Kenneth More in Father Brown. The Complete series on DVD. Image credit: Acorn Media
“The moving image was a mere 15 years old when GK Chesterton wrote the first Father Brown story. He was very much a literary creation, who could linger in the margins to observe without being noticed. In his autobiography, Chesterton wrote: `In Father Brown, it was the chief feature to be featureless. The point of him was to appear pointless; and one might say that his conspicuous quality was not being conspicuous. His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course, I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless. his mannerisms clumsy, and so on…My Father Brown was deliberately described as a Suffolk dumpling from East Anglia. That, and the rest of his description, was a deliberate disguise for the purpose of detective fiction.’
Playing such an anonymous character on screen presents its problems and no one has yet succeeded in portraying Chesterton’s sleuthing cleric precisely as he envisaged him. Given that he was renowned for playing gregarious types like Ambrose Claverhouse in Henry Cornelius’s Genevieve (1953), Richard Grimsdyke in Ralph Thomas’s Doctor in the House (1954) and Douglas Bader in Lewis Gilbert’s Reach For the Sky (1956), Kenneth More took some persuading to take on the role of the elusive Father Brown. He recalled the efforts of ATV’s Lew Grade to pitch the project in the sole mention of the series in his 1978 autobiography, More or Less:-
`For two or three years before I went on holiday I used to have a telephone call from time to time at half past eight in the morning. It went like this.
`Good morning, Ken. This is Lew Grade speaking/’
`Good morning, Lew.’
`Good morning, father?’
`Good morning, father.’
`What do you mean, father?’
`You are going to be Father Brown for me, Kenny,’ he said.
`I don’t know anything about that.’
`Oh yes. We have the rights to Father Brown.’
`I can’t play Father Brown.’
`Oh yes, you can…father.’
He kept on ringing to say, `Good morning, father. How’s father this morning?’
Finally I said to my agent, `What do you think about the idea?’
He had discussions with Lew – now Lord – Grade and that is how I became television’s Father Brown.
Chesterton had created Father Brown while staying with old school friend Lucian Oldershaw in 1910, Having discovered that he had read all of the detective fiction on his host’s shelves, Chesterton decided to write a story of his own and based his central character on Fr John O’Connor, a Catholic priest from Yorkshire, who had written to Chesterton in 1903 to commend his writing. During one of their frequent walks, Chesterton and O’Connor had entered into a discussion on philosophy and crime with a couple of Cambridge undergraduates who had refused to accept that a cloistered cleric could know as much as they did about the sordid nature of the real world. Amused by their naivety, Chesterton decided to give Father Brown a `moon-calf simplicity’ that masked the perception and intellect that missed nothing, despite having `eyes as empty as the North Sea’.
Taking inspiration from St Francis of Assisi, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the cases of C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, Chesterton quietly transformed detective fiction with `The Blue Cross’, which appeared in The Storyteller in September 1910. As a firm fan of the genre (`I like detective stories. I read them, I write them; but I do not believe them.’). Chesterton was not averse to convolution, but resisted the superficial because he believed that whodunits had a higher duty than merely intriguing and entertaining. They should shed light on serious truths in an accessible manner, so that the reader isn’t too confused or preoccupied with the clues to assimilate the underlying message. `The detective story,’ he once wrote, `differs from every other story in this: that the reader is only happy if he feels a fool.’
Chesterton outlined his principles in a series of essays – `How to Write a Detective Story’, `Principles of the Detective Story’, `Errors About Detective Stories’ and `The Ideal Detective Story’ – and he put these theories into practice in five volumes that counted Evelyn Waugh and Alfred Hitchcock among their admirers: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911); The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914); The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926); The Secret of Father Brown (1927); and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935).
Although he influenced numerous amateur detectives, Father Brown solved crimes in a far from conventional manner. Eschewing forensic methods, he picks up intuitively on the chance remark, the innocuous clue and the seemingly innocent presence at the scene of a crime. Moreover, he adopts a psychological approach that relies upon the understanding of sin and human nature that he has acquired from the confessional. The empathetic humility of his vocation enables Father Brown to recognise the basic emotions that could prompt a wicked action and he occasionally allows the guilty to go free, as he is as much interested in saving their souls as he is in bringing them to justice.
He reflected upon his methodology with American Grandison Chace in `The Secret of Father Brown’: `I don’t try to get outside the man. I try to get inside the murderer. Indeed it’s much more than that, don’t you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.’
