In September of last year, I absolutely lost it. If you’re a regular reader of this site, you might remember September as the month in which I published a series of my mental breakdowns, disguised as a review of season one of the BBC’s Father Brown. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Like the grizzled veteran of an action movie, who gets dragged in for “one last mission,” I’m back to do battle once again with the BBC’s Father Brown, mano-a-mano.
I’m a very big admirer of G. K. Chesterton. I love the man’s work, both as a writer of detective stories and as a spiritual writer. I’ll also admit I’m not an expert on him and his work. I don’t know all the ins and outs of all things Chesterton. I own the brand-new, massive biography by Ian Ker, but I haven’t even gotten to the halfway point yet. I haven’t read Chesterton’s own autobiography, for that matter (though I have read excerpts). I read Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man for the first time last year. All in all, there are people far more knowledgeable than I am on Chesterton’s life, works, and worldviews.
… Which is why it’s so annoying that the BBC’s Father Brown gets it so wrong, so hopelessly wrong that even a casual admirer of Chesterton’s works is left staring at the television in utter disbelief. Father Brown, the character, is nothing like the “Father Brown” presented by the BBC. Chesterton’s character has been hijacked by a corporation, which has turned the character into an unfortunately marketable television show. Somewhere along the way, the very essence of Chesterton’s stories – Father Brown’s soul, if you will – has been lost. What the BBC is offering instead is a soulless, lifeless product that bears more resemblance to the Wikipedia entry for Father Brown than the character himself.
Season 2 of the show consists of ten episodes. Only one of them is named after any of Chesterton’s stories, and the plot elements taken from the stories are so few and far between that I am convinced the writers are working from Wikipedia entries. No other explanation is possible – nobody who read Chesterton’s “The Three Tools of Death” was left saying, “You know what that story really could have used? A subplot about the murder victim forcing his daughter to undergo electroshock therapy after she accidentally killed her own mother!” Nobody who actually read “The Blue Cross” could have decided that Flambeau was a sadistic megalomaniac who would have happily murdered Father Brown given the chance. If anyone read “The Hammer of God” and seriously believed the motive needed to be rewritten in order to incorporate a gay romance, they’re better off inside a straitjacket. Nobody in his or her right mind would read “The Secret Garden” and decide that when Father Brown confronted the killer, the latter should have pulled out a grenade and thrown it at Father Brown, who would then have thrown it out of a window moments before it exploded.
But somehow the BBC decided that this was precisely what Father Brown needed.
If any of those descriptions made you roll your eyes, this show is not for you. Unfortunately, my love for Chesterton’s work is so great that as these moments came up, one by one, I kept watching. And every episode managed to break my heart (or my sanity) in some way. If anything, this show has gotten worse. All the flaws of the first season have come back with a vengeance.
Episode One: The Ghost in the Machine
Father Brown investigates the disappearance of Charlotte McKinley. Her sister had disappeared nine years before from the very same room, and prior to her disappearance, Charlotte was convinced that her sister was haunting her. Her husband is a prime suspect, but Father Brown does not believe the man is guilty.
Unfortunately, this episode got things wrong from the very start. Father Brown is asked to perform an exorcism and refuses, but he offers to instead perform a blessing. This “blessing” has me convinced that the writers have never opened a prayer book in their lives. It’s comprised of a lot of chanting, and such lines as: “See the Cross of the Lord, be gone you hostile powers.” Have any of the writers ever heard of Google? A simple search would reveal that this is not text from a blessing, but the rite of exorcism, which Father Brown has just refused to perform!
It gets better, meaning worse. In the Catholic tradition, an exorcism is not some trivial matter to be thrown around in a la-di-dah manner. Later in the episode, Father Brown admits that the whole thing was a performance designed to please Charlotte and tell her what she wanted to hear. This was the horrifying moment in which I realized that Mark Williams, the actor playing Father Brown, had gone missing, and that with him, Father Brown had gone missing. No, this man is Padre Pete, and Padre Pete has done the unthinkable. He’s gone ahead and done an exorcism for no reason whatsoever, without even writing a letter to his bishop, without any additional priests or actual exorcists with him, and (oh, frabjous day!) one of the participants in the exorcism does not actually participate and is standing by the side with a glass of wine making sarcastic comments the entire time! Whether or not you believe in Satan, Father Brown surely does, and why he would allow this is a mystery.
