Developing Father Brown for BBC One

Monday 14 January 2013, 13:26

Tahsin Guner & Rachel Flowerday Tahsin Guner & Rachel Flowerday Writers

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Father-Brown.jpg Father Brown - BBC One Drama

TG: First, as is apt, a confession: before working on Father Brown, I’d never read a single word of GK Chesterton. Or written a murder-mystery. Or a period piece. Or developed a new TV series. I’d written numerous episodes of Holby City, as well as Casualty, Eastenders, and Doctors, but this was new territory. I was well outside my comfort zone – but I think that’s a good place for a writer to be.

RF: Well, I’d done nearly all those things, but I’m not sure it made it any easier! It’s such a major undertaking, adapting a well-loved character and set of stories that work brilliantly as they are – but that need complete revisioning to shine in a TV drama format, especially for daytime. Creating a precinct and a gang of supporting characters were key, both financially and to give our audience a familiar welcome each ep – but they had to work with Chesterton’s tone and themes. And there are an awful lot of Chesterton fans out there (my mum included!) who would be rightly furious if we got it wrong.

TG: Rachel and I were approached independently about developing Father Brown. Our paths had crossed, briefly, in 2009, when I was attending a Writersroom residential course on continuing drama, and Rachel was a guest speaker, having come through the BBC Writers’ Academy  (unbeknownst to me at the time, later that year I too would be ensconced in the writing boot camp that was the Writers’ Academy).

RF: In fact I had also been on a Writersroom course, aimed at developing original drama, and we’ve both been heavily involved with BBC Continuing Drama since leaving the Academy. I can’t express how amazing an experience the Academy was – it gets a bit of stick in writing circles, but it gives you such a valuable lexicon to use when talking about story, and a really robust understanding of how stories have worked for generations, in all formats (not just soap!). I certainly drew on it for Father Brown.

TG: We both wrote treatments for “Father Brown – The TV Series”, creating the precinct and a cast of supporting characters. Quicker than you can say “vespers”, we were off to the Cotswolds to scout locations. Over a pub lunch with John Yorke (exec), Will Trotter (exec), Ceri Meyrick (producer), Sam Hill (Series Producer), and Neil Irvine (script editor) we decided on the period and nailed down our supporting characters.

RF: We settled on a gang of six regular characters, including Father Brown, trying to introduce different elements of ‘50s society and an even age/sex mix. Inspector Valentine was a Chesterton invention, though he’s written out of the stories early on, and Sid, our ducking-and-diving chauffeur, was loosely inspired by Chesterton’s master-criminal-turned-crimefighter Flambeau – in fact, in early treatments, his name was ‘Flam’. Renaming him ‘Sid’ was a nod to the Sid James character in the Alec Guinness film – never say we’re not Catholic in the breadth of our source material! Susie brings a touch of will-they-won’t-they romance, and introduces the world of Polish immigrants in the 50s – a nice parallel with today – and Lady Felicia adds glamour, and gives Father Brown an ‘in’ to all sorts of interesting worlds. Mrs. McCarthy is the parish secretary – Catholics out there will know how important that role is in any parish…

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Lady Felicia reveals that Annie Marie had a drinking problem.

TG: Rachel and I had two weeks to amalgamate our treatments, which became the “bible” for the show, containing biogs for all the characters, and guidelines on the format and tone of the series. We then had about a month to write our first drafts – Rachel chose “The Flying Stars”, whilst I went with “The Hammer of God”.

RF: There’s a blog out there somewhere where someone, when our series was first announced, decided to review the five stories he considered most likely to be adapted… let’s put it this way, “The Flying Stars” and “The Hammer of God” did not feature! It probably tells you a lot about us as writers that we chose those two. I think Tahsin was drawn to the religious conflict in “Hammer” (no spoilers, I’ll say no more), whereas I was intrigued by the interaction between appearance and reality in “Stars” – it even has a play-within-the-play, like classic Revenge Tragedy!

TG: They’re challenging stories to adapt. Father Brown is described by Chesterton as being almost invisible, someone who fades into the background. Not exactly jumping off the screen then! Whilst not losing this aspect of his character – the quiet observer of things – we re-imagined him as somewhat more playful and outgoing, as well as tolerant and forward-thinking. In addition, for the stories to work for television, they needed more suspects, more twists and turns – in short, more story!

