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TV murders: filming of Father Brown at former Cotswolds hospital

by Jeremy Peters

In the heart of the picturesque Cotswolds, there is an NHS Property Services building which has a glamorous secret life for four months of the year as one of the stars of the hit Father Brown TV series.

The former Moreton-in-the-Marsh hospital closed to patients in 2009, when services moved to the new North Cotswolds Hospital on the edge of town. But, for the last three summers, its old wards and offices have provided the main interior locations for the filming of the popular BBC 1 series.

The Father Brown stories, based on those written originally by GK Chesterton, are set during the 1950s and feature a Catholic priest, Father Brown, who is described in the books as ‘a good man, a great priest – and an even better detective’. Each 45-minute episode opens with a crime – often a murder – and it is always Father Brown who solves it before the local police inspector.

Father Brown is played by Mark Williams – instantly recognisable as Ron’s dad Arthur Weasley from the Harry Potter films – and the supporting cast includes Sorcha Cusack as Mrs McCarthy and Nancy Carroll as Lady Felicia Montague.

Stepping through the door of the hospital brings you immediately into the world of Kembleford village, as you face the counter of the police station, with the rather grim cells beside it. Then, in the main body of the old hospital, the sets come thick and fast – Father Brown’s kitchen, study and presbytery are all here. Ironically, filming today is a scene supposed to be set in the local hospital, and there are extras wandering the corridors in their pyjamas waiting to be called for the cameras to start rolling.

Father Brown Mark Williams in the police station (2)

Mark Williams in the police station

Director Dave Beauchamp – a veteran of directing Doctors, Casualty and Hollyoaks – is installed in the old ward office, surrounded by monitor screens on which he can see exactly how each scene will eventually look to the viewers. Dave said he was delighted to have access to Moreton Hospital for filming as it was perfect for the requirements of the show.

He said: “The series is set in the 1950s and this building fits that era perfectly. It has been empty for a while and has a large amount of different rooms and corridors which offer us so many options. It is also completely private and quiet, which gives us control. We have a lot of kit and having room for that is a godsend. The fact that it already looks the period saves time and money on dressing sets.”

Francis Boyle is the designer, whose vision has transformed the old wards and offices into the evocative and visually-rich 1950s world. He described his first impressions of Moreton Hospital: “It was very clean and still had cottagey features, such as sash windows; plus the wards had a lot of height to them, which gave us room to build our set. It’s tucked away and quiet and not on a main street, which is good, and the NHS have been very helpful in accommodating us here.”

Francis described the process of design and construction: “I measure the rooms and, taking note of original features to keep, I sketch out how I want it to look then prepare an architect’s drawing,
which usually takes a day. The set builders then take about three weeks to construct each room by building timber walls and scenery. It is a hectic time for us just before shooting starts.”

Father Brown himself – Mark Williams – is extremely conscious of the building in which he has spent so many hours filming since 2013. He said: “My Dad was an architect and surveyor, so I have always been interested in buildings. This obviously started as a cottage hospital and grew organically and expanded until it became unfit for purpose in the 21st century. It’s a very friendly building that looks just as if people upped and left it overnight and still feels inhabited as a cottage hospital in a way. We have become very attached to it and we find nooks and crannies, which would have been difficult when people were trying to work here, but which are interesting for us.”

Mark said the series also made him think deeply about public health in the post-war era and the contribution the NHS has made to improving people’s quality of life. “Our series is set in 1953, when the NHS was very young and designed to deal with national health problems, such as polio and diphtheria, which needed a national approach, even though the BMA opposed it at the time. It was a time when occupational diseases were very prevalent and traumatic – when people retired at 65 and the average age at death was 67.”

This summer will probably be the last when the series can have access to Moreton Hospital as it is on the market and expected to be disposed of by the end of this financial year.
Mark said: “We are very self-contained here and when we go, you won’t know we’ve been. We bring our own structures, power and lighting – only the paint will remain.”

The last chapter in the life of Moreton Hospital may be being written now, but part of its character will be preserved for evermore because of its starring role in Father Brown.