That’s not even the most absurd part. No, this episode is a locked room mystery, in which Charlotte disappears from a room with only one exit, which is being guarded the entire time… that is, it’s being guarded by an idiot who is sleeping. Hence, this isn’t a locked room mystery at all, or any kind of mystery. It’s the most unlocked locked-room mystery since William Brittain’s parody story “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr.” Not only that, it’s a “locked room mystery” that has to subscribe to one of the most anticlimactic and disappointing clichés in the book. This episode is just as certain to irritate the locked-room aficionado as it will the Catholic. This is just one of the show’s countless displays of remarkably porous logic. But don’t turn that dial, folks – there’s plenty more of this to come.
Episode 2: The Maddest of All
When a mental patient dies in the street, Father Brown is ready to organize the funeral. Things take a surprising turn when the dead man comes back to life at that very funeral, and Father Brown searches for the explanation. A new inspector is in town, finally replacing that idiot Valentine, and he resents Father Brown’s intrusion on the case.
This episode is the best of the bunch. And that’s mainly because it realizes just how dumb many of the show’s recurring elements are, so it does its best to explain them away. Valentine had an irritating habit of telling-Father-Brown-to-stay-off-the-case-or-else, even when Father Brown kept solving mysteries that stumped everyone else. After a half-dozen such instances, even the most thick-headed person would probably just give up and let the priest investigate. But this episode brought in a new man, Inspector Sullivan, a young hotshot, by-the-book professional. As this is his first encounter with Father Brown, his antagonism toward the man is understandable.
The solution, however, is ridiculous and outlandish. Father Brown goes to great lengths to solve the mystery, even getting himself committed for insanity in order to investigate fully. Unfortunately, this kind of approach would have serious consequences in the real world. The bishop would have been notified, and I doubt that Father Brown could just waltz back to his parish after being released from the institution after the case concluded, as though nothing had happened. The plot also requires remarkable stupidity on the part of the village doctor, but thankfully, Inspector Sullivan issues a warrant for his arrest, so at least he gets punished for his stupidity. The problem is, the stupidity still took place, and the anticlimax remained.
It’s a frustrating episode, but the producers seem to have realized just how frustrating it would be and manage to control the damage by acknowledging most of its flaws and trying to address them. That’s not much to be thankful for, but it’s something: it’s a safe-haven of mediocrity in the veritable storm of stupidity that forms this show.
Episode Three: The Pride of the Prydes
Honestly, I have no idea what the plot of this one was. It was an incoherent mess, to be honest. Some random Annoying Woman whose name I forget was shot with a crossbow, which is always fun in a mystery. There was something absolutely irrelevant about a medieval curse in there, but it gave the director a chance to portray Evil Religious People once again, and that’s always fun if you’re in the BBC. But there’s one thing about this episode that sticks out like a sore thumb, and that’s the following scenario.
Father Brown finds out who the killer is, which even for him took a remarkably long time. He then confronts the killer, who does the natural thing: he pulls out a friggin’ grenade and throws it Father Brown! The killer runs out of the room, but Father Brown, like a wannabe Steven Seagal, picks up the grenade and throws it out the window, for it to explode at the very moment it leaves the confines of the room. (Why this does not shatter the windows and shower Father Brown with shards of glass is beyond me, but the terrible CGI might be the culprit here.) Father Brown then runs after the killer, and they have what passes for a philosophical discussion in this show. The actor portraying the killer, looking and sounding incredibly bored the entire time (seriously, I thought the BBC was able to afford better actors), does us all a favor and commits suicide. And there was much rejoicing.
Episode 4: The Shadow of the Scaffold
A woman named Violet Fernsley is convicted of killing her husband, a pig farmer. She is about to be hanged when she screams out that she is pregnant, giving Father Brown three days to find the real killer… or else.
Where do we begin with this one? Let’s start at the beginning. The opening scene is one of the most laughably idiotic “teasers” this show has ever done. It’s supposed to be an intriguing little snippet that gets you interested in the story before the credits roll. This one got wrong everything it possibly could. First off, Father Brown is listening to Violet’s confession… no, wait, sorry, this isn’t Father Brown, this is Padre Pete, and like a badly scripted good-cop-bad-cop routine, he asks her to tell him where her husband’s body is hidden. She insists that she is innocent. The confession is then interrupted by a guard, who brings bad news: the Lord Chief Justice himself has turned down Violet’s appeal. Violet is (literally) instantly whisked away to be hanged. (For crying out loud, even I know that’s not how an appeal works.) For some asinine reason, Padre Pete continues the confession, even though there are plenty of people in the room with them. Oh, for the love of pudding! The Sacrament of Confession does not and never has worked this way. You have a priest consultant listed in the credits – talk to him! Then, do the favor of listening.