This unique approach to criminology sets Father Brown apart from such golden age contemporaries as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Ellery Queen and Philo Vance. But it also makes him difficult to play on screen, as so much of his sleuthing is cerebral and dependent upon rumination and inspiration. Nevertheless, Father Brown has appeared regularly on the big and small screen, as well as on the radio, with Kenneth More being the seventh of the 14 actors who have donned a black cassock and cappello romano and brandished a furled umbrella over the last 85 years.
The sole screen adaptation produced during Chesterton’s lifetime was Edward Sedgwick’s Father Brown, Detective (1934). Shortly after essaying Claudette Colbert’s father in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning screwball, It Happened One Night (1934), Walter Connolly was cast in the title role of this 68-minute reworking of `The Blue Cross’. Paul Lukas proves a worthy adversary as Flambeau, the renowned cracksman intent on stealing a crucifix from Father Brown’s parish church in order to acquire its valuable diamonds.
Although Connolly is too hefty a presence to pass for Chesterton’s unobtrusive cleric, he has a sense of pastoral sincerity that is absent from Alec Guinness’s twinklingly proactive rather than self-effacingly watchful performance in Robert Hamer’s Father Brown (1954). Leavened with a hint of Ealingesque humour, this is a highly enjoyable variation on the theme of `The Blue Cross’ that gives its hero the first name `Ignatius’, after Chesterton had referred to him as `Paul’ in `The Sign of the Broken Sword’ and `the Reverend J. Brown’ in `The Eye of Apollo’. For the record, More uses the name `John’, while his reformed friend is rightly called Hercule Flambeau. Here, he’s called `Gustav’, as Peter Finch invests him with a dash of conniving suavity.
Yet Hamer and co-scenarist Thelma Schnee are too intent on exotifying the action by setting scenes in Paris and in turning Brown’s bid to redeem Flambeau into a game of cat and mouse that is more about personality than spirituality. They also tone down the theological side of the story, with Flambeau giving himself away in the French capital by ordering a ham sandwich on a Friday (at a time when Catholics were only allowed to eat fish) rather than by denying (as in the story) that God is bound by reason. Guinness (who, like Chesterton, would convert to Catholicism) would be more persuasive as the ageing clergyman in Rodney Bennett’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote (1987).
The next to don the dog collar was Heinz Rühmann, who is probably the biggest name and easily the most controversial actor to play Father Brown. Active throughout the Second World War, Rühmann had the dubious distinction of being a favourite of both Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank, who stuck his picture on the wall of her attic room in Amsterdam. He would make over 100 features in a career than ran from 1926-93 and remains one of Germany’s most beloved stars. His outings as Father Brown were unusually set in Ireland and feel like a curious cross between Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple movies (1961-65) and Father Ted (1995-98).
Directed by Helmuth Ashley, Das schwarze Schaf/The Black Sheep (1960) was scripted by István Békeffy, who borrows incidents from `The Hammer of God’, `The Actor and the Alibi’, `The Mirror of the Magistrate’ and `The Sins of Prince Saradine’ in having Father Brown and his housekeeper, Mrs Smith (Lina Carstens), dispatched to a rural backwater by the bishop for making too many headlines in cracking cases. Having tumbled the connection between a banker, a peppery nobleman and the acting troupe staying at the hotel owned by Flambeau (Siegfried Lowitz), Brown is exiled to Abbotts Rock to keep out of further mischief.
However, he quickly finds himself recovering a stolen Van Dyck painting, adjudicating in an aristocratic feud and trailing a gang of smugglers to Dublin in Axel von Ambesser’s Er kanns nicht lassen/He Can’t Stop Doing It (1962). There’s more krimi than Chesterton in Carl Merz and Egon Eis’s screenplay, as the spectacleless Rühmann appears more assertive than in his previous case. He would go on to headline Lucio Fulci’s Die Abenteuer des Kardinal Braun/Operation St Peter’s (1967). But, despite what many sources claim, this comic caper is not part of the Chesterton screen canon, alongside Pater Brown (1966-72), I racconti di Padre Brown/The Tales of Father Brown (1970-71), Sanctuary of Fear (1979), The Honour of Israel Gow (2009) and Father Brown (2012-), which respectively starred Josef Meinrad, Renato Rascel, Barnard Hughes, Kevin O’Brien and Mark Williams. The odd one out in this list is Pfarrer Braun (2003-14), which featured Ottfried Fischer as Guido Brown and took the liberty of killing the portly pastor at the end of the 22nd episode.
