And Another Thing: The Superiority of British Soaps Like <i>EastEnders</i>

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.

Everybody loves a good bloody murder, and we all have our favorite types. There’s your true-crime freaks (Victims — They’re Just Like Us!), the fans of blood and gore and horror, your good old-fashioned hard-boiled detectives. Then there’s The Cozies — my preferred way of entertaining myself via horrific crimes against God, man and nature. Your Marples, your Poirots — they’re all very cozy little murder stories, and it’s a well-loved mystery subgenre that exists alongside your more hardcore killers, placidly sipping tea and planning a church picnic that will, most likely, produce a corpse. 

Some of the coziest murder stories you’ll find are solved by the character Father Brown, a Catholic-priest-slash-amateur-detective based on stories by G.K. Chesterton. Written from 1910 through 1936, the literary version of Father Brown quietly and patiently solves not just murders, but heists and blackmails. (This isn’t a literature column, but when it comes to snappy and engaging vacation reads, you could do a lot worse.) I’ve been enjoying two different television adaptations — a series from 1974 starring Kenneth More, and a much more modern one, still in production, starring Mark Williams (Zoomers may know him as Ron Weasley’s dad from the Harry Potter films). 

Like all the great amateur detectives, Father Brown is underestimated. He’s a short, gentle, somewhat simple man of God. He loves Jesus and shepherding his flock. He rides a bicycle around town. And jeez, you think Miss Marple is a virginal character? Well, we’ll see your “spinster” and raise it to “Catholic priest.” So how does this nonviolent biscuit-scoffing parable-knower manage to suss out Britain's most devious criminals? It’s because he’s a priest, and priests hear people’s confessions, which means a large part of the job is for this simple virgin to sit and listen to people talk about their most base and brutal desires. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of depravity and evil because people just kind of walk up and tell him about all the depraved and evil shit they do.  

The ’70s Father Browns (all set in the 1920s) are more or less direct adaptations of the short stories, and have that wonderful, warm, actors-on-a-stage-performing-drama vibe — wide shots, no background music, and everyone (even the attractive people) is believably ugly. This ’70s Father Brown is also a little more Catholic than the uber-gentle 21st-century Padre Marrón — he’s got no problem whatsoever with sharing his thoughts on how people who believe in reincarnation are broke-brained nutjobs, and very likely prone to innate criminality. 

The Mark Williams-starring BBC One Father Brown is about 5 percent cozier, and therefore that much more ham-fisted than the last few seasons of Marple and Poirot. Whatever the British version of “cornpone” is, that is what we have here. A clown is killed when the circus comes to town. A decades-old missing-person case is instantly solved upon the discovery of a hidden door. And this Father Brown is one part Catholic priest (though, like with most Father Brown stories, he does precious little priest-ing and instead mostly attends country fetes), one part damsel in distress. 

“If someone’s trying to murder you, I really need you to get off the [military] base,” is something Father Brown hears from a soldier. He’s been saved at the last second from poisoning, getting pushed from a moving train, even a near-decapitation by a madman with a sword. Luckily, for a man always in life-or-death peril, in the new version he’s accompanied by a merry band of tagalongs — women, even! 

Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) is a member of the English gentry, but a Catholic one; her people barely made it out of the past 500 years alive. (They set this adaptation in the 1950s, and my pet conspiracy theory is that it's so Lady Felicia could wear nice fitted dresses.) The father’s other companion is the Irish Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack), something of a Biddy-Busybody-Bitch trifecta — it’s an unfortunate and universally disrespected combination in a woman, but she’s at least aware she’s the kind of person who, you know, realizes she needs Jesus. Some of the criminals, too, realize they need Jesus and repent, but even though Father Brown is all about saving souls, he unfortunately doesn’t catch ’em all. 

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