This is the episode that confirmed my opinion that Mark Williams was not Mark Williams any longer. When Padre Pete is in a dangerous situation that involves a group of pigs running wild, he quips, “We can’t sit here and wait for someone to save our bacon.” Something inside of me went dead cold when I heard that line. Chesterton’s Father Brown had a sense of humor, but never did he make a joke this incredibly stupid. Not only that, lines like this keep popping up throughout this season. In fact, it was after one such line that I decided to stop watching the show then and there.
Incidentally, for those of you keeping the score, you did read that right. A woman was found guilty of a murder and convicted to die… even though there was no body discovered.
But let’s return to Padre Pete’s habits of throwing sacraments and religious rites around as irresponsibly as Halloween candy. Faced with a sudden romance formed under a situation full of pressure, Padre Pete is asked by the couple to marry them. Does he ask any questions? Does he attempt to ascertain whether this couple is truly in love when making such a hasty decision? Nope, he instantly, on-the-spot, declares, “Of course I’ll marry you!” Although the marriage ultimately does not occur, the writer, Rachel Flowerday, makes it clear that Padre Pete would have performed the marriage without any qualms even after finding out something that would have made any priest consult with his bishop at the very least. If Padre Pete were an actual priest, his bishop would be a very busy man indeed. Not to worry, we finally meet him in the next episode.
Episode 5: The Mysteries of the Rosary
We finally meet Father Brown’s bishop! But not to worry, he’s an old Caucasian guy and he’s got grey hair, so he’s evil. I wish I were kidding: the bishop is made into an artificial villain even though he has absolutely no purpose in this story. Seriously? This is the story in which we finally meet the bishop? What purpose does he serve? Positively none. This story has nothing to do with the bishop, but everything to do with Father Brown’s arch-nemesis, Flambeau the thief. The story involves the search for a miraculous Rosary, apparently a relic with healing powers. Flambeau joins the hunt, and every once in a while we flash to a terminally ill priest kneeling in front of an altar asking to be cured (because, you know, that’s what terminally ill priests do), making it obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together who the villain is.
My big problem with this episode, apart from its having made an unnecessary villain out of the bishop, who didn’t have to appear at all, is the character of Flambeau. Chesterton’s Flambeau is a thief with honor. The Flambeau the BBC has invented is a ruthless megalomaniac who will cheerfully endanger lives if it gets him what he wanted. This is not Flambeau; this is a wannabe Bond villain after such small-time game that M doesn’t need to bother assigning 007 to the case.
Oh, and if you haven’t had enough of Religious People Being Evil yet, there’s another dose of that in this episode for you.
Episode Six: The Daughters of Jerusalem
This episode is just… staggering. Father Brown is laid up with a broken leg, and so a young, rather handsome priest named Father Roland is brought in to help out around the parish. But wait! Remember that the bishop is evil? Father Roland is his spy! Things get weird at a women’s institute meeting when Father Roland’s film, showing the good works being done by the Church in Africa, is replaced with a pornographic film. Two women are murdered in short order, and only one person in the episode shows any common sense whatsoever. But this is Father Brown, and common sense is a very suspicious thing to possess if you aren’t the title character, so it turns out that person is actually the killer… which makes their prior common sense complete nonsense when you stop to think about it, but the status quo is preserved, hooray.
I despise this episode. If you cast your mind back to an article I did a while back called Twist Endings: You’re Doing it Wrong! you might recall one of my entries, “The Big Book of Distractions.” The episode commits that vital sin, the sin of withholding a clue that would have made everything obvious, improvising a last-minute alternative motive for the murders that you had no way of knowing beforehand. This is the ultimate in cheating your audience, and I hate these cheap tricks. The writer, Jude Tindall, is the same individual who lectured us in season one about how shallowly Agatha Christie treats murder in her books. She’s also responsible for the idiotic grenade scene of “The Pride of the Prydes.” Quite frankly, I hope she is never again allowed to approach any word processor, typewriter, or pen.
As though cheating your viewers is not enough, we get a patronizing “moral issue.” You see, Father Roland is a young and handsome priest. This means he could probably settle down with a reasonably attractive girl somewhere. And the way this episode is written, it’s as though the writer cannot conceive of anything else. Why would you become a priest if you can hook up with a pretty lady?, writer Tindall seems to be saying. Well not to worry, by the end of the episode Father Roland learns the error of his ways and leaves the priesthood. In the hands of a competent writer, this could have made for an interesting drama: a young man who loves God learning that the priesthood is not his vocation after all, and deciding to leave.
In fact, that could make for a very good story all on its own, without any badly resolved “mystery.” But in the hands of this writer, the whole episode feels like a direct slap in the face to anyone who has ever considered a religious vocation at any time. Young, attractive men have no business being priests, the writer seems to be saying, and it’s this kind of arrogant, patronizing attitude that makes my blood boil when looking back on the show.