RF: I think both episodes will nonetheless be instantly recognisable to fans of the stories – we’ve created new twists, conflicts and motives, but the heart of the mysteries is still beating loudly inside! Of the series of ten, five are adaptations, five are new stories – it’ll be interesting seeing whether people unfamiliar with the source material will be able to tell which is which…

TG: Now, a couple of days away from transmission, it’s thrilling – and a huge relief – to see the show getting such great previews in the listings magazines and newspapers. Mark Williams brings so much charm, compassion, intellect, and humour to the character. Sorcha Cusack, as Mrs McCarthy, is a force of nature. Hugo Speer, as Inspector Valentine, brings a working class integrity, both a foil and ally to Father Brown. The rest of the cast – Alex Price, Nancy Carroll and Kasia Koleczek – inhabit their roles. Debbie Wiseman’s music is luscious. Oh, and the show looks gorgeous – not a hint of its daytime budget. Now, let’s just hope the audience gives the show its blessing.

Tahsin Guner & Rachel Flowerday are co-creators and writers on Father Brown - the brand new BBC One daytime drama based on the stories by GK Chesterton, about a crime-solving Roman Catholic priest.

Father Brown starts on BBC One today at 14:10 and you can watch on BBC iPlayer

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    Comment number 1.

    Loved the first episode. Was unfamiliar with the original GK Chesterton novels but found the character and adaptation very inviting and deserving of a primetime evening slot for series 2 maybe. Oh and any chance of posting the script here in the script archive?

    Mrs M

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    Comment number 2.

    WE enjoyed both of the two episodes so far. What is intensely irritating, and i am sure it is not the writers fault, is the Inspector with a badly knotted tie and unbuttoned shirt. This is so not 1950's senior policeman it is embarrassing.

    When setting in a period I realise it is a fine line between making it understandable for later generations and being anchronistic. The chauffeur lounging outside the house smoking a fag whilst guests arrived was also unlikely.

    Just as an aside the person who is owed the money holds the IOU so we were bemused that the blacksmiths wife found it ..... perhaps she was in the wrong bedroom earlier. : )

    Good casting acting and apart form the above comments very very good. Particularly highlighted given how bad Blandings shown on Sunday turned out.

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    Comment number 3.

    This has good potential, although I do find a lack of attention to religious detail (my speciality I admit, so I am biased) rather disappointing. I note from the credits that the series has a Roman Catholic priest adviser but it puzzles me why, for the 1950's when the Roman Catholic Church was very strict and traditional about clerical dress, ceremonial and church decoration, that this isn't reflected in the scenes where Father Brown's clerical profession is manifested. No biretta, no maniple with his Mass vestments, no stole around his neck when hearing a confession or leading the prayers for the dead ... All now in the modern church considered 'old hat' but then compulsory. Referring to Anglican Clergy in the 1950's as 'The Reverend' in speech, more likely to have been as 'Vicar' or 'Rector' by his flock and Mr x by Roman Catholics at the time. Hmmm I love period drama and the 1920 - 1950's especially. I had high hopes for a Clerical detective ... But so far a wee bit disappointed.

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    Comment number 4.

    I enjoyed it & I'm a big fan of the Father Brown stories.

    It's true that a lot of the clerical details are wrong - even now a Vicar would be Mr. not Rev. to a Catholic.... But I think that's just the modern style... When I was little in the 80s Social Realism was still the standard & being correct about details & prizing scenes of 'ordinary' daily life was the norm... Now everything is much more about story & how the characters drive the story... I sometimes miss the olden days - but it would be far too expensive & I doubt audiences would sit through some of the slow-moving stuff I used to love (even fabulous writers like Alan Plater or Trevor Griffiths might struggle).... Not that I'm an authority on any of this.

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    Comment number 5.

    Absolutely top class, as we now come to expect from BBC Daytime Drama. Whilst a few inaccuracies may occur it is low budget daytime drama, and we don't let it distract us from thoroughly enjoying these well scripted and acted pieces.

    Glad to see there's another week of it to come; and why not more?!

    Be nice to know where the locations were shot..

    Well done, BBC.


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