Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Father Brown: TV review

Father Brown is a brand new BBC TV drama featuring G.K. Chesterton's legendary priest-detective. Oddly enough (at least, I thought it was odd to begin with) it is being shown in the afternoons, 10 episodes of 50 minutes shown on week-days for a fortnight, so most crime fans will be watching it via recordings or iPlayer, as I did with the first episode, The Hammer of God, based on one of the most celebrated stories in the canon.

This isn't the first time that TV has had a go at Father Brown. Kenneth More starred in 13 episodes in the 70s, but I was a student then and didn't watch them. Nor have I ever caught up with the DVDs, so if any reader of this blog has any views on whether that series is still watchable, I'd be glad to know.

What of the new series? Mark Williams plays Father Brown, and the regular cast includes Sorcha Cusack. The stories have been shifted into the 1950s, long after the originals were written, that is, and the setting is the Cotswolds, which is suitably photogenic. The Hammer of God is a long, long way from the graphic violence of Ripper Street, although it begins with a rather more explicit focus on the blacksmith's wife's adultery than you find in the original story, and the motive for the crime is not at all Chestertonian.

Purists may wince, but the question is, if you want to adapt these stories for the modern audience, how do you go about it? You have to look at what the writers were trying to do, and they have given an interesting insight into their approach. I felt that on the whole the writers did a good job. Okay, there was a bit of clunkiness in some of the scenes, and I'm surprised there wasn't more focus on paradox, which is at the heart of Chesterton's writing. But it was easy watching after a long working day, and it's just possible that Father Brown might become a guilty pleasure for a decent number of  viewers -including me. In any case, it's really welcome that a writer of genuine distinction is being brought back into the limelight, even if he would be startled by some of what is being done with his work.  

27 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I couldn't agree more. I'm delighted that the Father Brown stories are getting some well-deserved attention and I hope that will mean more people read the stories themselves.

Christos G. Makrypoulias said...

Martin - You may form your own opinion on the Kenneth More version of Father Brown: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXD03cpF8ZE is Part One of one of the episodes and there are also references to the rest of them. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, this adaptation is a shockingly unfaithful and shoddy production. Why can't TV producers simply commission a TV dramatization that stays true to both the plot and the world view of the original text? When this has been (a la the 1980s Granada adaptation of Brideshead Revisited), the results tend to be far superior to the sort of hackneyed, clich├ęd, and frankly boring sort of programme that most modern screenplay writers can compose from their own heads. The BBC has ruined a brilliant piece of literature once again. If there are any loving readers of the original stories reading this, one piece of advice: don't bother watching!

Martin Edwards said...

Me too, Margot! GKC was a remarkable man as well as a fine writer.

Martin Edwards said...

Christos, thanks as always.

Sextonblake said...

Overall it was a good effort, although it's probably truer to say that it was 'inspired by' rather than being 'based on'. It was slightly awkward at times, although this was understandable given that it was a sort of pilot episode. Mark Williams was an excellent Father Brown, and I look forward to seeing him do more episodes.

Patrick said...

Although I found the episode harmless enough, I honestly don't think readers will be driven to the stories by this adaptation. It's a very watered-down retelling, which might expand on the idea of marital infidelity as though this were shocking stuff to viewers. (Someone at the BBC needs to be told we're no longer living in the 1950s. I'm not sure if they noticed.) Chesterton's story is a brilliant work where he simultaneously attacks an interesting theological question, and the discussion with the killer is basically reduced to a snarl from Father Brown that "God is not your scapegoat!" I was sad to see that happen, and the motive for the crime did leave me rather disgusted that the BBC is now taking pages from the 'Marple' playbook.

Jeff Flugel said...

Nice post, Martin!

I found the new FATHER BROWN's first "The Hammer of God" pleasant enough viewing, more serious in approach than I had first expected it to be. Rather odd that it's being stripped in the afternoons in the U.K. I'll keep watching.

With its cozy English village backdrop, it rather reminded me of MISS MARPLE, though not nearly in the same league as the Joan Hickson version. Nor does it come close to the Kenneth More version, which is a wonderful series that generally hewed closer to Chesterson's original stories. I highly recommend you check the original out when you get the chance.

Joe McConnell said...

I agree with the comments about 'watering down' etc. This could have been better. But it doesn't poison the essence of the original. This was enjoyable albeit dumbed down. But it was joy when compared to the horrible interpretation by the BBC of Wodehouse's Blandings, which completely eviscerates the wit of the original narrative leaving us with naught but empty prat falls.

Anonymous said...

Not outstanding, but better than some evening programmes!

Martin Edwards said...

I'm very grateful for these comments, which give a good flavour to anyone who hasn't seen the show about the positives and negatives.
Joe's view is pretty much identical to my own, not least about Blandings on the basis of the 20 minutes I caught.
I'm also glad for the recommendation to watch the More version.

Clothes In Books said...

I thought Mark Williams as Fr Brown was excellent - initially I thought he didn't look right, but he completely won me over, a really excellent characterisation. Mixed feelings about everything else - but very much enjoying them!

Anonymous said...

they have completely missed the point of GKC
Mark Williams is wrong for the part of Father Brown, but I can live with that.
I can almost put up with all the groupies, I can live with a live, english Valentine, rather than a dead french one, but what I can't stand is the way they have completely thrown out the original story and instead have they transparent plots, with no mystery or subtlety
2/10

Martin Edwards said...

