictional detectives, he doesn’t seem to be tied to one locale, and is likely to pop up anywhere, in Britain or across the world, and most often in urban or small-town settings, although he seems to me to be drawn to modernity.
And so, to the BBC’s version of Father Brown. The priest is played by Mark Williams, probably best known for The Fast Show, though I gather he was in the Harry Potter films as well, and he is also currently playing Beach the butler, in Blandings, in the rather dubious BBC adaptations of Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth stories. While we are told by Chesterton that Father Brown is a short, stumpy priest, Williams is, to judge from his appearances in Blandings, a tall, broad man, and yet he manages to convey that sense of smallness, roundness and unobtrusiveness that is essential to being Father Brown. He is unremarkable and unremarked on, though constantly alive to what’s going on around him. He is eminently watchable and I find him highly plausible as Father Brown.
The BBC, however, has very bravely decided to reposition Father Brown in a version of England in which the Reformation either didn’t take place at all or in which it had rather less effect on British history than in our own timeline. How else to account for the fact that Father Brown presides over a surprisingly large Catholic congregation in a Cotswold village, holding services in a particularly fine 15th-century church, which acknowledges the effects of the Reformation in being devoid of wall paintings. There is even a mythic element to this as well as Father Brown is supported by a trinity of women: maiden (Susie), mother (Lady Felicia) and crone (Mrs McCarthy), and a Loki-ish trickster figure, in the shape of Sid, Lady Felicia’s chauffeur, aspiring spiv and loveable rogue. The forces of law and order are represented by Inspector Valentine, the long-suffering local inspector (in our timeline, Valentin is the French inspector who comes to England to hunt for Flambeau, in ‘The Blue Cross’, and exercises an intuitive approach to detection very similar to Father Brown’s own. However, in our timeline, Valentin surprisingly commits murder and then suicide in the following story, something I doubt Hugo Speer’s Valentine would ever consider).
‘Kembleford’ too is also possessed of that particular brand of flexible topography that exists only in tv series, in that it’s pretty much whatever the scriptwriters du jour want it to be, with a village green one day, an up-to-date hospital another day, and a police station that might comfortably serve several counties. We are a long way from the world of a priest who is ‘formerly of Cobhole in Essex, and now working in London’, as Chesterton describes his Father Brown. Indeed, one begins to suspect that Kembleford is in the next county over to Midsomer, given the number of murders per head of population.
The BBC’s is a post-WW2 Father Brown but whereas he is not geographically peripatetic, he seems to have been cut loose in time. We assume that in the BBC’s timeline, World War Two still ended in 1945, and the very latest the stories seem to take place is October 1953, the date on the fake-call up papers displayed by one character in the last episode, who claims he is about to serve in the Korean war. There is a Polish refugee camp in the village – Father Brown’s daily, Susie, is a Polish refugee who works for him and various other people around the village – and the locals feel strongly about the presence of a German priest who comes to the village at one point, but this seems to me to be something that might be regarded differently in 1953 than, say, in 1948. Yet this is a world in which rationing seems never to have happened. One story relies on a murdered character eating pear drops, at a time when they would have been unavailable (sweet rationing was not stopped until 1953). In another instance, there is a ‘guess the number of sweets in a jar’ competition, and in a third example, large boxes of sweets form part of a competition prize. Similarly, the ladies of the village seem to be indefatigable bakers yet there is no mention of it being difficult to do this because of sugar rationing. For that matter, one remains unclear how the local nunnery has managed to sustain a cottage wine-making industry in these straitened times, let alone how it is that Father Brown never seems to be short of meat. There are odd moments when our reality intrudes – the plate of salad and spam that Susie attempts to serve the Father is quickly swept aside by Mrs McCarthy who comes bearing a triumphal casserole with dumplings.
Other things are curious. In one story, a child is ostracised because of a skin condition; her father works at the local atomic research establishment and they fear she is contaminated with radiation. Again, this might place the stories in the early 1950s, but equally, one might argue that the fears expressed by the villagers are much more developed than they would be at this point in our own timeline, when the UK atomic research programme was little more than some huts at Harwell in Oxfordshire. Most inexplicable of all, at one point, an academic tells his daughter, in her early twenties, that when he was her age, he was reading Rousseau and Derrida. Given that in our timeline Derrida did not publish until 1967, something quite remarkable has clearly happened in this alternative universe and either Derrida was publishing in his pram or else was born about thirty years earlier than one would have expected.
