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Posts Tagged ‘G.K. Chesterton’

Let us imagine you are a ‘creative’ working for the BBC’s daytime TV schedule. For the purposes of this exercise you are a strange and, in reality, non-existent hyphenate, a combination of a channel controller, department head, producer, script editor and writer. You find yourself with 500 minutes of TV to fill on weekday afternoons, ideally with some kind of drama. Ideally, you want something that will be popular, classy, and not too expensive to produce.

Your immediate thoughts turn to doing either a medical show or a mystery series, as these are ‘banker’ genres with an established track record. You dismiss the medical idea, as Doctors has run on weekday afternoons for years and you want to do something different. So it is to be a detective series. But what? How to stand out in such a crowded marketplace?

You need something with built-in name recognition for the more mature audience which makes up a large percentage of the daytime audience. And then it comes to you in a flash – with the Sherlock Holmes stories and the works of Agatha Christie both enjoying consistent success, there is another iconic literary detective who has been long-neglected by TV.

And so you hurriedly secure the TV rights to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. This done, you breathe a sigh of relief, congratulate yourself on your good sense and sit down to see how these stories can be adapted for daytime afternoons.

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Immediately you see there will be problems. The original stories were published between 1911 and 1935 and take in a huge variety of locations – in England, which is good, but also the rest of Britain, Europe, and the Americas. Father Brown himself is the only real constant throughout the series, and the closest thing he has to a Watson is Flambeau, a formidable, but reformed, master criminal from France. The 1920s is a bit too far back for a contemporary audience to feel properly comfortable with – this is daytime, so you want something fairly cosy – and the budget obviously won’t stretch to filming in Europe, let alone South America.

And so you decide that your version of Father Brown will live in the 1950s, in a sleepy Cotswold village. This has the advantage of creating associations in the mind of the viewer with the Marple stories and Midsomer Murders, which share the kind of vibe you’re shooting for. The disadvantage, of course, is that in TV Land sleepy Cotswold villages are not noted for having large Catholic populations for priests like Father Brown to minister to. So you decide there will also be a comedy relief Irish woman living in the village (you have noticed that Chesterton inexplicably neglected to include comedy relief in his stories), along with an attractive young Polish woman from a DP camp in the area (an attractive young woman will help with the publicity as well). Recurring characters like these two, and a grumpy police detective who objects to Father Brown’s sleuthing, will build up the cast and get around the lack of a proper sidekick for the protagonist.

Things are going well and you start thinking about which stories you will actually adapt for your series. You decide to start with The Hammer of God, which has the advantage of actually being set in a small English village to begin with. However, as you read the story you see your problems have only just begun.

Chesterton’s story revolves around the central image of a local debauch and scoundrel being found dead, his head literally shattered like an egg – Chesterton, with his usual consummate skill, puts it thus – ‘the skull was a hideous splash, a star of blackness and blood’. The mystery is not framed in terms of who would have wanted the man dead, but who could possibly have the power to strike such a titanic blow with the small hammer used? (Especially as the victim was wearing a steel-lined hat.)

You realise this sort of thing will be a bit too gory for the afternoon slot, and you know your audience will be expecting much more village intrigue and many more suspects and subplots. It is what they are used to, and it is obviously not your job to challenge them in any respect.

And so you set to work writing in new subplots, removing the central image of the obliterated head (even though this is crucial to Chesterton’s conception of the whole story), adding a bit where the comedy relief Irish woman falls into some bushes, and so on. You add a gay subplot, too, because this is a TV show being made in the 21st century, and also because this way you can make the killer a homophobe (another amendment to Chesterton). You remove a subplot about an attempt by the killer to frame a man with learning difficulties for the the murder, as this might seem dated and tasteless.

When it comes to the crucial denouement, you fall back on the TV mystery show playbook, with flashbacks of the crime taking place while Father Brown explains what happened. But you have grave misgivings about the philosophical and psychological musings which precede and justify it – and which are, again, crucial to Chesterton’s conception of the story. So you cut these out, along with the striking moment in which Father Brown physically restrains the murderer from committing suicide, saying ‘Not by that door, that door leads to hell.’ You remove most of the theology from the story – in fact, whenever you find something you consider to be an intellectually ‘chewy bit’ you excise it.

As it turns out, you are lucky enough to have Mark Williams playing Father Brown, an actor good enough to suggest the essence of the character even with so much of the original Chesterton edited out, which is your great good fortune. As you are attempting to create a series of G.K. Chesterton adaptations, but also intent on removing all the elements which made the original stories memorable and distinctive – their very essence – this is extremely useful.

If there is an artist with whom you feel kinship while working on this kind of project, it is probably a fish chef or a butcher, for your objective is to fillet and bone the stories of all their original structure and concerns while still retaining something of the original story and flavour. In the end, what you have produced retains the Father Brown name, with all the history that comes with it, but has thankfully dispensed with all that talk of sin and reason and theology, and is virtually indistinguishable from any of the dozens of other detective programs on TV today. You congratulate yourself on a job well done.

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