Doc On The Box – Father Brown – The Hammer Of God

Father BrownFather Brown was a creation of G K Chesterton, first appearing in The Blue Cross in 1910 and then going on to appear in enough short stories to fill up five collections (with a few extra as well). He has appeared on screen before, most notably in the UK as played by Kenneth More on TV in 1974 and by Andrew Sachs on radio in the mid-1980s. I would imagine if you asked the (well-informed) man in the street to name five classic detectives, the good Father would probably be fourth or fifth on the list, depending on whether the person in question counted Watson. But the character has been absent from the screen for a long time – enter the BBC and Mark Williams.

In a slightly odd bit of scheduling, due presumably as it’s been financed by the BBC daytime TV department, a series of ten fifty minute episodes of Father Brown are being shown over a fortnight in the middle of the afternoon. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at these via the blog as I have little experience with Father Brown and Chesterton. So, what did I think of the first instalment of the priest’s adventures – and the short story that it was based on?

Right, apologies for the lack of recent posts – been incapacitated for a short while and haven’t been near a computer and haven’t had the inclination to read much either. But things are starting to look normal again, so off we go again. Coming soon are book reviews of The Bull Slayer by Bruce MacBain, Murder In The Maze by J J Connington and some television reviews as well. But to start off, I thought I’d resurrect a once-tried idea, the multimedia review.

So, a little background on my past experience of Father Brown – not a lot, basically. I’ve read bits and bobs, mostly from the first collection, but the stories never leapt out at me. The only memory that leaps out is that “The Invisible Man”, regarded it seems as the classic, was to me a pile of nonsense, with a “clever” method that would not have worked in a million years. So I never persevered with the good Father.

I didn’t exactly have the highest hopes for the show – tucked away in the middle of the afternoon – there’s always the feeling that it’s there because it wasn’t good enough for prime-time. Well, you can dismiss that thought right now.

This was rather lovely. It was a classic-style mystery plot, with suspects, a motive and some engaging (if not desperately deep) characters. The killer was well-hidden, although quite easy to guess in a last-man-standing sort of a way. I thought Mark Williams did an excellent job as the lead – very engaging – and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

The fascinating bit about this episode though, is the differences to the short story. If you’ve read the short story, concerning the village cad whose head is smashed in with a hammer so completely that only the village blacksmith could have been strong enough to do, except he has an ironclad alibi. The story has a simple-but-clever way round the “impossibility”, although, on re-reading it, there’s a bit of a cheat in omitting something from the narrative the first time through. But to be fair, Father Brown is an intuitive sleuth, rather than a deductive one (and yes, I do know it’s supposed to be inductive, apparently), and the story is written in a fascinating style, so one can easily overlook this niggle.

The television episode, to last fifty minutes, has to expand the story immensely. The victim’s “affair” with the blacksmith’s wife is expanded on, the village weirdo metamorphoses into a much more important character, and some additional potential villains are introduced as well. But what I found most fascinating is that the “only the blacksmith could have done it” aspect is removed, effectively removing the only thing that really resembles a clue. Similarly, there is an intimation that no-one else was near the victim when he died without ever really saying it clearly. Came across as slightly odd.

So, to sum up, a highly enjoyable hour-ish of television, and I’ll certainly be back for the rest of the series. As for the short story – I think it’s safe to say that I admired it for what it is, but, to be honest, I enjoyed the TV episode more. That’s probably blasphemy, so I’m off to burn in hell now. Bye!

Oh, and while I’m here – while I’m doing a lot of TV reviews at the moment, I doubt I’ll get round to Ripper Street. But from what I’ve seen so far, Father Brown would be a much more pleasant way to spend Sunday evening…


  1. Good to have you back Doctor. I only head of these yesterday when I was watching Death in Paradise Episode 2. I’ve got them downloading, but my expectations are low: some of the episode synopses for later “adaptations” sound VERY dubious (well beyond any new-Marple levels of tampering!)

    As for the originals… Well you know how critical I am, and even I think they’re masterpieces! I think you’ve just been unlucky with your choices. Hammer of God is a bit of a duffer and I agree with you that The Invisible Man is very overrated. In fact it’s probably my least favourite. The stories from the middle collections are much better.

    If you’ve got some lying around, I’d recommend giving them another go, especially The Mirror of the Magistrate. I really think the originals are worth reading before the TV series “spoils” them for you.


  2. Yes, it’s shaping up to be a very good series – although it would have got a heck of a lot more attention had it been shown at prime-time, especially with enough episodes to last ten weeks.


    • I’m pretty sure that it was made on a low budget by the daytime drama department so, despite the quality end product, they get the broadcast. The real surprise is to waste it so quickly, rather than let word of mouth build up…


  3. I’ll echo what Rich says above. I’m a reader (rather than a watcher), and I’ve always enjoyed the Father Brown stories, but I agree that what Rich calls the middle collections are probably better.


  4. I’m a huge fan of the Chesteron stories (hooked at an early stage) – I would single out THE SECRET GARDEN with its impossible crime as one that you would really like, while THE ORACLE OF THE DOG, THE QUEER FEET and THE DAGGER WITH WINGS are also excellent.

    I really didn’t like this latest version on the evidence of the first episode however – not just because Chesterton doesn’t get a story credit (only a ‘based on the characters created by’) but because, as you say, it largely bungled the plot while adding the homosexual angle seemed unnecessary to me (and indeed offensive in many ways). It is hard to adapt the stories directly to fill an hour, clearly, and the 70s versions were often pretty dull while the Alec Guinness movie from the 50s had to use two stories and still had to mainly work on charm, which is the element that I thought this opening episode fatally lacked. Williams is physically good casting in the role but I found his playing really lacking in the light touch, often interjecting and making very heavy weather of important points and unimportant points, often seeming quite rudderless. I will watch more of them to see if I think they are any better but I’m afraid this one really didn’t do it for me.


    • I think the Father Brown stories are virtually impossible to adapt, because the screenwriter’s natural inclination to flesh out subplots, characters and setting goes completely against the sparse, dreamlike nature of the stories. I remember enjoying a few episodes of the radio series with Andrew Sachs, but then radio is a great medium for leaving details sketchy.

      Luckily, The Oracle of the Dog doesn’t seem to have been adapted for this series, so the Doc can enjoy it in it’s original form! Another true classic there…


      • I suspect you are right and the enjoyment one derives from the wit and the use of language and gift for paradox is just too literary, too cerebral – I quite liked the Sachs version though they were also a bit dull at times – the recent adaptation for BBC Radio 4 (written by Bert Coules) of THE SECRET GARDEN was pretty good I thought with Richard Greenwood as Brown


      • Current plan for me with these is to watch the series and then read the relevant short stories. Then I’ll take a look at some of the recommendations that you wise folks are sending my way.

        Three episodes in to the series now and the next two were interesting – basic comfy mystery television with more of a plot that your average TV detective show. I think it would be hard to distil out the obvious change to the source material that I can see even from the relatively straightforward padding out of The Hammer of God if I was a long-time fan of the original stuff. But I’m not, so I’ll enjoy the TV series and then take a look at all of your suggestions.


  5. Ms Flowerdew has now invented an episode about murderous nuns which has no basis in Chesterton. Why is the BBC allowed to steal the name of Father Brown for a series which, apart from the lead character, has nothing at all to do with the stories on which it is supposedly “based” ?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.