This blog about the development of the first series of BBC1’s Father Brown was written for, and first published on, the WGGB (Writers’ Guild of Great Britain) website, and is reproduced here by their kind permission.
January 2013 was possibly the scariest four weeks of my life. A fortnight into the month, starting the new daytime schedules after the transfer of children’s to CBBC, my first original series (co-developed with Tahsin Guner, another BBC Writers’ Academy alumnus) began transmitting. We had no idea how our liberal (but loving) adaptation of GK Chesterton’s bite-sized priestly mysteries would sit with a daytime audience more used to Cash in the Attic. But how had we even come to be writing period whodunits for wintry British afternoons?
It was all down to Ann Widdecombe. Thanks, Ann.
Back in 2011, Tahsin and I (at this stage, barely acquaintances, much less creative collaborators) were at the end of the road with a pair of original detective dramas we’d independently pitched to BBC Daytime through John Yorke and Will Trotter. Much as the Beeb liked what we’d invented, in order to risk their limited cash, they wanted something a little more bankable.
Roll up, Ms. Widdecombe. She had just put out a Radio 4 show discussing her favourite novelist – GK Chesterton – and his Father Brown short stories, about an unassuming Catholic priest who moonlights as an amateur detective. John pitched the stories straight-off to Liam Keelan (then BBC Head of Daytime), and within days, Tahsin and I were asked – independently – to create treatments, building a precinct and supporting characters around the central priest. Parish secretary Mrs. McCarthy first drew breath in an email to Ceri Meyrick, our producer, in which I pitched a “doughty, no-nonsense 60-something lay second-in-command who’s kind of a mother-figure but who probably also slightly fancies him/dotes on him… someone to check facts for him, to protect him from the wrath of the diocese, to make sure he eats…” Some of that original email is now on the BBC Father Brown website in her character biog. That’ll learn me.
Just one meeting took us from a bunch of people who had barely worked together, to a crack drama team. Or something. We spent a chilly December day driving around the Cotswolds, where we’d settled on setting Father Brown: the original stories have no precinct, with Father Brown popping up in Paris; on a boat; in a country house – great fun, but way too costly for daytime telly. We saw amazing houses, met a Reverend and toured the vicarage that became Father Brown’s presbytery, and over a pie-and-mash lunch in a local pub, locked down the gang of characters, era and Gloucestershire village setting of our interpretation of Father Brown. Tahsin and I had two weeks, working remotely, to amalgamate our treatments. By January, we had script commissions. By June, Ceri and director Ian Barber were shooting them.
So it was quick – but not painless. The greatest strengths of Chesterton’s stories are also, inevitably, what makes turning them into TV drama most difficult. Their brilliant central conceit of an unassuming, innocent-seeming, easily-overlooked priest who in truth knows the darkest secrets of men’s hearts – and who is out to solve crime not to mete out justice, but to save souls – set us the challenge of creating a dramatic character who can drive the story, yet who retains these key qualities, rightly prized by Chesterton aficionados. And the tales themselves tend to follow an arc of brilliantly-described build-up with a final twist in the tail – perfect for bite-sized prose, but nowhere near twisty enough for 50 minutes of TV drama. Tahsin and I both chose to reinvent existing Chesterton stories, layering them with new tensions, motives and, in my case, a whole new murder that arrived fully-formed into draft 3… Later writers created their own stories within our world – five out of the ten episodes are adaptations, five are original.
There were more changes. In the original stories (spoiler alert!) Inspector Valentin(e) is short-lived – the culprit of an early murder, he’s unceremoniously dispatched. We knew we needed an ongoing detective, and it seemed obvious to rehabilitate Chesterton’s invention. With two middle-aged men in lead roles, we then started looking for strong female characters, across a wide age/class range, who could hold their own alongside them – Lady Felicia and Susie joined Mrs. McCarthy in the line-up. Though Tahsin and I were involved in pitching casting suggestions, we couldn’t have dreamt of the amazing actors Ceri and her team signed up. The read-through of our first two eps was magical – Mark Williams was Father Brown, Sorcha Cusack brought along a Cork accent and made Mrs. McCarthy emphatically her own, and Hugo Speer (Valentine) turned up without even having a contract yet – their faith in the scripts couldn’t fail to excite us.
All we needed now was good weather in June.
It poured. Our cast hid under giant umbrellas between takes. And yet… somehow the finished article looks sunlit and amazing. Like stablemate Land Girls, it makes the most of being entirely shot on location; the chocolate-box good-looks of the Cotswolds are shown off to perfection – though we know they often cover something sinister under the surface.
From just the rough montage shown at the August wrap party, we knew the cast and crew had more than done justice to the work we, Ceri, script editor Neil Irvine, and the other writers had put in. We were all immensely proud of Father Brown – but there’s never a guarantee that your audience will share your excitement. The alchemy of transmission is the moment you know whether what you’ve put the last year of your life into is gold – or dross.
But we couldn’t have been luckier with our reception. Don’t get me wrong – there’s at least one irate Chesterton fan who’d happily see me meet a fate more suited to the victim of a murder mystery than its writer (thanks, Twitter) – but to our immense relief and delight, the vast majority of public response has been more than kind. The listings magazines and newspapers gave us an unprecedented amount of coverage for a daytime drama – no doubt much due to the photogenic backdrop and astonishingly renowned cast – but in truth, their accolades are only important to the extent they draw an audience to the show, who then have to make up their own minds…
We were also lucky with the unexpected snow, which meant that everyone in Britain not careering down a hill on their tea-tray was glued to the telly on an icy Monday afternoon. It gave us a boost to get word-of-mouth in action. The criticism we got most often – and it’s a lovely criticism to get – was ‘why is it buried in daytime?’. The simple answer is that Daytime were the people who had the vision and the bravery to commission us (Catholic priests aren’t top of many drama controllers’ go-to lists), and they have the expertise to make chocolate-box period drama on a shoestring. Afternoon TV shouldn’t be a second-class citizen, and hopefully, by continuing the tradition set by Land Girls, The Indian Doctor and 32 Brinkburn Street, we’ve helped draw an audience to future drama in the post-lunch slot. Not least Father Brown series two (plug alert!), which we’re currently writing, hopefully for transmission in early 2014. We can only hope that audiences once again embrace our (re)vision of a bespectacled priest on his ramshackle bicycle, solving crime because he believes even the worst of criminals can be saved.