[1 May 2014]
Detective fiction is a big tent, with room for all kinds of leading men and women in all kinds of settings. And why not? Whether you are in the Australian outback with Arthur Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, in suburban Massachusetts with Harry Kemelman’s crime-solving rabbi David Small, or in an English village with Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, most detective fiction comes down to some people behaving badly and someone else figuring out what really happened. This setup gives a writer plenty of room to create a rich cultural and historical context while also exploring the psychology of their particular detective, so with the best writers you get a travelogue and character study along with your puzzle.
G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest who moonlights as an amateur detective in the English countryside, appeared in 51 Chesterton short stories (published between 1911 and 1935) as well as several television and film adaptations. Chesterton, who converted to Catholicism in 1922, created Father Brown as an idealized priest who remains firm in his faith while also using his understanding of human nature to solve problems of a more worldly sort.
The 1974 British television series Father Brown stars Kenneth More as the title character. As an advocate for moderation and reason, this Father Brown must have felt very comforting to viewers who felt their own world was in turmoil, particularly since he’s concerned with solving problems so that the social order may continue as it is, not with the radical creation of a new social structure. For example, he solves a murder in “The Hammer of God”, but does not address the issue underlying it—the ability of a wealthy and powerful man to abuse his neighbors and “spoil” young women without consequence.
For all of his upright spirit, however, Father Brown is not above enjoying a pint or a smoke, and maintains a tolerant attitude toward those of different faiths and social classes.
The Acorn DVD set includes all 13 Father Brown episodes, each of which is about 52 minutes long. The mysteries Father Brown solves include some that would particularly have resonated at the time the stories were published, including an allusion to the excavation of King Tut’s tomb in “The Curse of the Golden Cross” and the threat of German espionage in “The Mirror of the Magistrate”. Others treat topics that viewers in the ‘70s could immediately relate to, including a religious cult leader (“The Eye of Apollo”) and a man tempted by Satan worship (“The Dagger with Wings”).
The most notable feature of the Father Brown episodes, particularly if you don’t watch a lot of television from this period, is their predictability. Each consists of three parts, introduced by title cards bearing art specific to the episode, and you can be sure that whatever crime occurred in Part One will be solved by the conclusion of Part Three.
This is how most television used to be written—and in fact how much television is still written today. A series establishes a formula and creates variety within it, providing viewers with episodes that are both intriguingly new in their details and comfortably familiar in their overall form.
The great constant, of course, is the character of Father Brown himself. Dennis Burgess also made multiple appearances as the reformed jewel thief Hercule Flambeau, but most of the cast for each episode is made up of guest appearances by actors such as Rupert Davies, Charles Dance, Philip Stone, and Geraldine Moffat. Many of these guest actors are known primarily for their work in television and in character roles in films, so spotting them and making the connections is part of the fun of watching the episodes. For instance, Philip Stone was also the murderous caretaker Grady in The Shining, and his bald head supplies an important plot point in the Father Brown episode “The Mirror and the Magistrate”.
As with many television shows today, multiple writers (Hugh Leonard, John Portman, Peter Wildeblood, and Michael Voysey) and directors (Robert Tronson, Peter Jeffries, and Ian Fordyce) worked on different episodes of Father Brown. The fact that the show maintained a consistent style over 13 episodes is a credit to their professional ability to adapt their talents to the needs of a particular series.
The technical aspects of Father Brown are modest, compared to what we are used to today, but the simplicity of the sets and costumes feels right for the series, which seeks to take the viewer back to a kindler and gentler time. The visual and sound quality of the transfer is about what you would expect from a 1970s television show—acceptable but not great, with some of the images notably soft. The cinematography is more businesslike than ambitious, with the combination of video and film footage lending a slightly surreal tone to the series.
The only extras included with this DVD set are a text biography of Chesterton and text filmographies for some of the actors. This is a collection for those who are fans of the character, have an interest in ‘70s British television, or are watching the new BBC series starring Mark Williams and want to compare the current take on the character with another from 40 years ago.