Interview: What playing ‘Father Brown’ taught Mark Williams about priests and the Catholic Church
Father Brown, the Britbox TV show based on G. K. Chesterton’s novels about a Catholic priest in rural England who solves mysteries, has just begun its 10th season. And talking to its star Mark Williams, who plays the titular character, is a little like being invited to jam with a jazz pianist. There’s a staccato to the pacing and direction of his thoughts that is both exciting and unpredictable; more than once I find myself offering a new question only to discover he still had a lot to say about the last.
It’s not until later, after the interview is over, that I begin to realize the degree to which Williams was taking in each new idea I was offering and allowing it to inspire his own imagination.
It is a quality he has in common with his character. “I was just thinking about listening,” he says to me midway through our conversation. “It’s really nice playing a character who, when he’s listening, he’s listening. He’s not waiting to say something.
Mark Williams has been playing Father Brown for 10 years, but “he never bores me,” he confides.
“He doesn’t try to beat people in conversation. Which when you analyze it is what so much conversation is about, isn’t it?”
In person (or, in our case, on Zoom), Willliams looks virtually nothing like Brown. Where Brown is quietly contained, almost hidden, really, behind his black cassock, broad-brimmed saturno hat and glasses, Williams is energetic, playful and relaxed. He has a natural, easy affability. You would never know he’s spent the day on set shooting scenes from Season 11 or that he has a bunch more press sessions to do tonight.
Even after so many years as Father Brown, “he never bores me,” Williams confides. But he also continues to pursue the character of Father Brown in ways that keeps things fresh. The key? “Don’t do the obvious, which he doesn’t.” For Williams, a lot of that comes down to rhythm: “It could be very easy for him to have the same rhythm all the time when he’s talking,” he explains, the standard speak-then-think-then-speak-again we see in so many performances. “I don’t do that. He’ll think of something and he’ll say it immediately, then say something else and then think. It’s like jazz singers, being off the back of the beat or ahead.”
One of the things that I find fascinating about Father Brown is that the depth of his character is very clear, and yet we’re never really given access to the “stuff” of his interior life or most of the events of his past. Has he ever fallen in love? Had a crisis of faith? Perhaps, but we have no idea. “Sometimes I rail against that,” Williams says of the lack of stories exploring Brown’s past. “Then I think, ‘No, shut up. What do a lot of people most like looking into? A mirror.’”
I ask Williams if he has created for himself any history or interior life for the character. “I try not to do that,” he tells me. “I don’t take the toys out of the box.”
For him, the true heart of the character is his hopefulness. “It’s hope, all the time,” he says. “It’s like happiness: It’s not a destination, it’s something you have to have every day.”
Playing Father Brown has also given Williams a unique appreciation for some of what the Catholic Church has to offer.
“I was just thinking about Julian of Norwich,” he tells me. “‘All will be well and all manner of things will be well.’ That’s what’s at the back of it all [for Brown].”
It’s a quality that runs through a number of the characters he’s played over 40 years of work as an actor. He is most well-known for his appearances between 2001 and 2011 in the “Harry Potter” film franchise as Arthur Weasley, Ron Weasley’s wonderfully chaotic father, who, along with his wife, Molly (Julie Walters), comes to embody the heroism in the choice to keep believing in the triumph of goodness despite all evidence to the contrary.
In “Doctor Who,” he played another dad, Rory’s very ordinary father, Brian, who, thrown into his son’s world of spaceships, alien invasions and dinosaurs, proves to be surprisingly resilient and gracious.
But for me perhaps his most powerful role is as Wabash the tailor in 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” who dreams of being an actor despite having a pronounced stutter. The character seems written mostly to provide laughs and create tension for Shakespeare. And yet Williams endows him with such pathos and humanity that he ends up stealing the show. I dare you to watch his big moment at the end and not reach for a hanky.
In his own life, too, Williams has faith in the irrepressibility of hope.
In his own life, too, Williams has faith in the irrepressibility of hope, even as he admits he doesn’t consider himself a religious man. “Life is a pure flame,” he says, quoting the 17th-century physician and theologian Sir Thomas Browne, “and we live by an invisible sun within us.”
I note that in other interviews he has spoken about the life of an actor as itself a life of faith. Acting requires a lot of detachment, he tells me. When it comes to specific parts, “Try not to think, ‘I wish.’ It’s no good. Ain’t gonna work. If it’s right it’s going to happen.”
“I don’t know why I’m standing here talking to you,” he admits, with a kind of happy wonder. “I don’t know how that happened. Why pick me? But they did, and they’ve done so before. All I can do is just say thanks.”
Has 10 years of playing Father Brown taught Williams anything about the priesthood? He says he’s learned more about humanity. “The other day, somebody’s talking about their daughter who got in trouble in school. And I said straightaway, ‘Has she got a new friend?’ And her mum said, ‘Yes!’”
“What he’s taught me is that what people are not saying is as important as what they are saying,” he says, laughing.
But being Father Brown has also given Williams a unique appreciation for some of what the Catholic Church has to offer. “I’m fascinated by confession,” he tells me. “I think it’s extraordinary. Apart from the security of the liturgy, I think confession is why people are drawn to the Catholic Church.”
He is so emphatic as he says this, I wonder what he means. “It’s a route out of yourself,” he explains. “It gives you a way out: You can confess to somebody.”
“You’re saying thanks and sorry in the same building,” he says, describing both a parish church and (I’d say) the aspirations of the Catholic Church itself. “That’s a good place to go.”