What has the BBC done to Father Brown?

Father Brown, played by Mark Williams

The BBC’s Father Brown is an admirable addition to the proud tradition of British crime dramas.

It’s set in the idyllic village of Kembleford, where roughly three quarters of residents sit in the House of Lords. No one seems to mind that the leading cause of death is bludgeoning or that the police come dangerously close to hanging innocents at least once a week. The economy is comprised entirely of bake sales and inheritance taxes, which are plentiful, given the volume of aristocrats and the high rate of bludgeoning.

Father Brown is just as dumpy and pleasant as Chesterton devotees will remember. And he is, quite remarkably, just as brilliant. All the clues are laid out plainly along the way, so a clever viewer can solve the crime apace with Father Brown. He lacks the original character’s wit, but we can hardly blame television writers for failing to match the Prince of Paradox. No matter: at least the whimsy remains intact. (One particular culprit heads a New Age cult of sun-worshippers; one victim keeps an Indian hermit in residence at his estate.)

Alas, the BBC’s in-house theologians have rather dropped the ball. It’s slightly unbelievable, for instance, that Father Brown would balk at the idea of performing an exorcism on a haunted house.

“I’m sure there’s a rational explanation,” he sneers at the homeowner. But the family hears strange noises, she pleads. Things move on their own. “I’ll give your house a blessing,” Father Brown snaps, “but there are no such things as ghosts.”

That’s true, from a doctrinal perspective. The Church does not teach that ghosts exist. Still, the tell-tale signs of haunting (bumps in the night and all that) could certainly mean the house is under demonic oppression. No decent priest – and certainly not one that sprang fully formed from Chesterton’s skull – would dismiss the idea of evil spirits who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls.

I assumed this was a one-off plot hole. Sadly not. Father Brown is later overheard gently teasing an inventor who claims to have built a time machine. “Your predecessors were damning of a young scientist named Galileo,” says the inventor. “Locked him in a dungeon. And don’t even get me started on Giordano Bruno.”

The scene is set for one of Chesterton’s delicious maxims. My choice: “I never said a word against eminent men of science. What I complain of is a vague popular philosophy which supposes itself to be scientific when it is really nothing but a sort of new religion, and an uncommonly nasty one.” At the very least, he might have mentioned that Bruno was a Dominican friar, or that Galileo was merely building on the theories set out by Nicolaus Copernicus, who is believed by many – including Galileo himself – to have been a Catholic priest.

But no. Father Brown gathers himself and announces that, “Unlike my predecessors, I believe that scientific discoveries should be celebrated, not damned.” He’s a good Catholic, you see. He’s not one of those nasty priests that spend their Sundays burning copies of On the Origin of Species outside the London Oratory.

Mind you, this Father Brown is no mere sceptic. In one episode, he invites an unmarried interracial couple to shack up in his presbytery. Very open-minded and Christ-like, of course – until the woman, a Haitian immigrant, is revealed to be a voodoo priestess. Still, Father Brown does not turn them out. On the contrary, when she sacrifices a piece of Bakewell tart to the lwa (or spirit) of unrequited love, Father Brown piously crosses himself.

In another episode, a coven of witches moves into the village promising to restore the old gods. A council of local Christian ministers is convened, and they move to condemn their neo-paganism as intrinsically evil. Father Brown is the lone dissenting voice. “Witchcraft,” he declares with an undergraduate’s self assurance, “is a spiritual path, which is rooted in nature and the cycle of the seasons.” He then toddles off to the high warlock’s hut and invites him to an ecumenical dinner on St John’s Eve, which happily coincides with the pagan festival of Midsummer.

Presumably the show’s writers flipped through Chesterton’s Heretics and noticed he had a certain respect for pagans. Really, it was the kind of rhetorical respect one can harbour in spades for any extinct race: ancient Egyptians, Blairites, etc. We can sing their praises all we like because they pose no threat to us.

Witches, who have never died out, are another matter completely. In his study of William Blake, Chesterton wrote that witches “threaten spiritual tyranny”, for which they were “somewhat excusably” burned. Indeed, if a modern magician was found to have real supernatural powers, he hoped “any decent mob would drown him like a witch”.

There is a word for a kind of Christian who thinks exorcism is bunk and the Catholic Church hates science, but witchcraft and voodoo are marvellous. They are called Unitarians. So, I’d like to make a suggestion to the BBC. In the next season, make Father Brown a Unitarian minister. Rename the show The Reverend Mr Brown, and have him marry the parish secretary, Mrs McCarthy (or, better yet, the voodoo priestess).

You don’t need to explain the change. It couldn’t possibly be more confusing than the silly pretence that Father Brown is a Catholic priest – a pretence from which this otherwise marvellous show suffers so needlessly.

Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor.

The sixth series of  Father Brown is on BBC One on weekdays at 1.45pm

This article first appeared in the January 19 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here