Poor Father Brown. How it must rankle. It’s a good thing he’s a man of the cloth or who knows what evil might worm its way into his heart were he to dwell on all those classic detectives who have fared better than him when it comes to film and television adaptations. Dare one even whisper the words Sherlock Holmes?
The big and small screens are littered with notable Holmeses – from Basil Rathbone in the 1940s to Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to Jeremy Brett’s definitive portrayal throughout the 1980s to Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat’s 2010s BBC update, Sherlock, recently screened on TV One and now available on DVD. Some of us even have a sneaking regard for Robert Downey Jr’s turn in last year’s Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie. (Go on, admit it, he was fun.)
Father Brown, on the other hand, has barely made it to the screen at all, and when he has his mild-mannered mousiness has defeated the actor playing him – even when that actor has been Alec Guinness.
If Guinness couldn’t make a believable fist of Father Brown, what hope had the workaday Kenneth More when he took on the role (and the cassock that went with it) in a 13-part 1974 British TV series now available on DVD.
Of course, Holmes and to a lesser degree Poirot have the advantage of being able to fill a room with their flamboyant presence, whereas the very point of Father Brown is that he is a wallflower who has hardly any presence at all.
As his creator, GK Chesterton, said of this Catholic priest with a face “as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling”, “it was the chief feature to be featureless. The point of him was to appear pointless … his commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with unsuspected vigilance and intelligence”.
Unsuspected vigilance and intelligence are easier to portray in print – in this case in over 50 stories published between 1910 and 1936 – than they are on screen.
But they are not impossible on screen. That, as Sir Ian Sir Ian Sir Ian would say, is acting.
One thinks of Joan Hickson’s portrayal of the quiet, watchful Miss Marple. (One tries not to think of Julia McKenzie, Geraldine McEwan or Margaret Rutherford - the latter compulsive viewing, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the character Agatha Christie wrote).
More, a Rank Organisation star of the 1950s, was an actor of limited range, and hidden depths were not within it. Appalling mugging was his answer to suggesting any dimension to Father Brown beyond a surface dottiness.
But then More was of a piece with ATV, the company that made the series – never one of the great British drama producers and more given to light entertainment, not to mention that byword for slapdash soaps, Crossroads (so wonderfully lampooned in Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques).
More’s Father Brown doesn’t so much melt into the background as merge with the woodwork of the scenery – this being the 1970s, when filming on location was a rarity and it must have been nigh on impossible for British homeowners to find a carpenter since they were all busy in television studios recreating everything from (in Father Brown‘s case) an ocean liner dining room to toffs’ country piles.
All those artificial sets give Father Brown (like most series of the period) the look and feel of repertory theatre, and that look and feel seems to have infected the actors, many of whom have had perfectly respectable careers but here overplay as though they were still treading the boards eight days a week at some theatrical fleapit in the back end of nowhere. (Worst offender: Graham Crowden, so good as Jock McCannon in A Very Peculiar Practice.)
It is a credit to the wit and ingenuity of Chesterton’s original stories, and the theological themes they draw on and bat back and forth (you don’t get that in Agatha Christie), that one can see through the mess More and co make of Father Brown to the series it could still be if anyone were bold enough to have another go.
Come on, someone.
If Moffat – along with his co-creator, The League of Gentlemen‘s Mark Gatiss – can find yet another way to repackage Sherlock Holmes, and Jennifer Garner can be cast as Miss Marple (or will it be Ms Marple?), surely anything is possible.
Moffat and Gatiss’s Sherlock is good, but not quite as clever as it thinks it is and as people keep telling it it is.
A Study in Pink (geddit?) is the first and far and away the best of the three 90-minute films (and these are very much films: we couldn’t be farther away from the studio-bound 1970s than here, where it is location location location, a deliberate attempt to “fetishize modern London”, as Gatiss says in one of the DVD extras).
The success of this first film is in no small part because it is hugely entertaining seeing how they set up the conceit of Holmes in the 21st century, and they do it so well. (There is also a brilliantly gauged performance from the always dependable Phil Davis.)
But once we are over that, although there is still much to enjoy, with lots of neat nods and winks and a good running joke about everyone taking Holmes and Dr Watson for a gay couple, Sherlock isn’t as far removed as it ought to be from all those other police procedurals clogging up TV schedules.
Instead of raising the game of current detectives, in many ways it drags Holmes down to their level.
What holds it together is Benedict Cumberbatch’s spot-on Holmes and Martin Freeman’s wry rendering of Watson. It looks great, too – the series’s visual style being something Moffat and Gatiss talk about in the accompanying documentary Unlocking Sherlock – The Making Of.
The best of the DVD extras is the original pilot for the series, which is a 60-minute version of A Study in Pink, later completely remade for the longer version that screened.
Watching this reveals how nothing – not Cumberbatch’s Holmes, not that visual style – was a given when they began.
It’s like the scene in Alien Resurrection where we see all the failed attempts at replicating Ripley. Or, more chillingly still, listening to the alternative version of Bruce Springsteen’s Racing in the Street released as part of last year’s The Promise box set of Darkness on the Edge of Town outtakes.
There are plenty of big changes that helped to improve A Study in Pink in its final version, but it’s the small ones - the differently delivered lines, the tousling of Holmes’s hair, the tweak to how he ties his scarf – that accumulate to transform what was a tad flat into something so splendidly vibrant.
Detecting those fine-tunings is as pleasurable as trying to keep up with Holmes’s trains of deductive thought in the episodes proper.
Father Brown never got a pilot, of course, let alone the chance to remake it. They didn’t do that sort of thing in those days; certainly not at ATV.
Something else for him to be bitter about.
FATHER BROWN: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Viavision/Madman); SHERLOCK: SERIES ONE (BBC/Roadshow).