In 1974, Father Brown came to ITV with Kenneth More starred as G.K. Chesterton’s sleuth. The series adapted thirteen of the Father Brown Mysteries to television. The results were a bit of mixed bag.
Kenneth More’s acting as Father Brown was certainly not a mixed bag. He played a delightful but cunning Father Brown, embodying the great clerical detective with warmth and humanity.
To be fair to the producers, as I said with the Colonial Theatre adaptations, the Father Mysteries are challenging to adapt because they were never written with dramatization in mind. Oracle of the Dog, for example, features a mystery where Father Brown never visits the scene of the crime, while Curse of the Golden Cross features a murderer who never even finds out he’s been found out. Such results may make for interesting thought experiments and mental puzzles, but it makes for poor television.
The additional challenge with this Television series is that they had an hour for each episode. As both Colonial Radio Theatre and BBC Radio 4 have proved, half an hour is more than sufficient to tell Chesterton’s stories. The one hour format could allow them to flesh out the stories and make them more compelling and dramatic or it could allow them to merely pad the stories. The producers did a little of both.
Several episodes hit the spot. “The Hammer of God” was faithful to Chesterton’s story with additional details added that made the story more compelling and interesting as a mystery. The same could be said for “The Eye of Apollo,” “The Dagger With Wings,” and “The Man With Two Beards.” The series made some minor changes to “The Head of Caesar” but it still was quite well done. They also managed to neatly insert Father Brown into the action in, “The Oracle of the Dog.”
These were fine and perhaps the best of the lot was “The Hammer of God” which was powerfully told as well as faithful to Chesterton’s story. Perhaps the most interesting was, “The Secret Garden” which remained faithful to the spirit of Chesterton’s story while changing some details. While I might have been biased by having read the story and hearing the Colonial Theatre adaptation, to me it seemed the telefilm made obvious who the murderer was, which gave the episode an almost Columbo-like feel as Father Brown seemed to take on a few more odd mannerisms. Columbo was, of course, based in part of Father Brown. So if the creators of the Father Brown TV series were consciously or subconsciously mimicking Columbo which was consciously based partially on Father Brown, then everything had come full circle.
Where the series had its weak spots was in realizing when something didn’t need changed or making the wrong change. In, “The Curse of the Golden Cross” the writers managed to replace Chesteron’s unsatisfying ending with an even worse one that makes Father Brown look foolish. In “The Three Tools of Death” and “The Arrow of Heaven,” perhaps the Father Brown stories most suited for adaptation, the writers got far too cute for their own good in their attempts to doctor what were already fine stories. They also happen to be two of my favorites, so they annoy me. Their changes to “Three Tools of Deaths” were tedious and merely padded the story. Their version of “The Arrow of Heaven” made one unforgivable mistake. They set the story in England when Chesterton set in America. The strength and power of the story comes from not only the mystery, but the feeling of Father Brown in being in a foreign land with a foreign set of values on the issue of justice. Consider this line from the story:
Even as he did so he realized that he was an Englishman and an exile. He realized that he was among foreigners, even if he was among friends. Around that ring of foreigners ran a restless fire that was not native to his own breed; the fiercer spirit of the western nation that can rebel and lynch, and above all, combine. He knew that they had already combined.
Placing the story in England means that not only doesn’t the program communicate this idea, it discards it completely.
One other criticism of the series is that the show seemed to be at war with Chesterton at times. Chesterton created Father Brown as a very orthodox Catholic Priest. Yet show creators put words into Father Brown’s mouth that totally violated his character. In one episode he declares that he likes talking to atheist because “he doesn’t have to talk shop.” and in another decries that as a priest, he’s often called upon to reunite families that would be better off separated. A more “cool” modern 1970s British priest might say that, but Father Brown?
Also, in, “The Quick One” Father Brown bemoaned the murder of a somewhat crankish Tory saying he was one of the few men who could have saved England. The show’s creators decided to insert an aggrieved daughter of the Tory who had been bullied and kept from her true love. This had nothing to do with the mystery, but it served to make the writers’ political point in disagreeing with Chesterton and added a good ten minutes to the story.
If you can get past the mis-steps and revisionism, the series offers several good adaptations and whether the material is good or poor, Kenneth More’s performance is always a saving grace.
Rating: 3.5 Stars
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Chesterton was an interesting character in his day. The closest analogue today
is Garrison Keillor: hyper-productive, a concern with religion bordering on the obsessive, a bit of an intellectual lightweight, but grounded in unshakeable common sense, with an undeniable mastery of storytelling. He’s got dozens of quotes in Bartlett’s. He had a knack for presenting seemingly paradoxical ideas in a neat, pithy aphorism.
Minnesota is home to the Chesterton Society, who have produced a TV series
(The Apostle of Common Sense), academic conferences, monthly meetings and recently founded a High School, The Chesterton Academy. I went to a few meetings, but they were a bit intense for me.
Chesterton, for all his productivity, never left behind that single great work to cement his reputation in the literary canon. The CS folks say start with Father Brown, but continue to “Orthodoxy”, his greatest work. Couldn’t finish it myself.