April 29th, 2019

Not Wiped After All

It was the early 80s- before there was streaming or DVDs or videos- and I was planning an article on the Father Brown TV series- which was then about 10 years old- so I wrote to the makers and they invited me up to Borehamwood and very kindly ran a couple of episodes for me. In the course of the correspondence they told me I was just in time because they were doing some housekeeping and Father Brown was slated to be wiped and the tapes reused.

Back in the 70s no-one in television was thinking of posterity. Shows like Father Brown were made to be shown once- perhaps twice- and then shelved. Tape was expensive and old shows often got recorded over for reasons of economy. It's now notorious how much we lost in the process- great chunks of the Hartnell and Troughton eras of Dr Who, for instance. I'd always assumed that Father Brown had gone too- as threatened- and I was really pleased to discover while truffling about on the Net yesterday that all thirteen episodes have survived- and are widely available. They were issued on DVD early this century- and, of course, are to be found on YouTube.

I watched a couple. Production values aren't great. They're in colour- but lots of people would still have still been watching in black and white so why bother to do anything with it? The switching about between video-tape for indoor scenes and film for exteriors was jarring at the time and is even more so now. The pub scenes in The Hammer of God (episode 1) look like amateur night at the local rep. On the plus side the writing is intelligent and witty- with a lot of original Chesterton embedded in it- and some of the acting is better than good enough. Whatever ever happened to Guy Slater who plays a bright young thing in The Oracle of the Dog (episode 2) with such naturalistic charm and ease? Surely stardom beckoned? I looked him up and found he moved sideways and has since enjoyed a highly distinguished but uncelebrated career in writing, directing and producing. Not exactly a pity but, well, he was awfully good at the job he gave up. Incidental pleasures include spotting big names before they got big- Alun Armstrong as a village idiot for instance. Guest stars don't always deliver. Graham Crowden is the wrong kind of eccentric to be playing a wicked squire, Rupert Davies (the BBC's iconic Maigret) puts hardly any effort into the crotchety old gent whom everyone has a motive for killing; thankless role, no thanks for what you made of it, Rupert.

And then there's Kenneth More, cast against type as the little detective priest- and demonstrating how if you're a star all you have to do is sit in the corner- and an audience will watch you in preference to the lesser lights who are putting so much effort into their big confrontation centre stage. It's a performance that belongs with Hickson's Marple, Brett's Holmes and Suchet's Poirot- masterly, delightful, definitive.

Did my showing of interest at a critical moment help save it from being wiped? I'd love to thing it did.

P.S. I'll be watching all 13 episodes. Episode 3, The Curse of the Golden Cross, is properly spooky, with a strong cast- and the location shooting was all done in Sussex- at the caves in Hastings, at Wilmington (where the Long Man is- though sadly he doesn't feature) and briefly at Birling Gap.