Spirit of Chesterton Left Out of BBC’s Father Brown

by Alex Wasilkoff

 

G. K. Chesterton's stories of Father Brown, the Catholic priest who happens to be an amateur detective, are wonderful short stories saturated with Chesterton's wit and filled with his charming prose, so I was extremely excited when I found out that the BBC had a TV series based on the stories. However, I ended up extremely disappointed.

After the opening sequence is shown and the theme song played, the words “Based on the character created by G.K. Chesterton” are proudly displayed at the bottom of the screen. Well, the main character’s name is definitely taken from Chesterton’s stories as well as a couple of story titles...and that’s about it. Chesterton uses his fictional priest as mouthpiece to criticize the wider culture and proclaim the sound reason found in orthodox religion. Father Brown solves mysteries thanks to acute insights into the humans spirit formed by years in the confessional. The character in the TV series bearing the same name does not. He has absolutely no spine. Time after time, various characters will insult his Catholic Faith or even the Virgin Mary in one episode, and Father Brown offers one or two politically correct sentences. Part of Chesterton's brilliance was stalwartly defending his beliefs on all sides, even in fiction. BBC’s Father Brown would have Chesterton rolling over in his grave.

 

Placing to one side the complete absence of anything remotely Chestertonian, the use of cliches in the show is also a major detriment. Evil nuns and greedy bishops make their requisite appearance. Mrs. McCarthy, Father Brown’s loyal parish secretary, flips from sweet old lady to the village witch depending on the needs of the plot. (Thankfully this particular vice gets ironed out after the first season.) In a stunning act of condescension, the show dedicates practically an entire episode to reminding the viewers just how bad murder is (Season 1, Episode 6). The plots of the individual episodes often suffer from contrivance and delaying obvious conclusions.

 

If you are able to forget that this show is supposedly based on Chesterton’s stories, there are some redeeming qualities of this show. Mark Williams (of Arthur Weasley fame) does a superb job in the title role, even if he would not have been many people’s first pick for the diminutive priest. The setting is focused on the small village of Kembleford in the 1950’s. The stereotypical English countryside village never fails to charm, and the decision to relocate Father Brown temporally was not bad in itself, but the show leaves itself open to a few anachronisms here and there. Thankfully, the writers have left at the heart of Father Brown’s detective work the desire not to turn in criminals, but to reconcile them to God. The sacrament of confession makes an appearance almost every episode bearing at least some witness to Father Brown’s priesthood, which one might otherwise be able to take for granted.

 

The show is not a masterpiece and contains nothing of the sparkle, charm, and force of Chesterton’s writing, but it can make for amusing lighthearted viewing.


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