In March 1913, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story “The Paradise of Thieves” was first published in an issue of McClure’s Magazine. The story revolves around acting and deception, and ends in the suicide of one of the characters. Now, a hundred years later to the month, comes theatrical news of a much more positive nature: the BBC has commissioned a second series of its popular Father Brown programme.
Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. Apparently Chesterton fans west of the pond have been missing out. The BBC recently produced a new television series of Father Brown stories starring Mark Williams (“Arthur Weasley” of Harry Potter fame) in the title role. The series was initially designed as a ten-episode arc, with one episode airing every day (weekends excluded) from January 17 to January 25. It began with “The Hammer of God” and ended with “The Blue Cross.”
Of course, there are some difficulties in transitioning Chesterton’s famous priest-detective from the page to the small screen. As Michael Newton noted a day after the series began, Chesterton’s protagonist is so humble a character, so unconcerned about his own self, that it’s hard to make a show that focuses directly on him:
Father Brown is comically unobtrusive. Indeed it seems that Chesterton was at first occupied with making a joke in which he wrote detective stories where the aim was to puzzle out who the real detective is. Often Brown makes his first appearance as an aside or as one item in a list, edging sideways into the story. His most conspicuous feature is his inconspicuousness. Neither film nor TV is a medium built for the celebration of humility.
So we are to understand that the new series has had to make certain changes in order to “work” for television. Father Brown makes a more direct transition to the centre of the stories. Moreover, the tales are reconfigured to take place in one small English village in the 1950′s. As a result, the great French detective Valentine (Chesterton’s initial foil) becomes an English detective, rather than a world-renowned investigator. But then, such changes are to be expected: all translation is by necessity interpretation and re-creation.
We know that the show was well-received in England; more than 2 million people tuned in for each episode, and so the show has been commissioned for a second series. But has the new translation to television done justice to Chesterton’s original? Well, that’s something we in the United States and Canada will just have to wait to discuss until the show makes an appearance in North America.
The question as to what religious impact the show might have on the English audience also remains to be seen. After all, the stories of Father Brown are about a Catholic priest. More than that, they are about a respectable, intelligent Catholic priest. In a country where only 59.3 percent of the population still self-identifies as Christian (2011 statistics, down from 71.8 percent in 2001, and increasing numbers are declaring themselves atheists, the presence of a strong Christian character on popular television is certainly significant.
After all, as starring actor (and self-described “pantheistic humanist”) Mark Williams himself explains, Father Brown is not simply another television detective:
[Father Brown] has a huge appetite for the detail of life and for humanity, and he cares very much about people’s souls. That’s the most interesting thing about him as a sleuth: it’s not him solving a conundrum or a crossword, he’s dealing with what he sees as people’s eternal damnation. And when he works it out, the sky turns black and is full of harpies; he’s desperately committed to his morality.
I have to say, I’m looking forward to seeing BBC’s new small-screen take on redemptive mystery.