Two contrasting views on Mark Williams there. Clothes in Books, I am with you. I think he does it well. I do accept, Anon, that there are issues with the adaptation, but the challenge of adapting those stories in a way that would suit everyone and attract audiences is not to be under-estimated.

Anonymous said...

I found it to be pretty dull, sometimes verging on the awful. But I'm somewhat bias being a big fan of the books.

Anonymous said...

they have completely missed the point of GKC
Mark Williams is wrong for the part of Father Brown, but I can live with that.
I can almost put up with all the groupies, I can live with a live, english Valentine, rather than a dead french one, but what I can't stand is the way they have completely thrown out the original story and instead have they transparent plots, with no mystery or subtlety
2/10

Michael Foy said...

Martin
I don't really mind Mark Williams as FB, it's true to say, he is nothing like FB in appearance not nature (the later the fault of the writers)
it is really the writers that are to blame for this travesty!
but let's face it what can toy expect from them
Tahsin Guner states (and I quote)
'First, as is apt, a confession: before working on Father Brown, I’d never read a single word of GK Chesterton. Or written a murder-mystery. Or a period piece. Or developed a new TV series. I’d written numerous episodes of Holby City, as well as Casualty, Eastenders, and Doctors, but this was new territory.'
maybe she should have stuck to writing this type of work, clearly she is unsuited for GKC stories and the sheer arrogance of thinking they could 'improve' on his work.
As for attracting audiences, if you dumb the shows down far enough, you get the audiences, my proof being reality programs, but I would much rather have some quality drama

Martin Edwards said...

Michael, you've expressed the case against the show very well, I think. As you'll have gathered, I'm more sympathetic, and I also feel (though some disagree) that it is bound to lead to more people taking a look at the original stories. As I say, if I'd written it, I'd have tried to focus more on some of the paradoxical elements that so motivated GKC in his writing. You could have quite a bit of fun with them and still have a very watchable programme.

Rod said...

Whilst the programmes are mildly diverting and the update to the 1950's works okay, what I cannot understand is the change in location.
During the first episode a normal country Church of England church appeared to be transformed into a Roman Catholic one after the vicar is hauled off.
There are NO RC parish churches in the countryside in England - which is why the original stories were set in London where a sizeable RC parish is at least a possibility.
This demonstrates that everyone involved has no understanding of the English countryside and religion!

Michael Foy said...

absolutely martin

David Walters said...

i LOVED THE BOOKS IN ABOUT 1972/72 WHEN i WAS 12/13. I was so pleased then to hear there was a series coming on TV, and I loved comparaing them to the stories. I have to say the image I had in my head of FB was not at all Kenneth More in appearance; rather a stocky bald man, more like Arthur Lowe. With that in mind I think Mark Williams is much better ; he has a great face-shape and wonderful mannerisms as exhibited all through The Fast Show. I am enjoying these new ones a lot. I didnt expect them to be like the books, nor do I care!

Geranium Cat said...

I have only watched one and was rather mystified by it - your comments and the link to the writers' cleared up some of that, but I still find the idea of Fr Brown with a country parish very strange. I do wish the BBC wouldn't keep updating things to the 50s on order to save money, but Mark Williams did at least look the part for me. I guess if it encourages anyone to read GKC then it might be a good thing overall, but I'd only watch more if I found myself away from home with nothing better to watch or read.

wyseman said...

a fan of the books which were intelligent and also challenging. Don't mind the 1950s, don't mind the Cotswolds (though agree about the issue of RC chapels in the countryside) - my main issue is with the formulaic approach. One bad guy with about 3 or 4 people who would like to see him/her dead. Police get wrong person and FB saves the day. The only one which I felt had some resonance with GKC's approach was the one about the two nuns who died.

Chris Robinson said...

I caught the fourth episode by accident and watched it as I recalled seeing a short item on local TV showing the series being made. Being a Mark Williams fan since The Fast Show I decided to watch it and was hooked. I have now watched all the remaining episodes and caught up with the first three on i-player. I enjoyed the show,like the fifties setting and locations but don't understand why it is being shown in the daytime when it could replace some of the awful reality shows shown in the evenings. Now, confession time. I have never read the books and vaguely recall the Kenneth More series but don't remember watching it. Having said that however, I now intend to track both down and purchase them even taking into account the differences noted by the other commentators here. So you can say that the series has created a new Father Brown fan.

dave gough said...

Dave Gough asked I can no longer find these to watch on iplayer anyone know why. And I thought they were quite enjoyable to watch passing the time away on my iPad

Anonymous said...

This series is now being shown in Australia on Saturday evenings. I have been watching but in dismay! I have the Kenneth More series so can make comparisons. The new stories are odd and the two women seem to be also at odds!
I have been regarding it as a show with a priest rather than a Chesterton adaptation! Perhaps it should have taken place in Ireland to overcome the "rural priest" problem. I wasn't aware of this mistake although I spotted others.
BTW, I watched the Blandings series and that was awful too! I was so looking forward to it...

Studio 139 said...

The series bears only a modest similarity to the original stories and while the cast and writing are capable enough, the series seems hackneyed over all.
The premise that the producers need to adapt a classic to a modern audience explains why the series went so wrong. Classics, by nature have the ability to speak across generations, despite it's period of origin. The effect of the updating the stories to let new audiences relate to them more readily is basically means you diminish the work, assuming the author was unable to convey what he intended in the original work. In short, the series is not worth investment of time.