English actor Mark Williams on life after Harry Potter and the Fast Show

Mark Williams (centre) with the core cast of UK crime series, Father Brown.
Des Willie

Mark Williams (centre) with the core cast of UK crime series, Father Brown.

The simplest solution, surely, would be to simply take off his pants. After all, who would know? It's not as if all and sundry would see his tackle, because he'd still be wearing the flowing robes of a Catholic priest over the top, like an airy kaftan.

"My friend, that is just not going to happen," says English actor, Mark Williams, from his Brighton home. Williams plays the titular God-bothering sleuth in hit British TV series Father Brown, solving crimes at the same time as saving souls.

But it gets bloody hot, he says, when you're shooting in the Cotswolds on those rare occasions when the English summer cranks up a bit of heat. There's the crew, standing around in shorts and jandals, while Williams swelters in black trousers, black shoes, socks, long-sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat, overcoat and long black cassock. The poor bugger gets cooked.

"I thought about losing the trousers, but I couldn't do it": Mark Williams as Father Brown.
Gary Moyes

"I thought about losing the trousers, but I couldn't do it": Mark Williams as Father Brown.

"When we shot The Grim Reaper episode, it was 36 degrees! We talked about losing the pants, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. No one else could tell if I was just in my Jockeys, but I would know, and it would fundamentally alter the character. And besides, acting's not really about comfort."

Williams should know. Now 56, he has featured in so many movies, plays and TV shows over the past thirty years, he must forget who he really is sometimes.

Here in New Zealand, he'd most likely be familiar as kindly ginger-headed patriarch Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, a gig that was his main meal ticket for 12 long years.

But to many ex-pat Poms, Williams is best known as pervy tailor Kenneth on the 1990s sketch comedy, The Fast Show. With an extravagant blond quiff and an equally sexually explicit offsider, also called Ken, he was a man given to remarking on a customer's "high, youthful scrotum" while measuring their inside leg. His catch phrase? "Ooh! Suit you, sir!"

In past interviews, Williams has seemed a tad peevish about The Fast Show's enduring popularity. It typecast him as a clown in the eyes of many, a label he's keen to resist.

Here, after all, is a man who has appeared in over 20 major movies, among them Shakespeare in Love, 101 Dalmatians, Stardust, The Borrowers and the Harry Potter series. He has performed alongside Robert De Niro, Claire Danes, Glenn Close, Hugh Grant, Michael Gambon, Michelle Pfeiffer.

He has written and presented a raft of BBC documentaries, starred in cult TV hits Dr Who and Red Dwarf, and is now carving out a reputation as the perfect embodiment of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown. Yet he still gets people sidling up to him in the street, shooting him a lewd wink, and barking "Suit you, Sir!"

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"Yes, well, The Fast Show was a long time ago," he says with the faintest hint of a sigh. "And it always prickled me that people assumed from that that I was a comedian, which is like calling a drummer a bass player. I loved doing The Fast Show at the time. It was a great double act, Ken and Kenneth, and revolutionary, too, because we both played precisely the same character at the same time, like twins. That was my idea, actually. But I've never been a comedian. I couldn't even attempt to do stand-up. The fact that I can be funny is just part of being an actor."

Williams grew up on a council estate in Worcestershire, and was brainy enough to graduate from Oxford. He took to the stage soon after, did time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but acting was not an overnight success, something he puts down to having "a face like the corner of a crocodile handbag".

Over the years, he has also earned a crust as a carpenter, an electrician, a gardener, a chip-shop waiter and, I kid you not, an artificial inseminator of cattle. These days he lives in Brighton with his girlfriend and young daughter, and is grateful interesting work continues to come his way after his profile received a huge boost from the Harry Potter films.

"Doing such a successful series of films was fascinating, but I already had a long career as a character actor in British and American films before Harry Potter. Even so, I'm very much an actor, rather than a celebrity. My ambition is always to get the next interesting job, not because I need more fame or money, but because I love the job of acting."

And the latest job sees Williams taking the lead for a change, rather than putting in serious spadework as a supporting actor. With his genial manner, lumpy-potato face, sandy ginger hair and reassuring voice, he was perhaps born to play village priest Father Brown.

Here in New Zealand, the second season begins screening on UKTV from 19 January (Tuesdays, 9.30 pm), but in the UK, they've recently finished a fourth series and are about to make the fifth.

"After Harry Potter, I didn't need the money, but the idea of having my own series was very seductive. Also, G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories are so fascinating. Most whodunnits are about conundrums and intellectual problems, but Father Brown is more about an emotional reaction, and how this priest believes people should respond to extremity."

