There are moments of genuine holiness to be found in some British television series, Guy Crouchback explains.
I have recently obtained by mail order two rather elderly DVD collections of British television series featuring Catholic priests – Bless Me, Father, starring Arthur Lowe, and a collection of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, starring Kenneth More.
Both are excellent. In contrast to some more modern productions, no Catholic could, I think, object to the respectful and positive manner in which the priests are treated, shown not only as good men but wise men too.
A rabbi who appears towards the end of the Arthur Lowe series is also shown as gentle and wise.
Ecumenicists might not perhaps approve of the somewhat uncharitable portrayal of the Anglican curate.
Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army) is wonderfully convincing as an Irish-born English parish priest of 1950 and ‘51. In as role not quite different to the pompous but brave Captain Mainwaring, he makes a wonderful character – crabby, grasping, yet full of love not far below the surface.
He is, as his long-suffering young curate says, a good Christian.
He spars with his housekeeper but when a poignant, potentially tragic incident in her past is revealed, he shows just the right amount of tenderness without weakness, as do his other sparring partners, a grim old Mother Superior and his bookie neighbour.
The scene in which he explains to his young curate why a rich, aggravating old lady is deserving of love and pity is genuinely moving, while the depiction of an English Catholic parish of that date – a now-distant period when rationing was still in force but serious crime, and especially serious juvenile crime, hardly existed in the peaceful countryside – seems an authentic piece of social history.
If there is a comment in this on how far society has sunk since those times, it is by implication only.
Kenneth More as Father Brown is not quite like my original idea of the little moon-faced Essex priest-detective of Chesterton’s stories, but after a few minutes he is completely captivating.
He too lives in a more innocent age, when, as Tolkien put it, there was less noise and more green, and the infamous Dr Beeching had not wrecked so much by destroying England’s placid little steam-railway lines. (Chesterton died in 1936). Both these stories, with two magnificent actors, would be delightful if they offered nothing more than scenery.
Father Brown finds himself turning detective, aided by the penitent ex-master criminal Flambeau, with no more formidable weapon than commonsense.
The stories as detective stories can be rather thin at times (killing a man by throwing a hammer at him from a church steeple seems an improbable way of committing murder, for example), but the director’s skill minimises these implausibilities – after all, it is the central moral and theological messages of most of the Father Brown stories which is important, not whodunit.
If Chesterton’s plots were sometimes farfetched, or betray ignorance of some facts of the world, a combination of fine descriptive writing with fine acting and direction brings them convincingly to life.
Father Brown explains at one point to a man amazed by his inductive powers that it seems odd that a priest whose major occupation is hearing men’s confessions should be thought of as an innocent simpleton unaware of evil.
It is to be hoped they may lead readers who are so unfortunate as not to know them (or fortunate enough to have that treat still in store) to Chesterton’s great works of popular Theology – Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, not to mention his great epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse.
We are so used to Kenneth More playing he-man roles: sinking the Bismarck, flying a Spitfire, fighting a train through India’s bandit-infested North-West Frontier, that we sometimes forget what a versatile character actor he was.
I do not know how anyone could watch these DVDs with anything but lasting enjoyment, or fail to catch in their atmosphere moments of genuine holiness.