Friday, May 22, 2015

Father Brown

The past few weeks, I have been enjoying watching Father Brown on PBS - a British television drama which began airing on BBC in January 2013. It is based on the original Father Brown character, created originally by G. K. Chesterton. Some of the early episodes are supposed to be loosely based on some of Chesterton's actual stories, but many of the stories seem to have been newly composed for this series. It is set during the early 1950s, in a fictional Cotswold village, where Father Brown is the parish priest at St Mary's Catholic Church, while solving crimes on the side. Father Brown’s vocation as a priest affords him a unique perspective on human nature and insight into human behavior.

Many of the original Father Brown short stories were required reading in my high school in the early 1960s. I can remember reading them and maybe an odd scene or two, but for the most part I don't remember and so probably wouldn't really recognize the stories themselves, although I certainly do remember the character Chesterton created and can readily recognize him in the new series. The new series seems to be trying to be faithful to what was so distinctive about Chesterton's Father Brown - the unique way in which his priesthood equips him to be such a good detective. It is always nice to see television that portrays religion in such a positive light. 

According to something I saw somewhere, the contemporary series was set in the 1950s in order to allow Father Brown to solve crimes using his knowledge of human nature and insight into human behavior in a period prior to our contemporary crime-solving technology. The Chesterton character clearly wouldn't work as well in a world in which criminal investigations are heavily scientific and technological.  his distinctive skills would either be redundant, or else their superiority would discredit contemporary science and technology. 

Personally, I rather like the 1950s ambience. It nicely evokes a simpler time - not just in terms of crime-solving technology, but in human and social relations. And a priest detective certainly seems much more credible in that era than would be the case today. But I wish they had been more completely consistent about the 1950s setting. Father Brown is sometimes heard to use the plural possessive (their) to refer to a singular antecedent, when an authentically 1950s speaker would likely have used the masculine singular (his). And, whether due to ignorance or inattention, Father Brown's liturgical vestments - for example, the ugly white chasuble he wore in the first episode and the purple funeral vestments he wore in the second - look much too contemporary (as, even more inappropriately, is the use of purple instead of black for a funeral Mass in the second episode). Nor is it very likely that a real Lady Felicia would have sung Amazing Grace at a Catholic Mass in the 1950s. These are, I suppose, somewhat minor quibbles that do not radically undermine the drama, but they do detract from the 1950s ambience, contaminating it with an out-of-place contemporary sensibility.

That said, Father Brown is quality drama, evokes chesterton's original character well enough, and is good fun.

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