Close, but not quite Fr Brown

Since receiving an internet-capable “smart TV” for Christmas, our household has hardly used the video recorder, and have relied instead on catching programs on the ABC’s excellent iView. Cathy and I just finished watching tonight the third episode of the Bletchly Circle, which, while gruesome, was quite good telly.

Someone somewhere commented that the BBC seems stuck in the 1950’s at the moment, and so, while perusing iView’s other offerings, when I noticed “Fr Brown episode one” on offer, I was not surprised to find that the BBC had translated Fr Brown (as if by TARDIS) into the 1950s.

Mark Williams – aka Mr Weasley – plays G.K. Chesterton’s famous priest-detective, and does a very believable job of it. This first episode was “Hammer of God”, which is loosely based on Chesterton’s own story of that title. I do mean “loosely”. There are things in this episode that Chesterton would never have written in a blue fit.

There are other slip ups. Fr Brown is being very ecumenical. While Chesterton’s original includes Catholics, Anglicans and puritanical Presbyterians, the TV episode has Fr B going to an Anglican vicar’s garden party and attending an Anglican funeral. Neither would have happened in pre-Unitatis Redintegratio days.

Something else that was entirely wrong was Fr B’s church. At the end of the first episode, our hero is depicted outside his “old English country church” welcoming mass goers. Only that would never have been the case, would it? I haven’t been to England, so I haven’t seen for myself, but I rather suspect that very few of the ancient churches of England would have been in the hands of the Catholic Church either at the end of the 19th Century, in the 1950s, or now. In fact, Chesterton’s original story on which this episode is based, makes reference to just this:

The shaken [Rev.] Wilfred was led away by Father Brown, who had an easy and friendly way with him. ‘Let us get out of this horrid place, Mr. Bohun,’ he said. ‘May I look inside your church? I hear it’s one of the oldest in England. We take some interest, you know,’ he added with a comical grimace, ‘in old English churches.’

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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7 Responses to Close, but not quite Fr Brown

  1. Kate Edwards says:

    Yes lead actor aside I thought Fr B it was deeply disappointing – the transposition of time period and factual errors you point to aside, where was Chesterton’s neat interplay of theology and crime puzzle? This one was too busy running around ‘not judging’ everyone!

    The Bletchley Circle on the other hand was wonderful.

    • Tony says:

      I don’t think I read any of the Fr Brown books so I came at the TV depiction with a clean slate. Even then, it came across as pretty lightweight and … ‘post modernised’. The notion that such a priest would be so quick to volunteer that he was ‘not judging’ in the context, just didn’t ring true. I found the plot suffered from being ‘crammed’ into its time allocation and, therefore, not particularly convincing.

      The Bletchley Circle was altogether more convincing. I suspect the immediate post war period would have been quite difficult for many women who had important roles, out of necessity, then found themselves ‘going back’.

      Apparently a second series ‘has been commissioned’.

      I don’t have a problem with the trend towards 50s drama. Maybe it’s because I’ve had enough of endless ‘period pieces’ or maybe because the era is more familiar to me!

  2. Kate Edwards says:

    But isn’t it worrying that nostalgia has become so much a selling point?

    That we can only look backwards to the 50s as a golden era?!

    Personally I liked the Bletchley Circle because of its attention to the social nuances of the era and its rather subversive subtext on the barrenness of suburban middle class life for many women in that era, as much as for its treatment of the problem of reintegrating into society of people whose talents once employed gainfully in the war. And while I don’t know anything about how modern approaches to catching serial killers came about, the idea that it was the result of cross-fertilisation of ideas from codebreaking and psychological warfare at least passes the plausibility test.

    The new Fr Brown has no such depth or sub-text, and no plausiblity whatsoever when it comes to religious ideas and practices of the era.

    Frankly when it comes to mysteries, I preferred the light mockery of the Englishman abroad in Death in Paradise for my once a week dose of tellie!

    • Schütz says:

      A good lead actor often saves a movie or series from being a flop, and makes a good series even better. In both Fr Brown and the Bletchly circle, the lead actors were absolutely endearing. I loved the underplayed intensity of Anna Maxwell Martin’s character Susan in the Bletchly Circle. And, as I said, I thought Mark Williams captured the character of Fr B.

      But yes, I agree with both of you, that the BC was by far the superior production. Right from the beginning I was intrigued by the originality of the premise. The women acted and reacted exactly as one might have expected women in their situation to act and react – and yet the “feminism” inherent in the plot was in no way lessened by avoiding the anachronistic.

      If it were not for the very graphic sexual violence (admittedly suggested more than depicted) I would recommend it to my daughters to watch (they are both Sherlock Holmes fans). Unfortunately this consideration means that I would be more comfortable with them watching Fr Brown – it may even lead to them reading the originals!

  3. Matthias says:

    I thought the Fr Brown first episode was a bit slow ,and as for “not judging” I reckon that in real life there would have been a “repent” pronouncement.
    I doubt whether the good Fr would have greeted his flock before Mass-must be an Anglican add on

  4. Saskia says:

    I didn’t mind the first episode, but unfortunately I caught the last, The Blue Cross, which shares the same name but nothing else with the original Chesterton story. I was so disappointed. It was the first and best of the Fr Brown stories, and it has been absolutely destroyed by the ABC. What a shame
    Saskia

    • Tony says:

      You can blame the ABC for showing it, Saskia, but not for making it! ;-)

      In the end, it’s become a post war version of ‘Midsomer Murders’ except in that the acting is even worse. It’s a pity to go to all that effort to create a convincingly looking era, then waste it with half-baked acting and plots. I suspect Chesterton deserves better.

      ‘Miss Fishers Mystery Murders’ is probably in the same camp but I don’t think it takes itself so seriously and … well … it’s Australian.

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