Father Brown, the BBC series starring Mark Williams has been airing on select American Public Television stations. The show is as cozy as it can be—from the top of the parish church steeple to the bottom of the garden—and it’s a perfect diversion for everyone who’s been missing Miss Marple, but I’m not sure you’d recognize this TV Father Brown as G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.
The new TV Father Brown is doughy and disarming in his apparent naïveté, just like the character in the short stories. But he’s also a modern thinker; surprisingly tolerant and broad-minded. (Imagine the original Father Brown pressing his hands together in a Namaste greeting! )
The series is set in the 1950s not the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s when Chesterton was writing. And Father Brown is a priest in a village populated by the cast of characters one normally finds in villages conceived for cozy mystery TV series: the gossipy church secretary who bakes prize-winning scones and grows prize-winning roses; the flirty titled lady with an eye for anyone in trousers; the police detective who grudgingly accepts the amateur sleuth’s help....
If you’re a devoted fan of the Father Brown stories, you might have doubts about the series already.
After watching the first three episodes, I read the stories on which they were based. (And a few more, just ’cause.) The TV versions contain a few elements from the stories, but overall they’re quite different from the originals. Thus “The Flying Stars” does concern some valuable jewels and a theatrical evening in a stately home, but the episode has little in common with the original. The same goes for “The Wrong Shape.” In both the TV story and the original, a gentleman poet named Leonard Quinton has an Indian man in his employ... and that’s where the two tales part company. “The Hammer of God” (episode 1) incorporates a particular storyline that Chesterton would not have appreciated. (To tell would be a spoiler, but it does kind of hit you over the head with its incongruity.)
We’ve seen wholesale changes like these before. A couple of Miss Marple episodes are dramatizations of Agatha Christie stories in which Miss Marple did not originally appear. The writers invent reasons to insert her into the action and it generally works fine. If you don’t know the original story, you don’t know she doesn’t belong.
Many of the revisions in Father Brown have been made in the name of dramatization. The original stories are more like puzzles than dramas; they need backstory and characterization to turn them into teleplays. Plus, a TV series requires a group of recurring characters to sustain it, so the creators have given Father Brown that—even though the ones they chose came straight out of stock. Creator/writers Rachel Flowerday and Tahsin Guner explain some of their rationale here.
I do understand the concept of dramatic adaptation and that when a series claims to be “based on the characters of” the resulting TV characters may have precious little in common with their precursors. Even so, aside from the built-in name recognition, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to call this series Father Brown. To me, it lacks the wit of Chesterton’s writing, and the mores he represented. I don’t love what I’ve read of the Father Brown stories, but they do have distinctive qualities and this series...doesn’t.
Fans of Midsomer Murders—who already know how to suspend disbelief when it comes to crime in the Cotswolds—might like this one. Fans of the Miss Marple TV series might as well.
Chesterton purists will be displeased.
That being said, Father Brown starring Mark Williams, which began in 2012 in the U.K., was recently renewed for a third series. People seem to like it, though they all acknowledge that it has little in common with its source material. The trick is not letting that bother you. Think of him not as Father Brown but as Father Beige, some kindly priest in a Cotswold village of essentially harmless character types who dispenses wisdom to all and sundry. Don’t hold this series to too high a standard of literary quality—and whatever you do, don’t hold it to any standard of historical accuracy. Simply sit back and watch the pretty.
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.