As BBC series Father Brown returns for a milestone 10th season, DQ heads to the sunlit Cotswolds to find the vicar-turned-detective entertaining a royal visitor while gathering an increasing number of famous fans around the world.
In what was surely the most eyebrow-raising news of the Christmas period, the legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan revealed that he adores Father Brown. Indeed, he said he loves nothing more than binge-watching the soothing BBC One series about a sleuthing priest. The Times They Are A-Surprisin’.
So could Father Brown script producer Neil Irvine write a cameo role for Dylan in the next season, perhaps at an open-mic competition in Kembleford Village Hall where the audience starts booing when he plays an electric rather than an acoustic guitar?
“We’d love to have him on the show,” smiles Irvine. “We’re all thrilled by the news. It’s just so lovely that someone like Bob Dylan is a fan. We’re hugely flattered that he likes the show. He said Father Brown makes him feel at home, which I thought was lovely. He also said he doesn’t like anything foul-smelling or evil!”
No one would ever describe Father Brown as foul-smelling or evil. Its charm lies in its fragrant gentleness. Made by BBC Studios Productions, the show has an easygoing appeal that has captivated audiences all over the world.
Starring Mark Williams in the lead role, the series is based on the beloved GK Chesterton novels about a man with a double life worthy of Superman – priest by day, detective by night. And at the last count, Father Brown was showing in 230 territories thanks to distributor BBC Studios. In Australia, for instance, it enjoys a primetime slot on a Saturday night, while the fact that the 10th season of the detective drama is commencing on BBC One this Friday underlines its enduring global popularity.
The worldwide success of Father Brown has meant Williams has been greeted in the most unexpected places. “I was once recognised by a bunch of Russian fishermen,” says the actor, who is also well known for the Harry Potter films and The Fast Show. “I was also once in Cartagena in Spain in a sweet shop, and a little girl came up to me and threw her arms around my legs saying, ‘Father Brown!’ That’ll do for me.
“Another time, we were filming in Blockley, which doubles as Kembleford. This Bulgarian woman had only gone there to look at the church. But when she saw us filming, she just burst into tears and said, ‘I never knew you would be filming here.’”
On set in the Cotswolds last year, it is very easy to see why Father Brown has been such a huge international hit. It is a gorgeous summer’s day, and the bright sunlight burnishes the honey-hued stone of the idyllic Gloucestershire village of Broadwell. You almost feel the Cotswolds should get joint-top billing with Williams.
We are observing the filming of a typically entertaining episode about Princess Margaret visiting Kembleford. Shielding ourselves from the intense sun during the hottest British summer on record, we are sitting underneath an umbrella in the garden of The Fox pub (standing in for The Red Lion in the show). Each take is marked by the slam of a clapperboard bearing the silhouette of Father Brown riding his trademark bicycle.
A fabulous, gleaming 1950s police car is parked in splendid isolation outside the pub, which is clad in festive bunting and festooned with blooming hanging baskets. Could the scene be any more quintessentially English?
What is it, then, that has given Father Brown, which now runs to 110 episodes, such a broad international reach? One reason is that the series is a prime example of the enormously popular genre of “cosy crime.” Very much rooted in the British Golden Age of crime writing, this genre showcases murders in impeccably genteel period surroundings.
Like the polite, elegant, yet inescapably murderous work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (also known as the ‘Queens of Crime’), Father Brown serves up the alluring idea of homicide over tea and cucumber sandwiches.
In the same way as many of the best-loved British TV detective dramas – Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Endeavour and Grantchester – Father Brown also plays out against picturesque, historic English backdrops.
“Father Brown presents a chocolate-box England that translates all over the world,” Irvine says. “It’s a huge seller for the BBC. Fans from around the globe say they love the characters, the humour, the settings and the period.
“They also love the fact that, because it’s pre-watershed, you can watch it with your granny. It’s something the whole family can watch together. Ultimately, it’s an idealised version of the 50s. Everyone really wants to live in this place called Kembleford. They just ignore the fact that someone dies there every day!”
Father Brown also harks back to an era when the world seemed less complex and disturbing. “It offers a version of the past when times were a lot simpler,” Irvine continues. “It presents very traditional values. You don’t have the internet, you don’t have mobile phones and you don’t have any modern anxieties. It’s just a much simpler, bucolic, lovely time and place. Yes, someone in the village may get murdered every other day, but at least we know Father Brown is there to restore justice.”
The drama proffers a reassuring balm in these troubled times as well. “It has a wonderful escapist quality,” Irvine notes. “Things are challenging at the moment. So to transport yourself back to a 1950s, idealised version of the world is very attractive.”
Another quality that makes Father Brown stand out is that the central character wants not just to solve crimes but to save souls. Williams believes the priest makes such a good detective because he possesses “endless curiosity.” “Everything matters,” he says. “Father Brown is a differently motivated character to most detectives, where it’s an intellectual problem-solving thing.
“Father Brown is dealing with people’s souls because he’s a man of faith. For him, it’s about respect for humanity. The respect he believes humanity should have for itself is very, very important to him. And what’s disappointing to him is when people let him down and don’t have that.”
Claire Russell, script editor on the series, emphasises that Father Brown’s sense of morality is key. “He has his own moral compass. It’s a lot about redemption,” she says. “Obviously, it’s to do with the church, but it’s also to do with his character. He’s not just toeing the Catholic line; he’s actually bringing those values to life and believing them. He doesn’t make judgements about people. He really is there to save their souls.”
The final enticing aspect of Father Brown is the calibre of the guest stars it attracts. In the past, actors such as Louise Brealey (Sherlock), Martin Kemp (EastEnders), John Sessions (Stella Street), William Gaminara (Silent Witness), Mark Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) and Adrian Scarborough (Gavin and Stacey) have appeared. This season features names such as Elaine Paige (Evita) and Kara Tointon (EastEnders).
Irvine explains why the show continues to lure such terrific guests. “It’s tremendous fun for them to come and spend the week in the Cotswolds in the summer. What’s not to like?”
There are also quite a lot of famous people who are fans of the show. “Alan Titchmarsh is a fan, as well as Bob Dylan,” says Irvine. Did he ever think he would utter that sentence? “No. But it has really made my week!”