It’s often forgotten that the shambling shamus played by Peter Falk in Columbo (1971-2003) was modelled on Father Brown, as was the crime-cracking Chicago cleric played by Tom Bosley in The Father Dowling Mysteries (1989-91). It’s also possible to see Chesterton’s influence on such literary sleuths as William of Baskerville and Brother Cadfael, who were respectively played by Sean Connery and Derek Jacobi in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Cadfael (1994-96), ITV’s 13-episode take on Ellis Peters’s medieval whodunits.
A sketch of Kenny as Father Brown made in pastel by one of the crew
All of which brings us back to Lew Grade and his conviction that Kenneth More was perfectly suited to play Father Brown in a 1920s setting. From the moment we see him secure his saturno with the curved wooden handle of his rolled-up umbrella in `The Hammer of God’, it’s clear that this was inspired casting. More is first seen squinting through his round glasses on a single-decker country bus, as he takes an excursion to the village of Bohun Beacon while preparing to officiate at the annual mission in the nearby town.
Such is his inconspicuous insignificance that he goes unnoticed in a corner of the local pub, as vicar Wilfred Bohun (William Russell) badgers the haughty Mrs Deveraux (Anna Wing) about the use of her garden for the forthcoming fate. Brown also manages to eavesdrop discreetly beneath a window, as blacksmith Simeon Barnes (John Forgeham) orders his wife, Elizabeth (Geraldine Moffat), to stay away from the lecherous squire, James Mohun (Graham Crowden). But it takes a couple of chance remarks at the bar for the penny to drop and for Brown to be able to surmise who had caved in the colonel’s head with a hammer.
More captures the tone of Father Brown’s deceptively disarming manner during a conversation with the Reverend Wilfred, in which he impishly notes that `all roads lead to Rome’ and curses Henry VIII for ensuring that while Catholics might have the best church, Anglicans have the best churches. While out on the spire’s viewing platform, More also nails a key Chesterton line: `I think there is something dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray. Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from…one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t.’
He might never appear in vestments or conduct a single church service throughout the entire series, but More conveys an authentic ecclesiastical air, most notably when he responds to the killer’s query about whether he is a devil for deducing his fiendish method of murder with the words, `I am a man and therefore have all devils in my heart.’ Rather than taking credit for solving the mystery, however, Brown slips on to the bus and looks through the rear window at the small crowd gathered outside the church with a genuine sense of compassion for a traumatised community in need of his prayers.
The solution is even more ingenious in `The Oracle of the Dog’, which resorts to the country house murder format, as Father Brown accepts the hospitality of Colonel Druce (Rupert Davies), while using his library to research a lecture on St Francis Xavier’s time in the Indian city of Goa. Everybody has a motive for murdering his host and Brown makes the mistake of overlooking the insights provided by the family dog, Nox, even though they had bonded in their dislike of Druce’s American secretary, Patrick Floyd (Bob Sherman). Brown has the humility to recognise his error, however, and identifies the killer before Inspector Cole (Edward Evans), who amuses the priest with his boneheaded suggestion that a volume of religious memoirs could be used as a murder weapon.
Deftly directed by Peter Jeffries (who would share the duties with Robert Tronson, with the exception of the single episode handled by Ian Fordyce), this makes a virtue of the then standard switches between the 16mm film used for the exterior scenes and the videotape employed for the interiors. It also allows More to inject some of Chesterton’s deft humour, as he lures the suspects into believing that he poses no threat by keeping absent-mindedly forgetting Floyd’s name.
Memories of the British Museum’s 1972 exhibition of the treasures of Tutenkhamum would still have been fresh in the minds of viewers watching `The Curse of the Golden Cross’ in October 1974. Screenwriter Hugh Leonard (who adapted seven of the stories) certainly plays on the dread of the hex that might befall American archaeologist Gerald Smaill (James Maxwell) for having uncovered a priceless Byzantine cross. But, after Smaill takes Father Brown into his confidence on a voyage back from Crete, the tension is allowed to dissipate by a couple of loose scenes after the action switches to the Sussex church where the Reverend John Walters (Peter Copley) has found an identical artefact in the tomb of a mummified bishop.