Episode Seven: The Three Tools of Death
You’d think that, as one of the only episodes in this series to use the title of one of Chesterton’s stories, this one might have something to do with the original story. The truth is, it’s drastically rewritten. Essentially, the only thing kept from GKC’s original story is the ingenious solution, and even that has been changed to some degree. Apparently, writer Lol Fletcher decided that “The Three Tools of Death” didn’t have any meat to it. No, what the story really needed was for the murder victim to force his daughter to undergo electroshock therapy after an accident in which she killed her mother.
The opening to this episode had me positively horrified. It had nothing to do with the original story, and there was no reason to add such a subplot. (Don’t believe me? Watch the Kenneth More adaptation of the story and then try telling me any of this nonsense was necessary.) I call the electroshock therapy a subplot, but it’s the focus of the episode; the original story is more the subplot now.
This was my breaking point. This is where the series got so bad I refused to watch any more of it. I slammed my remote down in sheer disgust and inserted a disc from the second season of Columbo into my DVD player. And that was it for Father Brown.
Or so I thought. A few days later, I made a bet with a friend. The challenge was for me to get through the rest of Father Brown. I realize now that this was a bad bet. If I lost, I lost out on 20 bucks. If I won, I had to see the rest of Father Brown. Long story short: I lost 20 bucks.
Episode 8: The Prize of Colonel Gerard
A man named Colonel Gerard is murdered via an unconventional method. Someone approached a stuffed tiger and clipped some of its whiskers. The killer then chopped the whiskers up into a powdery form. Tasteless, odourless, etc., the whiskers have microscopic barbs that get caught in the digestive system, causing lacerations and eventual death.
The series’ flawed logic continues. Father Brown and his parish secretary reason that the killer had to approach the tiger at time X before dinner in order to commit the crime. Somehow, though, Father Brown manages to completely ignore the obvious possibility that the whole crime was premeditated and that the killer has had the whiskers ready for days (or even weeks) waiting for a moment to strike.
What I hate most about this episode, though, is the “comic relief” of Mrs. McCarthy and Lady Felicia, who spend the entire episode being catty toward one another and providing “fun” “banter.” None of the humor was remotely amusing. I haven’t brought the issue up before because if I did this for every episode, this article would be 112,000 words long and I’d be looking for a book publisher. Sadly, this humor element is very much a theme of season 2. This happens because they got rid of the Polish girl from season 1, along with the random Polish refugee camp that nobody cared about. This means Mrs. McCarthy can’t be a racist witch in every episode any longer (it’s funny because she’s Irish, you see). So instead, she’s just a plain b—ch . . . and I’m supposed to find this funny?
And why is it that every other thing out of Lady Felicia’s mouth has something to do with sex? I get it, she’s supposed to be glamorous, but by all that’s good in the world, this “saucy chat” is so painfully written that it makes me want to have a long chat with the people responsible for this series. Just what on earth were they thinking? Ironically, Inspector Valentine had the best response to this back in episode 1, incredulously asking Lady Felicia, “How many men are you seeing?”
Episode 9: The Grim Reaper
An utter jackass dies. Much rejoicing follows. Father Brown must find the killer in order to give him a medal. A poison pen letter writer helpfully points out who the killer is. There’s a stupid subplot about the accused man’s wife being pregnant and not wanting to tell him, even before the trouble erupted in the first place. As is tradition, the episode ends with Father Brown and the gang laughing at a joke that isn’t all that funny, cementing the show’s status as a series with the moral and ethical complexity of a typical episode of The Magic Schoolbus.
This is the episode which makes the Seal of Confession one of its main focuses. This gambit has cropped up before in the series, back in “The Three Tools of Death.” There, Padre Pete, showed how irresponsible he is with Sacraments by offering the rite of confession to a potentially dangerous criminal so that the crook can shut up Father Brown, the only witness, and ensure his silence. (What a way to promote the Sacraments and their sacred nature, Padre Pete.) This episode takes the same premise to the extreme. A man says his confession to Father Brown, but he then admits that the only reason he is doing this is so that Father Brown must remain silent about what he knows and cannot communicate the information with the police.
First of all, I’m glad someone on the production team has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess. It’s an underrated movie [spot-on, Patrick!–Ed.]; I like it very much, and I’m glad someone else has seen it too. But the truth is, there are conditions for the Sacrament of Confession. It cannot be used as a way to shut up a witness. There must be actual contrition. In other words, this was not a valid Confession. I’m not an expert in Canon Law, and I don’t know whether Father Brown would be able to share the information he learned, but at the very least, he would have telephoned the bishop as soon as the sham of a Confession was over, and confided in him.
