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INTERVIEW: On the set of Father Brown

Martin Kemp and Mark Williams on the set of Father Brown at Upton House
Martin Kemp and Mark Williams on the set of Father Brown at Upton House

Gill Sutherland meets Mark Williams and Martin Kemp on the set of Father Brown

YOU usually feel a bit nostalgic when you enter the rather splendidly landscaped grounds of 17th-century Upton House, but going there last week I positively felt like I’d fallen through a black hole and been spat into 1950s post-war Britain.

Dapper men and women were suited and booted in immaculately stylish retro gear. Small boys dressed in knitted tank tops and long grey flannel shorts played merrily to the side of the grand house as birdsong filled the air.

Next a familiar-looking wizard appeared in a long black robe... No, don’t worry, I hadn’t lost my marbles — well not yet anyway — the Herald had merely been invited to come to Upton to see the BBC period crime drama Father Brown being filmed. The chap in black was of course actor Mark Williams — familiar to most as the father of wizard family the Weasleys from the Harry Potter films.

Bromsgrove actor Mark stars as the eponymous Catholic priest-cum-sleuth, who wears a trademark black cassock and wide-brimmed black ‘parson’s hat’. His innocent facade cloaks a sharp intellect as he solves a different heinous crime each episode, much to the fury of the local police inspector.

The drama is shot all over the Cotswolds and Warwickshire, particularly in Blockley, which doubles up as the fictional village of Kembleford, home to Brown and his church, and in the last couple of weeks they had been filming at lot at Ilmington too.

We arrive on set at Upton as episode The Chedworth Cyclone is being filmed for the fifth series. The ‘Cyclone’ is an up and coming boxer, and trouble begins when a rival is found… dun…dun…dun.. dead. Actors dressed in costume mill about on the outside front step of Upton, waiting their cues, as filming is going on in the grand interior. Every now and again someone yells ‘quiet on set’ and we all must remain absolutely schtum and still. There are a lot of people hanging around with clipboards and muted walkie-talkies who seem to have mastered the art of looking busy.

Photographer Mark and I are told we can have a quick word with stars Mark and guest star Martin Kemp, he of EastEnders and Spandau Ballet fame, when they stop for a break.

A bit of background

Father Brown was first televised in 2013, and the series being filmed will be broadcast in 2017. Even though it’s shown in a daytime slot, Father Brown has a loyal following, attracting two million viewers — the same as the much ‘trendier’ 1920s crime drama Peaky Blinders, which is shown at primetime on Thursday evenings on BBC Two. Weirdly, Father Brown is shown during primetime in Australia, Canada and America; and, with its quintessential ‘Midsomer Murders’ type appeal, has also been sold in 160 territories around the world. Alas as I am hard at work most afternoons, I hadn’t ever watched Father Brown, but I quickly caught up with a couple of episodes, as they are all available (for £1.89 each) on iPlayer. They are thoroughly engaging, and I was just thinking about the one I’d seen the previous evening — The Wrath of Baron Samdi, which involved jazz, voodoo and a dead body — when my reverie is broken by Mark being guided to me. He has literally only minutes to spare, so we have a ‘speed dating’ style interview, during which he is chummy but very professional, reeling his answers rapidly, like he’s done this press lark thing a gadzillion times before.

How is it frolicking around the Cotswolds in a cassock?

“I wouldn’t call it frolicking — gallivanting maybe! “This is the 46th episode we’ve shot — so we’ve been around quite a few places.”

Have you developed an affection for the locations?

“I was brought up in Bromsgrove so I am familiar with the area, particularly Stratford and we spent a lot of time in Moreton-in-Marsh [where Mark has relatives], Chipping Campden and now Blockley obviously.

“I never knew Blockley before and it is really an extraordinary village. We’ve been made to feel very welcome. “You realise when you film in this area as much as we do that it’s not just about small picturesque villages it’s a big agricultural area too, and we use all the variants of it as we can.”

Impressively, Father Brown is now going into its fifth series, what makes it a success?

“Great storytelling. [The series is based on the stories by GK Chesterton.]"

What appeal do you think Father Brown has over other, better known crime-mystery sleuths — like Sherlock Holmes?

“It’s not an intellectual puzzle to him, it’s a question of people’s souls and he’s much more an intuitive and emotional. It’s not the kind of acrostic, cryptic kind of whodunit and he’s interested in everybody and everything. Which is a great character to play.”

We saw that you imported fake snow into Blockley to record a Christmas special — what can you tell us about that?

“It’s set at Christmas! And, nope, I won’t tell you anything else, you’ll have to wait and watch it!”

You’ve done a lot in your career, looking back what are you proud of?

“I try not to have favourites. I’ve been lucky that I have been able to do a range of parts. A number of films I’ve done have been memorable… Shakespeare in Love, and we’ve just made Heidi, along with Bill Nighy who was playing Grandpa, which is fun.”

You were at the RSC in the 1980s, would you ever return?

“If they want me to play Pandarus [the bawdy pimp-like character] in Troilus and Cressida then I’m available.”

With that, Mark is gone — desperate for a cuppa before he’s due back on set. Next, Martin Kemp. He ambles up looking impossibly handsome, dressed resplendently in pin-stripe suit, a wide-boy camel coat and a twinkle in his eye. He engages a megawatt smile and simply exudes charm. Martin has been an actor since he was a child growing up in Islington. He found fame with new romantic band Spandau Ballet in the 1980s. As an actor he received acclaim for his performances in The Krays and as Steve Owen in EastEnders.

So I understand you’re playing a gangster?

“I know, me a gangster, again! Well really he’s a boxing promoter, but from that era when they were all a bit dodgy, and he gets mixed up in something that brings out his true character.”

How did you prepare for this role?

“I’m just in an episode, so you don’t have long to think about it.

“You use bits and pieces from everything you’ve ever done, characters you’ve played before and bits and pieces from life, so I enjoy that.”

Had you worked with Mark before?

“No, but a friend of mine had, and everybody says good things about him across the business, and it’s true, he’s the nicest man. The last eight days filming the show have been a real pleasure.”

What’s next?

“At the moment I’m doing 30 dates across England for An Audience With Martin Kemp. It’s me being interviewed and telling my story so we’re going to do that and take it around the country.

“I absolutely loved being on tour with Spandau back in the day but it wasn’t very intimate, you’re just a speck in a stadium full of people. I love the idea of being about to tour around, letting people actually get to know you.”

With that, Martin too is whisked off, and I am left to return to the 21st century. But I’ll be back with Father Brown in the 1950s at Christmas (yes, I’m planning my festive viewing already!) and I heartily recommend you do the same too.

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