Ever since the sophomore year of the BBC's Father Brown, actor John Burton has played Sgt. Goodfellow, the right-hand man to the local inspector, and a frequent ally of actor Mark Williams' crime-solving priest.
Loosely based on the character created by Catholic British writer G.K. Chesterton, Father Brown, currently in its eighth season, airs in the U.S. in syndication on PBS stations and on the streaming service BritBox. It's set during the mid-1950s in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds region in England, where the series is also filmed on location. While the Cotswolds is real, Father Brown's home parish of St. Mary's in Kembleford is entirely fictional.
Burton caught sight of another recent piece I wrote on Father Brown, which featured an interview with Mark Williams (click here for that), so he was kind enough to contribute an email Q&A of his own (lightly edited for grammar and clarity).
You came into Father Brown in Season 2, were you a fan before you joined the show?
I have to say I wasn’t. I hadn’t heard of the show, let alone watched it, which sounds awful now.
I was working on a Sky-TV drama on the south coast of England, doing night shoots, and got a call in the late afternoon from my agent asking me to go to a meeting at the BBC in Birmingham (120 miles away and a 2-hour-plus drive) the following day at 11 a.m.
I explained that I wasn’t finishing work until 6 a.m., which would only give me a couple of hours sleep, before I’d need to set off for the meeting -- it was impossible.
She said, “if I can get it moved, would you go?” I asked what the meeting was for, and she said “It’s for two episodes of Father Brown."
I said I hadn’t heard of it but would go if the time slot could be moved. She managed to get me the last meeting of the day with director Paul Gibson and producer Jonathan Phillips.
I drove to meet them, read the script and then went back down to the south coast to continue work on the Sky-TV drama.
Later that day I got a call to say the role of Sgt. Goodfellow was mine.
I am SO glad I made the effort to get to Birmingham and meet with them, because two episodes in series two has now turned into 72 episodes, up to and including series eight -- and I’m delighted.
Have you ever read the original stories by G.K. Chesterton? Or any other Chesterton?
Again, no I haven’t.
I do have the complete works in my office to read, but, as yet, they’re still gathering dust -- I will read them, though.
None of the characters we have in the show is part of the original books -- other than Flambeau and Father Brown himself, so I’ve always wanted to keep the two separate. It allows me to fully concentrate on what we’re doing with our scripts, rather than think about the legacy of Chesterton's original.
Remember, we’re (the TV series) only based on the character created by Chesterton It was then beautifully developed by Rachel Flowerday and Tahsin Guner, which means we have a lot of flexibility and artistic licence to bring the show we make to screen, whilst staying as true to the values and ideas of the original concept.
How would you describe the relationship between Sgt. Goodfellow and Father Brown?
I think there is mutual understanding, respect and the want/need to “do the right thing."
If Sgt. Goodfellow thinks Father Brown is correct, or needs a helping hand in the right direction -- he’s not averse to side with him.
He’s put his job on the line before to ensure the correct outcome and walks a very wobbly line between his policing duties and his friendship with Father Brown.
He’s a local man (one of the villagers) meaning he’s part of Father Brown's flock, and he would go to confession and attend church regularly.
I would guess there’s not a lot about Sgt. Goodfellow that Father Brown doesn’t know already. In any script where there are scenes of them together, it’s always written in a way where there are no agendas, just honest, straight talking and getting the job done.
You've played a lot of law enforcement and first responders -- what's your theory about that?
I guess I tend to get cast in those sort of roles as I’m tall, fairly well-built and can slip into the parts very easily.
I’ve played many policemen, firefighters, ambulance men, soldiers, etc., throughout my career, and it’s served me well. I don’t mind at all.
If that’s my niche, and I look, sound and act convincingly, then I can’t ask for anything more.
I’d like to play a real baddie occasionally though. It’d be a nice change from playing the solid guy people always rely on, to a nasty bit of work. It’d show another side to my skills that people don’t often see. Also, baddies are great fun to play.
Sgt. Goodfellow frequently slips information to Father Brown -- do you think he considers himself the priest's right-hand man as much as his superior's?
I’m not sure he’s his right-hand man/woman, that honour would go to Alex Price or Emer Kenny, who play Sid and Bunty, respectively, but I do think he will always be there to help him out.
As I said previously, if Sgt. Goodfellow thinks something isn’t right or the correct events haven’t come to light, he’ll slip some information to him -- he’s done it many times before in order to reach a satisfying and lawful conclusion.
The inspector doesn’t always get things right, so it’s down to Sgt. Goodfellow to be the voice of reason. If that means helping Father Brown solve a case correctly behind the inspector's back -- then, so be it.
What are the most fun aspects -- and the most challenging -- of shooting on location in the Cotswolds?
I LOVE working in and around the Cotswolds. It’s one of the most beautiful places and never seems to age or become too modern, which is perfect for filming a period drama set in the 1950s.
Any challenges come for our locations department and our art department, who have to work out how we get all our vehicles in and out of an area and how they can cover things up -- like modern telephone boxes, satellite dishes, shop fronts etc. -- and they do a fantastic job with it.
From a personal perspective I have to wear a very heavy black police costume, which becomes unbearable in the heat. I try and take it off in between shots to air myself a little, but it’s not easy.
The sun and heat are regular features when we’re filming, so the costume and makeup teams are always on hand with spare shirts (which get soaked) and plenty of tissues to mop my brow. I’m constantly indebted to them.
If you could have Sgt. Goodfellow do anything on the show that he hasn't done yet, what would that be?
I’d love him to be featured in his own episode that really focuses on him as a person. There was an episode where he got shot, but I spent the majority of it asleep in a hospital bed, so that doesn’t count!
Maybe he could get kidnapped, and Father Brown could save him. But we’ve already done an episode similar to that with Nancy Carroll and Sorcha Cusack, who play Lady Felicia and Mrs. McCarthy, so it’s probably not a great idea.
Maybe the inspector could go on holiday to Clacton-on-Sea, and Sgt. Goodfellow could deputise for him running a case on his own, with Father Brown helping him out -- now that sounds like a good story!
Father Brown is a huge success throughout the world, why do you think the show works so well?
I think it’s about the journey we take people on. The show is episodic, meaning people can watch the episodes in any order they like, there’s no story arc to think about, as every episode is self-contained.
It’s always the same format and conclusion, which means it’s comfy viewing, and people know what they’re going to get.
Link the wonderful scripts to lovely locations, fabulous music, stunning costumes and the addition of great guest artists, and you have a winning formula.
It’s an absolute honour to be part of Father Brown and I truly hope Sgt. Goodfellow continues to man the front desk in Kembleford for many years to come.
By the way, I also asked Mark Williams if there was any other place than the Cotswolds where he's like to film Father Brown. Without hesitation, he said:
We would go to Ireland. No question about it. We'd take Mrs. McCarthy home to Cork.
So, maybe Sgt. Goodfellow could get kidnapped and taken off to Ireland, where Mrs. McCarthy's local know-how would come in handy. You never know, it could happen.
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager and blog editor at Family Theater Productions.