Thursday, 7 March 2013

Father Brown

G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories were published in five books from 1911 to 1935. A little while ago, fellow blogger Demetrius alerted me to a new Father Brown BBC TV series. There were to be ten episodes each about 50 minutes long broadcast on successive days, so I put them on to series record.

However, as Demetrius warned me later, this new TV version of Father Brown had strayed a very long way from the original.

Re TV Father Brown, took a look. At 50 minutes it is clearly destined to be satellite scenic retro tosh. Chesterton it isn't nor is it much at all. Also, it seems to be relocated to possibly the Cotwolds and advanced fifty years. It did not resemble much though the Cotswolds I knew in the 1950's. It had a very large dollop of 21st Century correctness and it was the poor old Anglican vicar who was the one with a bad dose of religion. The locomotive was right for the 1950's but not the coaching stock. Also, plain clothes detectives inspectors of police were not in village police stations or chasing about in routine car patrols.

Yes – I won’t argue with that. We found them just about watchable for winter afternoons with nothing else to do. However, the TV series prompted me to read the original stories again. I’d read some of them, but so long ago I could barely remember them. It may even have been during my teens.

The entire collection of Father Brown stories is available on Kindle for 77 pence which by any standards is a real bargain. I'll repeat that for Kindle doubters - 

all five books for 77 pence.

To my surprise I find I like them and can’t stop reading them. I’m already well over half way through the entire series, even though I’m not a huge Chesterton fan. Although he wrote fluently and had a great imagination, I find he looms behind his works like a great hairy, didactic presence.

Father Brown is no Sherlock Holmes either in spite of Chesterton’s imaginative plots. Brown’s character is somewhat flat and shadowy and the stories are written in the third person, which doesn’t help warm him up. Conan Doyle wrote almost all the Sherlock Holmes stories in the first person from Dr Watson’s viewpoint and that brought even Holmes’ austere character to life.

Conan Doyle doesn’t loom behind his stories as Chesterton does. For example, Chesterton can’t resist digs at atheism and science which don't blend well into what little we are told of Father Brown's character. He carries it off mainly because he is a fluent writer. Mind you, I think this quote is rather good.

“What we dread most,” said the priest in a low voice, “is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.”
G K Chesterton – The Head of Caesar

In spite various jarring notes, I like the stories very much. I don't count Chesterton as a great writer, but he weaves a thoroughly delicious, Gothic atmosphere such that even when Father Brown walks down a street there is a strange and eerie influence lurking in every shadow. And of course there are many shadows.

An otherworldly sense of mystery, romance and frustrated fates circle round Father Brown's blameless life in a way I find most refreshing after the clunking routines of modern drama.

So all in all I much prefer the Father Brown books to the TV series. The TV series is tosh as Demetrius says, but not wholly unwatchable tosh if you are ill or have a cream cake to get through. Father Brown's character is much less of a blank than the books too, but I won't bother with the next series.

Chesterton's clever plots and the glorious, creepy gothic atmosphere of Father Brown's world – the TV series just can't touch it.

They entered the churchyard slowly, the eyes of the American antiquary lingering luxuriantly over the isolated roof of the lynch-gate and the large unfathomable black growth of the yew looking like night itself defying the broad daylight. The path climbed up amid heaving levels of turf in which the gravestones were tilted at all angles like stone rafts tossed on a green sea, till it came to the ridge beyond which the great sea itself ran like an iron bar, with pale lights in it like steel. Almost at their feet the tough rank grass turned into a tuft of sea-holly and ended in grey and yellow sand; and a foot or two from the holly, and outlined darkly against the steely sea, stood a motionless figure.

G K Chesterton - The Curse of the Golden Cross.


James Higham said...

Re TV Father Brown, took a look. At 50 minutes it is clearly destined to be satellite scenic retro tosh. Chesterton it isn't nor is it much at all.

If so, that's a very great disappointment. Stories like The Queer Feet need to be done right.

Demetrius said...

When I started reading GKC it was sixty plus years ago in a different world. What he taught me was how to look at things in different ways and to take nothing for granted. There was also in Fr. Brown and other works a distinct view of human civilising qualities that seems largely lost today.

A K Haart said...

James - the stories are not straight enactments of the originals, although they nick ideas.

Demetrius - I agree, there were civilising qualities in them and in many other books of that era too.