In arriving at his deduction, Brown avers, `I can believe in the impossible, but not the improbable.’ But his trust in humanity almost lands him in peril, when he finds himself alone in the vault with the killer. He almost makes the same mistake in `The Eye of Apollo’, after a murder is committed in the London building in which Flambeau (Dennis Burgess) has opened a detective agency. Father Brown is intrigued by the fact that his friend shares the premises with sisters Pauline (Alison Key) and Joan Stacey (Emily Richard), who offer a secretarial service, and Kalon (Ronald Pickup), whose Apollonian cult has ensnared Pauline, much to the consternation of her blind aunt, Miss Ammerley (Rosamund Greenwood).
The sequence in which Brown and Flambeau return from a claret-soused lunch to exchange a series of nods and winks as Ammerley discusses feminism hasn’t worn well. But Chesterton devised an ingenious solution to this somewhat contrived mystery, while More reveals Brown’s capacity for righteous anger, as he debates belief with Kalon (a former felon from Birmingham whom Brown wittily contrasts with Jesus, another man from the provinces with a criminal record) and rails at the cruelty of the crime in exposing its perpetrator.
While Mark Williams’s Father Brown is safely ensconced in Kembleford, More played a wandering cleric and he fetches up in a BBC studio with Sir Aaron Armstrong (James Hayter) at the start of `The Three Tools of Death’. With his splendidly bustling gait, Brown goes to collect a promised donation for a school for deaf children, only to discover that his would-be benefactor has fallen to his death. On investigating, Brown finds a ransacked room, with a rope dangling out of the window, a bloodstained knife lying on a table and a rug peppered with gunshots.
While Chief Inspector Gilder (Anthony Dutton) is happy to declare this an open and shut case, Father Brown isn’t convinced. He sympathises with the atheist Lady Armstrong (Anne Godley) that `cheerfulness without humour is a very trying thing’ and confides that he rather likes non-believers because he doesn’t `have to talk shop’. But this proves a tricky case, as Brown curses himself for missing a key clue and has to barge his way out of a police cell when the accused attempts to make a false confession that would prevent him from exposing their guilt.
By now. More had settled into the role and was starting to make it his own. He’s on fine form in `The Mirror of the Magistrate’, although his entrance is delayed as cantankerous judge Sir Humphrey Gwynne (Paul Curran) argues with three chums at his club before being shot in his garden, as Inspector Bagshaw (Mark Kingston) and Flambeau happen to be passing. Brown is called in to vouch for Irish Times journalist Michael Flood (Michael O’Hagan) and also takes the side of firebrand socialist Osric Orm (David Pinner) in getting to the truth of the matter.
Given the situation in Northern Ireland at the time this episode was broadcast, the subplot about Eire’s collusion with Germany was a somewhat contentious topic. But, even though Chesterton’s story is a little far-fetched, Michael Voysey’s script is compelling, while More excels in discussing faith, patriotism and what people are willing to do for their beliefs.
The exploration of the conquest of death and reincarnation proves equally fascinating in `The Dagger With Wings’. At last seen on his bicycle, Father Brown wobbles along a country lane in Essex to meet Augustus Aylmer (AJ Brown), who has been coerced into participating in a Dark Angels ceremony by his adopted son, John Strake (David Buck). He dies as the priest gives him the last sacrament and sparks a legal battle, as siblings Stephen (David Swift) and Philip (Michael Sheard) contest the will that leaves everything to the sinister Strake, whose presence in the house is so strong that Philip’s wife, Daphne (April Walker), asks Brown if it’s possible for places to be haunted by the living.
Only a cumbersome flashback during the denouement spoils this deeply unsettling story, in which Brown demonstrates that human evil is to be feared more than the supernatural. More’s scene with AJ Brown has a theological depth that is noticeably absent from the current BBC interpretation, while he also relishes his encounter with TP McKenna as Inspector Boyne, an old friend who has been given a rural beat after surviving an assassination attempt by an Italian anarchist and who shares Brown’s fondness for the odd tipple.
The combination of Chesterton and Hugh Leonard provides More with some more relishable lines in `The Actor and the Alibi’. Charged with finding a missing Catholic girl, Father Brown and Flambeau stumble upon the small-town theatre company that is run by Mundon Mandeville (John Stratton) and his actress wife, Margaret (Rachel Gurney). Brown regrets that, in his capacity as a priest, he is often called upon to save marriages that would be best ended and return runaways who did the right thing in leaving. Nevertheless, he chides Doris Jennings (Roberta Tovey) for selfishly subjecting her parents to so much worry and is about to take his leave when Mundon is murdered in his locked office during a rehearsal of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and both Doris and Italian actress Irene Maroni (Rita Giovanini) disappear.
