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Father Brown: Set 1
As a fan of British mysteries, I'm always willing to take a chance on a series I haven't watched before. When I hit a bulls-eye like this one, it more than makes up for all the duds I had to wade through along the way. Yep, I'm now a Father Brown fan.
There are a number of things I like about the Father Brown mysteries. First of all, for me the make-or-break element in a mystery series is the detective. If I find the detective to be a sympathetic, and interesting character, the program has gone a long way toward being a success, but if the detective leaves me cold, even the most clever puzzle plots won't get me hooked. GK Chesterton's Father Brown was spot-on in this respect : brought to life in a superbly understated but polished manner by Kenneth More, Father Brown is immediately appealing.
I also like the fact that the episodes are clearly done with the assumption that the audience is intelligent and interested in more than just bloody murder. Interesting historical and cultural facts are woven into the stories, and the stories are focused as much on insights into the human condition as they are on the mysteries themselves. What's more, these stories treat issues like sin, redemption, and faith seriously. In a culture that tends to relegate religion to a corner as something that you might indulge in once a week (if at all), it's refreshing to see it in Father Brown presented not as window dressing for a particular story or character, but as foundational to daily life
Another element that I like a great deal is the portrayal, in Father Brown, of an intelligent, rational, and thoughtful man of faith. Holding orthodox Christian beliefs doesn't make him prone to irrationality or fuzzy thinking; on the contrary, Fr. Brown advocates the clear-eyed use of reason to solve the mysteries that come his way, while at the same time showing how his faith gives him a deep insight into the human condition. He's also (as I mentioned above) very much a likable character: wearing the priest's collar doesn't make him a stuffed shirt. No, indeed; his dry sense of humor punctuates the stories at unexpected intervals. (One of my favorite lines is Fr. Brown's answer to the question of what kind of priest he is - is he Anglican? "Next best thing: Catholic.")
Cultural issues aside, what about the mysteries themselves? I found the episodes, each based on a short story by GK Chesterton, to be very engaging. One of the benefits of having the main character be an amateur detective rather than a professional is that it opens up a wider variety of interesting situations. Murder is certainly a recurring theme, but the circumstances surrounding each crime are quite different, making each episode distinct. The secondary characters are handled well: even in episodes with multiple characters, I was never confused about who was who. That's always an important consideration in a mystery! The 1920s setting is another enjoyable element in this series. In this sense, Father Brown is a forerunner of the later Poirot series: not so lavish in its sets and decor, but still with consistency and a good eye for detail. The pacing is handled well, with the plot always developing briskly, so that there are never any dull spots. The breaking of the episodes into three parts is a bit odd, and I do wish for the DVD that they'd edited out the "End of Part 1", etc, cards, but that's something that's easy to get used to.
To be sure, the program itself is sometimes a little rough around the edge. From the way that secondary actors sometimes stumble over a line, I get the impression that the filmmakers didn't have the luxury of a lot of takes... which just highlights More's excellence as Fr. Brown, because he's always there 100%. All in all, though, it's was easy for me to forget that these episodes were made more than thirty years ago; the slightly unpolished air is surprisingly easy to get used to, so that after the first episode, I could just sit back and enjoy.
Father Brown: Set 1 is a two-disc set, with seven 50-minute episodes on two DVDs packaged in an attractive slipcase.
Let's face it: by the very nature of the source material, a British television show from 1974 just isn't going to meet the standards of the latest and greatest modern show. On the other hand, I was actually quite impressed by the quality of the DVD transfer of the Father Brown episodes.
I've reviewed enough British television from the 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s to be familiar with just how awful the image can be. It's apparent to me that Acorn Media has taken some efforts to clean up Father Brown for the DVD transfer, with positive results. There's some edge enhancement and colored halos at times, but on a very moderate level compared to what I expected. Some of the scenes are washed-out, but given that the typical problem that I've seen in similar material is for dark scenes to be "blacked out" with too-heavy contrast, I'll take this correction to the image hands-down for watchability. Outdoor footage is very grainy, but that's just to be expected given the way television programs were filmed at the time. On the bright side, I was very impressed with how clean the indoor footage is; it's clean and natural-looking overall, and the tight close-ups are really very crisp and detailed. One last positive detail is the absence of dirt or print flaws: the image is admirably clean, which is very helpful in making the overall viewing experience more pleasant.
The upshot is that while these episodes don't get a really high score for video, that's in comparison to what's out there nowadays; in reference to comparable DVDs (even later ones, like the Poirot series from the 1980s and early 1990s) Father Brown would get more like four and a half stars for image quality among its peers.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is excellent; I suspect that it, like the image, was cleaned up for this DVD. The sound is clear and natural, with the volume always appropriate.
We get a text biography of GK Chesterton and cast filmographies.
One of the nice things about DVD is the rescue of older, quality programs from the vaults. Father Brown is a delightful, entertaining, and intelligent program; the slightly unpolished feel of the productions takes a little bit of getting used to, but it's more than made up for by Kenneth More's wonderful performance in the title role, and by the thoughtful nature of the stories. While the program does show its age in terms of image quality, Acorn Media has really done a nice job of restoration for the DVD transfer, so Father Brown looks a whole lot better than I expected. If you've enjoyed other British mysteries, especially period ones, you'll surely enjoy Father Brown; as for me, my perennial favorite detective Hercule Poirot has some competition now! Highly recommended.