And because this is an alternative timeline, the Father Brown stories themselves have undergone remarkable transformations. There are five wholly new stories, unknown in our timeline, while such familiar stories as ‘The Blue Cross’, ‘The Flying Stars’, ‘The Wrong Shape’, ‘The Eye of Apollo’ and ‘The Hammer of God’, have all undergone changes, some subtle, others less so, to the point where, in one or two instances, the only familiar thing remaining is the title itself. ‘The Eye of Apollo’ has undergone a most grievous transformation, its prophet Kaylon no longer party to an elegant murder plot involving the presence or absence of a lift and instead reduced to defenestrating his partner in a most humdrum sort of murder because she disapproves of him surrounding himself with nubile young women.
At the same time, the BBC has not lost sight of the fact of Father Brown’s vocation as a priest, and does its best to raise a series of ethical conundrums. In fact, the series does this rather well on occasion. Father Brown’s visit to St Bridget’s Home for Unmarried Mothers leaves him as stunned as it might do the viewer, with its unflinching portrayal of the cruelty to which unmarried mothers were subjected and the effects of having their babies taken from them. In another instance, the murdered man is, we learn, bisexual and promiscuous, but Father Brown pauses to talk to the victim’s male lover and offer him spiritual support. It is constantly stressed that Father Brown is a maverick, if not quite a renegade, and he has regard for all God’s creatures, Catholic or not. This issue-driven approach, I presume, stands in for the more intellectual theological discussions in the short stories as written in this timeline. It is perhaps reductive in some ways but I don’t think we are left in any doubt as to Father Brown’s faith, even if he represents it in unorthodox ways, and the series presents an intriguing if slightly wonky snapshot of post-war modernity, and the struggle to make something new.
On a more practical level, the writing of the series is uneven, as one might expect when the stories are parcelled out among a group of writers, but there is also a sense that the series ‘bible’ is less well developed than it might be. Sometimes Father Brown is a whimsical figure; at other times his darker nature emerges, but there is a distinct lack of consistency from story to story, as though the series editor was blinking rather too often. One of the best episodes is ‘The Bride of Christ’, not so much for the story itself as for the presence of Sister Boniface, devotee of the works of Agatha Christie and keenly aware of Father Brown’s reputation as a solver of crimes. The comic interplay between Lorna Watson and Williams was genuinely a pleasure to watch, as was the sly and knowing interrogation of the whole business of tv detection.
I, however, was waiting to see what they did with Flambeau, who had remained conspicuously absent. Flambeau is a master of disguise, so at the point in ‘The Blue Cross’ where the alternative Father Brown finds himself in a railway carriage with three other men one is obliged to play ‘spot the suspect’. Given Flambeau is French, obviously it has to be the most English of the Englishmen. However, while the Flambeau with whom readers are familiar is a thoughtful man who, for the most part, seeks to avoid violence and has a mysterious ‘past’, the alternative Flambeau (I can only describe him as Cumberbatch-lite) shifts between being the thoughtful intellectual and a gun-toting sociopath, with an emphasis on the latter. Which is not my Flambeau. On the other hand, clearly there is already a second series in development, and clearly he will play a part in it.
So, what are we left with? On the one hand, this is a series that seems to wander all over the shop, in a hand-wavingly post-war setting that has little grasp of the realities of post-war Britain, let alone a developed understanding of the history of Catholicism in England, hence my less-than-entirely-serious suggestion that this should be regarded as alternative history. It’s a series that brings together a lot of very conventional tropes of detective fiction and Catholic priests and gives us Father Ted in St Mary Mead. There is probably very little about it that Chesterton would recognise as deriving from his creation, yet ironically, I think the one thing he might actually recognise is Father Brown. He might be sequestered in the depths of the country but Father Brown remains in touch with reality in a way the other characters simply don’t.
Michael Newton's enjoyable piece on Father Brown in The Guardian Review