The 1994 film Priest, by the way, made a similar false assumption, by having a child molester get into the confession booth and brag about his activities. He then tells the priest he has no intention of stopping. The truly idiotic thing about Priest is how the cleric in question takes the rules about the confessional seal more seriously than the rules about violence and sexual depravity, even though the confession is clearly not valid. I’m going to give the writing team of Father Brown the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s the Hitchcock film that inspired the use of the Confessional seal, and not Priest.
Episode Ten: The Laws of Motion
This is the episode which cost me my bet. Because of this episode, I lost out on 20 bucks. And why? Because the opening dialogue between Father Brown and Mrs. McCarthy was so horrendous that I decided then and there I would not watch the rest of the episode. I still have positively no interest in doing so, and nothing will sway me on this point. What could have provoked such an extreme reaction? I give you the following sparkling piece of wit, brought to you by Tahsin Gurner, a.k.a. the person who had Father Brown tell his parishioners to “keep an open mind” about a bizarre cult that came to town in season 1:
Mrs. McCarthy: When you said “Let’s go to the races!,” I thought you meant the horses!
Padre Pete: I meant horsepower!
If you can conceive of the universe as a place in which Father Brown makes such an asinine pun, I do not want to live in it, not in the least. This atrocity was more than enough to convince me that there are more important things in life than 20 bucks. I mean, for crying out loud, I haven’t even gotten through season three of Columbo (although I have seen the episode in which Mickey Spillane gets murdered). The CBS-TV update of Sherlock Holmes, Elementary, is getting to be a damn fine show, and the latest episode (Season 2, Episode 14) is one of its best. There’s a relatively new Batman video game that I haven’t played in ages. And what’s this? A new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie in which he’s an over-the-top villain? Sign me up now!
You may have guessed by now that I’m just not fond of Father Brown. (If anyone from the creative team behind the show reads this piece, I fully expect an episode in which a critic is brutally murdered, maybe with a pickaxe, a lawnmower, or a chainsaw. But seriously, if someone from the creative team is reading this, feel free to contact me via a comment here or through the site’s contact page, even if it’s only to tell me how full of crap you think I am.) But why on earth is this series doing so well? It’s so successfull, in fact, that the BBC has recommissioned it for a third season, this one to consist of fifteen episodes. The series isn’t just coming back, it’s coming back with more episodes than ever before. How is this possible?
As much as I hate the word “cozy” when applied to a murder mystery, it really seems to apply to Father Brown. This is a “nice,” “cozy” show, designed for people who don’t want to think and who want something comfortable and pleasant [and who share the dubious assumptions of the show’s producers–Ed.]. There are no intense moral dilemmas, and everyone is guaranteed to be smiley and happy and sharing strawberry scones when the final credits roll. There are no consequences to anyone’s actions; everything’s just pleasant and handy-dandy in the end, and would you like a strawberry scone, Father Brown?
The problem with this lethargically cozy atmosphere is that it is not G. K. Chesterton. This Father Brown is so irresponsible that it’s genuinely alarming, and I am convinced that Father Brown was in fact replaced by one of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s no longer Father Brown, it’s Padre Pete, and Padre Pete can perform haphazard exorcisms or conduct the Sacrament of Confession in front of witnesses. Padre Pete can show a young priest the error of his ways so that he leaves the priesthood.
G. K. Chesterton was a Catholic, and he was certainly not a cretin. He knew that life could often be harsh and apparently unfair, and Chesterton’s Father Brown keeps coming across such scenarios. The victim in Chesterton’s “The Three Tools of Death” didn’t have to lose his wife in a tragic accident and then force his daughter to undergo electroshock therapy. His story is the tragedy of a man worn down by the weight of the world and trying to keep up a strong facade. Stories such as “The Secret Garden” and “The Curse of the Golden Cross” are cautionary tales of fanaticism and obsession consuming men’s souls. Do you need sordid love affairs when you have stories like “The Hammer of God,” a tale about the perils of self-righteousness and considering oneself superior to one’s fellow human beings? Of course not.
The wise people at the BBC, however, have decided that “God” must be replaced by “circumstances.” They have removed the philosophical and theological essence of Chesterton’s stories in order to make them more marketable. But if you remove the philosophy of common sense and the wisdom of orthodoxy from Chesterton’s work, you are left with nothing. No wonder Father Brown seems so different: he just isn’t the same man.
Crossposted from At the Scene of the Crime. Used with permission.