Sunday, June 25, 2017

Father Brown: “The Lepidopterist’s Companion” (BBC-TV, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up watching KPBS, including a surprisingly recent (first aired January 11, 2017) Father Brown episode called “The Lepidopterist’s Companion.” The synopsis reads, “When Mrs McCarthy takes over the running of the mobile library, Father Brown discovers a shocking secret.” The show actually starts with the killing of Lewis Ward (the genuinely attractive Thomas Pickens, whom it’s a pity to lose so early), an amateur photographer who works for camera-shop owner (a marvelous period advertisement for Kodak is seen as a stand-up display on his counter) Graham Cartwright (Andrew Greenough), who hears an intruder about in the “live” parts of his live-work space and gets out of bed with his wife Margaret (Elizabeth Berrington), grabs an old cricket bat and wallops the kid, only learning later that it was his assistant and he didn’t need to break into the space — he had a key. Police Inspector Mallory (Jack Deam) is convinced that Lewis was stealing from his employers and that Graham caught him at it and killed him in legitimate self-defense, but like your standard-issue amateur sleuth in a British mystery, Father Brown (Mark Williams, who blessedly pronounces the “t” in “often”!) doubts this. His doubts are confirmed when it turns out that Lewis Ward was actually fatally ill before Graham clobbered him with the cricket bat, courtesy of some strychnine poison someone else fed him earlier. In the process of mounting his own investigation Father Brown discovers some photographic negatives that were in Lewis’s possession; he sets up a darkroom in his home — much to the consternation of his housekeeper — and prints them. They turn out to be pornographic images of naked women, and the police immediately suspect the town ne’er-do-well, Blind ’Arry (Alan Williams), of running a porn ring with Lewis as his accomplice and the actual photographer. Father Brown and his friend Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack), who’s just taken over running the mobile library from Margaret Cartwright, go through the pictures and realize they recognize at least one of the models, Ada Rawlins (Holly Bodmeade), who had been dating Lewis Ward until she suddenly broke up with him — someone overheard them arguing, so it was known she initiated the breakup, but why remained a mystery. It turns out the real culprit was Margaret Cartwright, who, pissed off at her husband because they were chronically poor due to his gambling addiction, hit upon making and selling porn as a way to make herself some money. The episode title “The Lepidoperist’s Companion” refers to the way she figured out to distribute her dirty pictures: she hid them in a book about butterflies, and anyone wanting to buy her pics checked out that book, deposited the price in the library’s box for overdue fines, then returned it a day later sans porn. 

Only her scheme got blown one night when Lewis Ward came into the Cartwrights’ basement unexpectedly and caught Margaret in the act of photographing his then-girlfriend Ada in the nude, and, anxious to eliminate him before he blows the whistle on her whole sordid racket, later that night, as Lewis was in the Cartwrights’ basement darkroom developing his own pictures, Margaret offered him a cup of hot cocoa laced with strychnine, intending to make it look like Lewis had killed himself. Only her husband blew that one by hearing him stumbling around their house and hitting him with the cricket bat, and once the authorities discovered poison in his body and realized Graham Cartwright hadn’t killed him, in self-defense or otherwise, Margaret determined to frame Ada for the crime. The ending was a surprisingly exciting action sequence for a British mystery: Margaret has kidnapped Father Brown and Ada and put them in the back of the bookmobile, where she intends to kill them by bailing out of the van just before it heads off a cliff, then telling the authorities that its brakes failed — only Father Brown figures out how to break out by crashing one of the bookshelves inside the van against its back door so he and Ada can leap out as the van is moving but before Margaret has a chance to kill them. Of course Margaret, once she realizes her captives have escaped, turns the van around, intending to run them over, and Father Brown dead-pans with perfect calm to Ada, “It might be a good idea to get out of the road” — only just then the bookmobile’s worn and much-abused engine comes to a grinding halt and Margaret has to flee on foot, not that she gets very far before the police capture her. In the end Mrs. McCarthy begs off running the bookmobile and the city fathers decide to give Ada the job, essentially buying her argument that she didn’t want to pose for nude photos but Margaret blackmailed her into it. Father Brown is one of the most charming of the plethora of British and Commonwealth detective shows that clutter up the PBS schedule, and this one was unusually good because of the overall kinkiness of the plot premise (even though porn as a secret racket had already been done to a turn in The Big Sleep!) and because writer Kit Lambert and director Paul Gibson actually managed to get some action into it without compromising the overall laid-back “feel” fans of British mysteries expect from them.