Things left unsaid often prove as crucial to Father Brown as the testimony he hears and so it turns out in this twisting saga that benefits from a distinguished performance by Rachel Gurney, who will be familiar to many from playing Lady Marjorie Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs (1971-73). Indeed, More rises to the occasion, as he blunders around backstage and not only unfurls the painted backdrop, but also bumps into the thunder sheet to the obvious amusement of the cast. He also makes the most of a rare Poirotesque reveal, as he catches up with a couple of fugitives in the waiting-room of the nearby railway station and explains the mistakes that gave them away.
More got to deliver two of his best speeches as Father Brown in `The Quick One’, although he was almost upstaged by Bernard Lee (who had played Inspector Valentine opposite Alec Guinness in 1954), as his unfortunate line about Islam attracted thousands of complaints. Lee plays John Raggley, who is at war with just about everyone in his village, including his daughter, Edith (Penelope Horner), who is secretly seeing commercial traveller, Frank Vance (Paul Williamson). However, Raggley gets his comeuppance shortly after mocking the temperance beliefs of the Reverend David Pryce-Jones (Frederick Treves) and his Muslim associate, Akbar (Tariq Yunus).
As he looks around the exotically decorated hotel bar with Flambeau, Brown opines: `Murder is always easy, Flambeau. There can’t possibly be anything easier than murder. The difficulty is committing a murder without committing oneself as the murderer. It’s this shyness about owning up to a murder, this silly modesty that murderers have about creating their own masterpieces, that makes the trouble. They will stick to this rather old-fashioned idea of killing people without being found out; and that’s what restrains them, even in a room full of daggers.’
What follows is quite remarkable, as a group of commercial travellers burst into the room and begin jostling noisily for service. They are viewed with silent disdain by Pryce-Jones and Akbar. But, when Raggley appears and orders his customary cherry brandy, he provokes Akbar by demeaning the Prophet and adds insult to injury by toasting the Indian for having the courage to throw a dagger at him in defence of his beliefs. When Raggley is found with a dagger in his back, however, Father Brown avoids jumping to the obvious conclusion, even though Flambeau declares that religious fanatics take a pride in murder because capital punishment allows them to attain paradise.
Involving an unfinished glass of whisky, the case’s resolution is something of an anti-climax. But Brown gives us a rare glimpse inside his mind when he reflects upon the demise of a universally detested individual: `All murders matter, Flambeau. As all men matter. It’s one of the hardest things in theology to believe, that all men matter to God and God only knows why.’ Then, wholly unexpectedly, Brown claims that an entrenched Tory like Raggley might have emulated Dean Swift, Dr Johnson and William Cobbett in preventing England from becoming a commercial wilderness. It’s a very Chestertonian sentiment and very much reflects the time in which it was written. But it jars to modern ears and there’s little wonder that, in our Brexit-benighted times, the BBC has (so far) given this story a wide berth.
A supper conversation about the Marian and Elizabethan martyrs points Father Brown in the right direction in `The Man With Two Beards’. With the village gossiping about a notorious thief nicknamed `Michael Moonshine’, beekeeper Michael Smith (Larry Noble) is callously killed. Unusually, the audience is shown the crime and the story’s suspense lies in watching Brown edge towards discerning a motive. He is intrigued by the claim made by Opal (Freda Dowie) of having seen Judas Iscariot at the window. But it’s the Reformation that steers the cleric in the right direction, as he reasons that `pride in one’s religious zeal is almost as great a sin as one’s pride in other matters’.
Once again, information gained in the confessional helps Father Brown crack the case, as it gives him the insight that `every sort of man has been a saint at some time or other’. However, the use of a flashback to illustrate his exposition of the facts feels unnecessary and distracts from More, as he shows how Brown draws upon the pastoral and the personal in fathoming human nature and the working of the criminal mind.
Another false beard (along with a fake nose) plays a pivotal part in `The Head of Caesar’, as Father Brown and Flambeau come to the aid of Christabel Carstairs (Rosalind Ayres) after she seeks to evade a pursuer by sheltering in the pub in which the friends are having lunch. She explains about the priceless collection of Roman coins bequeathed to her brother, Arthur (John Normington), and coveted by Truslove (Robin Meredith). Moreover, she reveals how she had purloined the Augustus coin because it reminds her of Philip (Brian Anthony), the model she has fallen in love with at the Chelsea art school where she studies.
