GK Chesterton was so taken with Father Brown that he converted to Roman Catholicism while writing the stories, or so they say. Certainly Alec Guinness claimed the godly gumshoe inspired his conversion, after he played him in a 1954 film.
The latest actor to don Father Brown’s clerical collar is Mark Williams (who also plays butler Beach in Blandings) but he’s yet to be tempted to confession. “I am a pantheistic humanist,” says Williams, mock-solemnly.
Yet he admits he’s become attached to Chesterton’s Catholic detective. “He has a huge appetite for the detail of life and for humanity, and he cares very much about people’s souls. That’s the most interesting thing about him as a sleuth: it’s not him solving a conundrum or a crossword, he’s dealing with what he sees as people’s eternal damnation. And when he works it out, the sky turns black and is full of harpies; he’s desperately committed to his morality.”
Williams is also surprisingly fond of Brown’s trademark shabby robes and misshapen hat. “I have to say that the dress of a Catholic priest is brilliant. Apart from bicycling, which is tricky.”
This new BBC1 daytime dramatisation shifts the action to the 1950s, where all is not as it seems in a picturesque Cotswolds village. However, Williams believes the parochial whodunnits hold more than nostalgic charm for a modern audience.
“Brown is relevant in a way that anybody is relevant who has clarity. It doesn’t mean that he personally isn’t in conflict, but he doesn’t shift his attitude: people are people and faith is faith. He’s one of those people who’s fed by life. It doesn’t feed on him.”
Sherlock Holmes was the last literary sleuth to be dusted off, and star Benedict Cumberbatch has become a sex symbol. Does Williams fear the same fate might befall him? “I’ve been a character actor for 25 years and nobody’s ever cast me for my sexual attraction,” he chuckles. “So it’s not something I worry about.”
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