Father Brown mysteries on BBC

G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, about a mild-mannered priest who solves crimes because he understands man’s sinful nature, is being televised on BBC.  It’s been so popular that it has been renewed for a second season.  Unfortunately, the series isn’t being shown here, not even on BBC America, and it isn’t available on Netflix.  Someday, we can hope, since BBC typically does a terrific job with material like that.  (Have you seen the BBC adaption of the Kurt Wallander mysteries by Henning Mankell, starring Kenneth Branagh?)  If anyone has seen the Father Brown stories, let us know how they are.  I know we have readers from across the pond.  (Details about the series after the jump.)

From Mathew Block:

The BBC recently produced a new television series of Father Brown stories starring Mark Williams (“Arthur Weasley” of Harry Potter fame) in the title role. The series was initially designed as a ten-episode arc, with one episode airing every day (weekends excluded) from January 17 to January 25. It began with “The Hammer of God” and ended with “The Blue Cross.”

Of course, there are some difficulties in transitioning Chesterton’s famous priest-detective from the page to the small screen. As Michael Newton noted a day after the series began, Chesterton’s protagonist is so humble a character, so unconcerned about his own self, that it’s hard to make a show that focuses directly on him:

Father Brown is comically unobtrusive. Indeed it seems that Chesterton was at first occupied with making a joke in which he wrote detective stories where the aim was to puzzle out who the real detective is. Often Brown makes his first appearance as an aside or as one item in a list, edging sideways into the story. His most conspicuous feature is his inconspicuousness. Neither film nor TV is a medium built for the celebration of humility.

So we are to understand that the new series has had to make certain changes in order to “work” for television. Father Brown makes a more direct transition to the centre of the stories. Moreover, the tales are reconfigured to take place in one small English village in the 1950′s. As a result, the great French detective Valentine (Chesterton’s initial foil) becomes an English detective, rather than a world-renowned investigator. But then, such changes are to be expected: all translation is by necessity interpretation and re-creation.

We know that the show was well-received in England; more than 2 million people tuned in for each episode, and so the show has been commissioned for a second series. But has the new translation to television done justice to Chesterton’s original? Well, that’s something we in the United States and Canada will just have to wait to discuss until the show makes an appearance in North America.

The question as to what religious impact the show might have on the English audience also remains to be seen. After all, the stories of Father Brown are about a Catholic priest. More than that, they are about a respectable, intelligent Catholic priest. In a country where only 59.3 percent of the population still self-identifies as Christian (2011 statistics, down from 71.8 percent in 2001, and increasing numbers are declaring themselves atheists, the presence of a strong Christian character on popular television is certainly significant.

After all, as starring actor (and self-described “pantheistic humanist”) Mark Williams himself explains, Father Brown is not simply another television detective:

[Father Brown] has a huge appetite for the detail of life and for humanity, and he cares very much about people’s souls. That’s the most interesting thing about him as a sleuth: it’s not him solving a conundrum or a crossword, he’s dealing with what he sees as people’s eternal damnation. And when he works it out, the sky turns black and is full of harpies; he’s desperately committed to his morality.

I have to say, I’m looking forward to seeing BBC’s new small-screen take on redemptive mystery.

via Chesterton on the Small Screen » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    A 13-episode U.K. production (1974) was shown on PBS Mystery!, and is available on DVD.

  • Cincinnatus

    BBC productions are either amazing (cf. the most recent adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales, Sherlock) or insufferably boring, apparently written for stereotypical white English senior citizens (cf. Doc Martin).

  • Hanni

    Tom Hering, I ha no idea! I am pretty good at hunting these great British TV shows down, but totally missed the 1974 series, didnt even know PBS Mystery was running then. Thanks and to GV

  • Cincinnatus

    My point being, given the subject matter (Chesterton’s stories are a little bit “cute”), that this could go either way.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    One of my Facebook acquaintances (I forget who) has seen it and did not like it at all. Said it was not only updated in date, but in opinions. Father Brown is now a modernist Anglican.

  • Tom Hering

    Hanni @ 3, I think it was first shown on Mystery! in the 1980s. As for British productions about Catholic detectives, I’m liking Cadfael, which I’ve just recently started watching on DVD. When I’m not watching Doc Martin, of course :-D .

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I’m really looking forward to this – when it eventually comes here. Maybe on PBS / Knowledge (BC’s version of PBS). Doc Martin was ok – I liked Cadfael, and am a devoted fan of Sherlock!, Inspector Morse, Lewis, Miss Marple, Poirot… you get the drift.

  • Tom Hering

    George Gently.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Tom @ 8 – I have only seen bits of it, but it I did like what I saw. Oh, and lets not forget New Tricks.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    It would seem that we are discussing British Crime drama. Because there is this other British/Welsh show, that has a new season starting up in 17 days, that I could mention… :) :)

  • Tom Hering

    Who is it about? And will the stories ever make any sense?

  • Steve Billingsley

    Foyle’s War was quite good as well.

  • SKPeterson

    Tom – The Brother Cadfael mysteries are fantastic. I enjoyed them very much and read the novels as a result. They are also quite good and very quick reads. I wish BBC would pick up where HBO failed and do a credible version of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

  • helen

    Where can I get Cadfael on DVD, please?
    (I’ve got all of the volumes in paperback)

  • David M

    My wife and I have really enjoyed Pie in the Sky. It’s another British crime/comedy (a cromedy?) about a detective who is semi-retired and tries to run his own restaurant while the police force keeps calling him back to solve politically sensitive cases. How is Wallander? We’ve seen previews, but it looks a bit dark. Anybody’s thoughts?

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    All Scandinavian mysteries are dark and depressing. I don’t know of any exceptions to this. And I speak as an ethnic Scandinavian.

  • http://grailquestbooks.com/ Josh Radke

    Here is an overview from a very good British friend of mine whom I often go to when I need an opinion on British TV:

    “Mark Williams is certainly no Kenneth More. Mark Williams is best known here for light roles and I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen him in a “serious” part, whereas Kenneth More had perhaps a wider general acting range. If I were forced to choose, I would say that if you want a “traditional” Fr. Brown, you’d be better watching More. If you want 50 minutes of feelgood detective drama with a moral dimension, then check out the new version.

    In the new version, Fr. Brown’s housekeeper, (played wonderfully by Sorcha Cusack of the great Irish acting dynasty), often shows a “holier-than-thou” judgemental attitude to people and situations and Fr. Brown usually has to gently remind her that only God can judge and that He will always be the first to forgive someone who truly repents.

    [So it's] Father Brown – but NOT as perhaps you know him. The comedy side is well served whilst although the setting is in a predominantly Catholic village, (itself a fairly unlikely occurrence in this country), the religious element is perhaps underplayed. It should be remembered that this show actually aired as afternoon drama here in England rather than prime-time. As a result, it perhaps appeals to a different audience than many other detective shows.

    Having said that, the updating to the 1950′s certainly works. Also, the inclusion of post WWII Polish refugees into most episodes is a reminder that the current influx of Poles as economic migrants that we have here is not the first time we have had immigrants from Eastern Europe. Above all, remember that this is entertainment and not evangelising.

    Overall, I enjoyed it.”


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