Making effective use of the Albert Memorial and the costumes at the Arts Ball, this twistingly simmering case contains a hilariously knockabout turn by Lala Lloyd, as the uncouth and shortsighted maid who keeps bumping into the table and knocking things over. Unfortunately, More is deprived of one of Chesterton’s pithiest lines – `What we all dread most is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is a nightmare’ – even though there is actually a maze inside a cross-section of a skull in the opening credit sequence of each episode.
Purists weren’t happy that writer John Portman switched the setting of `The Arrow of Heaven’ from the United States to Britain. But the tale of Daniel Doom and the Coptic chalice that Brander Merton (John Phillips) builds a fortified compound in Northumberland to protect is not without interest. Appearing midway through the action, Father Brown is delighted to meet Colonel Hector Merton (Mike Pratt), who had fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn, although he challenges his sense of rough justice when the case is resolved and Brown avers, `let there be equal lawlessness or equal law’.
More’s best scene, however, comes at the aerodrome, where he manages to pull off a door handle with his umbrella and finds a pair of odd socks in his bag while rummaging around for a screwdriver. He jokes about harmless superstitions involving the removal of odd socks and those worn inside out. But there’s even more of a glint in his eye during an exchange with aviatrix Petra Merton (Angela Douglas), which contains a neat in-joke about one of his most iconic screen roles:-
Father Brown: What? You’re the pilot?
Petra Merton: Well, don’t say you’re anti-feminist?
Father Brown: Oh, on the contrary. We have quite a few saints in Heaven of the feminine gender. Oh, no, no, no! I’m anti-flying.
The exchange is all the more arresting, as it was the first time that More and Angela Douglas appeared together on screen as a married couple. They had previously co-starred in two features, Clive Donner’s Some People (1962) and Alvin Rakoff’s The Comedy Man (1964), and would reunite in the teleplays, John Jacobs’s Goose With Pepper (1975) and James Ormerod’s The Pump (1980). But there’s something very endearing about their repartee in a sequence that allows More to convey the wit, whimsicality and worldliness that Chesterton had made Father Brown’s trademarks.
Episode 13 proved to be unlucky, as `The Secret Garden’ would be the last case that More solved in his priestly guise. Set in Paris, the story revolves around anti-clerical Prefect of Police, Aristide Valentin (Ferdy Mayne), who had played a prominent role in `The Blue Cross’ and had been transposed as Inspector Valentine in the 1934 and 1954 films. Having received numerous death threats, Valentin lives in a house with one entrance and a rear garden protected by an impregnable wall. Nevertheless, a decapitated corpse is discovered during a dinner party and Father Brown is convinced that the solution to the mystery lies in some twigs that nobody else has noticed.
A fine ensemble piece, with a subplot involving the honour of disgraced British soldier, Neil O’Brien (Charles Dance), this is a devilishly dark drama on which to close. In the presence of so many social superiors, Brown is at his most inconspicuous and watchful. However, the solution involving a conversion to Catholicism and a previously unmentioned brother wouldn’t have passed muster with Monsignor Ronald Knox, Chesterton’s fellow member of the Detection Club, whose Ten Commandments about writing detective fiction included the prohibition of mysterious siblings (No.10) and accidents and unaccountable intuitions that enable a gumshoe to expose the culprit (No.6).
Indeed, this case provides much ballast for those who believe that Father Brown is less a sleuth than a theological anthropologist. An argument can be made that Chesterton didn’t really write detective stories at all, but philosophical parables on human weakness, the state of the nation, the need for repentance and the hope of forgiveness. Judging by the success of the current BBC franchise, the public don’t seem to care, as the stories retain a curious relevance for our own times. Forty-five years on, Lew Grade’s series shows signs of ageing, particularly where certain social attitudes are concerned. But, while it creaks in places, Father Brown remains riveting and provides Kenneth More with the finest role of his post-cinematic career. Indeed, he wasn’t far off in suggesting to Roy Pickard in an interview in November 1974, `I think it will be the best thing I’ve ever done.'”
With a career in journalism spanning over 30 years, David Parkinson is one of the UK’s most respected film critics. He is a contributing editor at Empire magazine and writes for the Radio Times, the BFI website and the Oxford Times. As an author his work includes: History of Film and 100 Ideas That Changed Film.