These stories aren't just about crime, he says; they're about a person's likelihood of getting into heaven. "There's no vague grey areas for this guy. If you lie to God, you risk eternal damnation. He doesn't judge, because he thinks people will be judged in the afterlife. Criminals are making decisions about what will happen to their very soul. Most whodunnits are intensely rational, but Father Brown is more about spirituality and intuition. He's endlessly fascinated by human nature and incredibly nosey, and there's absolutely nothing that's not worthy of attention."

He also seems, like a great many other TV crime-fighters from Miss Marple to Colombo, utterly innocuous on the surface. The good Father bumbles about his parish, smiling and fussing and making small-talk, so people under-estimate his intelligence. Villains let their guard down, then this cunning man of the cloth swoops in and solves the case.

Another common feature with many other British TV whodunnits is the comically high body count. You'd be forgiven for thinking the sleepy Cotswolds village of Kembleford had a higher murder rate than a crack-infested Detroit ghetto.

Everywhere you look, another dead body has been hurriedly stashed inside a haystack or dropped down a well. Malevolent farmers sharpen their scythes in every barn. Every thatched cottage hides a jilted postmistress with a sharpened knitting needle dipped in poison. Every stately home contains a frightfully proper stockbroker with an itchy trigger finger and a crossbow.

I once discussed this well-worn whodunnit trope with John Nettles, who played DCI Tom Barnaby on the Midsomer Murders. He saw these sorts of shows as a pointed commentary on the reality of middle England.

"There's a surprising amount of petty viciousness, rancour, ill-humour, lunacy and murderous intent lurking in the quiet villages of the Home Counties," reckoned Nettles. "Of course, we ham it up. In Midsomer, you can't pass a cottage without there being a psychopathic spinster behind the lace curtains. Every church contains a homosexual vicar. No wife has married well, and therefore must indulge in affairs with at least six men. These characters are a melange of particularly English eccentricities, all thrown together in this mythical county with a 'whodunnit' element chucked in."

Williams is in complete agreement. "The classic English whodunnit is one of our very peculiar contributions to world literature, and at its heart, it's about the stress beneath the calm. And for that reason, the perfect place to set it is in a village. You've got these people who seem very nice on the surface stabbing and murdering each other. It's a great metaphor for seething repression."

And into this cauldron of homicidal rage strides Father Brown, a meek little man who firmly believes he has God on his side. What he lacks in sex appeal he makes up for in compassion. "Yes, well, I can safely say that I've never been employed for my sexual attractiveness. Unlike yourself, obviously. Actually, I'm always very interested in why I get offered certain parts out of the blue. What has someone seen in me that makes them think I'll be right for a certain part?"

Perhaps it's simply down to genetics. Chesterton himself described Father Brown as a short, stumpy, clumsy little man with "a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling". How did it feel to be considered the perfect actor to take up such a role?

"Doesn't bother me. Part of what makes this character work is that you underestimate him when you look at him. This is a crime-solver who's not a hawk-faced, pipe-smoking genius, like Sherlock Holmes. Really, what casting is all about is that they want you to solve a problem, namely - how do you translate what the writer wants, and also what the director wants, onto the screen. Every part I've ever been chosen for is because someone's decided I can probably do that pretty well."

What else can he do well? Shout at his telly when the sports is on, for one thing. Williams is an avid supporter of UK football team, Aston Villa, and also a big rugby fan. "I watched every game in the Rugby World Cup, mate. Our own team didn't do too well, but it was brilliant to see what you guys did for the game, especially given what's been going on with corruption in English football and the cricket."

Sitting in his library as we speak, Williams also deeply loves books, and is an accomplished cook. "Yes, and that's particularly occupying me at the moment as we approach Christmas. I was lying half-awake the other night, dreaming about making a pate and this old Irish recipe for spiced beef. I thought- I need some mace! I was making a list of ingredients while I was half asleep."

Poet, playwright, novelist, raging anti-Semite: when he wrote the Father Brown stories in the early 1900s, G.K. Chesterton was creating a vehicle by which to promote his Roman Catholic faith.

Cook, builder, artificial inseminator, reluctant comedian, esteemed actor: to the list of Williams' own attributes, can we also add Christian? What's his own view on spiritual matters?

"Well, we know we have a soul, because we talk to it inside our heads. Where it came from and where it might go after we die is up for debate, but when it's in our head, we all know it's there. While you're alive, you have custody over your soul. Religion is a complex issue, of course. But the whole point with Father Brown is that it matters! Crime isn't about an intellectual puzzle or an anagram. It's not a crossword or Sudoku. It's somebody's soul that's at stake, and however you want to frame it, that's a thing we all have."

Father Brown, UKTV, January 19, 9.30pm.

 - Stuff


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