SISTER BONIFACE MYSTERIES makes its Britbox debut on February 8. The ten-episode first season is a spinoff of the ongoing FATHER BROWN, now in its tenth season.
While FATHER BROWN is based on the works of novelist G.K. Chesterton, SISTER BONIFACE MYSTERIES follows the nun played by Lorna Watson, who originally appeared in a 2013 FATHER BROWN episode written by Jude Tindall.
In SISTER BONIFACE MYSTERIES, we’re in the small English village of Great Slaughter in 1962. Sister Boniface now assists local police inspector Sam Gillespie (played by Max Brown). They are joined by frequently flummoxed newcomer Detective Sergeant Felix Livingstone (Jerry Iwu), who had originally intended to work with Scotland Yard in London.
As executive producer Will Trotter explains, Sister Boniface is not to be found in Chesterton’s books. “She’s a creation by Jude Tindall, who’s the lead writer on [SISTER BONIFACE MYSTERIES], and the creator of the series, and a rather brilliant writer. There’s a collection of writers of FATHER BROWN. She was just one of them, and she wrote this episode, set in a convent where three nuns get murdered, and one of the characters she created was this vintner, who happens to be Sister Boniface, who is obsessed with Agatha Christie. And the chemistry between Lorna’s performance and Mark Williams’s performance [as Father Brown] was so magnetic and she just leapt off the TV screen, and we thought, ‘We’ve just got to do something with this character.’ So, that’s where we are now.”
Trotter, who is based in England, is also the executive producer of FATHER BROWN. He has served as executive producer of many other series and telefilms, including the recent adaptation of THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, SHAKESPEARE & HATHAWAY: PRIVATE DETECTIVES, THE CORONER, DOCTORS, WPC 56, LAND GIRLS, THE AFTERNOON PLAY, and THE GIL MAYO MYSTERIES.
Watson, likewise British, has had series regular roles on ANIMAL TV, WATSON & OLIVER, and THE WRONG DOOR. In addition to FATHER BROWN, she previously worked with EP Trotter in a guest-starring role on SHAKESPEARE & HATHAWAY.
Watson and Trotter get on Zoom from separate locations to talk with Assignment X about SISTER BONIFACE MYSTERIES.
ASSIGNMENT X: Sister Boniface was introduced on FATHER BROWN in 2013. Why has it taken until now to do something with the character?
WILL TROTTER: Well, partly because we thought, “Shall we get her back into FATHER BROWN?” But because of the specific nature of that episode, in a convent, it just didn’t feel right. Also, Father Brown is a cleric, so too many clerics in one detective series was a bit much. So, we waited for FATHER BROWN to finish, but now we’re onto Series 10. So, after Series 8, we just said, “Let’s get on.”
I was talking to Britbox, because Britbox had just started, and they’d just picked up all the FATHER BROWN back catalogue from Netflix, and it was doing so well, I said, “Well, why don’t you have a companion piece to that one?” Sister Boniface happened to be one of our most loved characters, and the audience used to say, “Why can’t you bring her back?” We thought it was just crazy not to, so a great one for us all. Jude started writing it, I sold it to [Britbox], Lorna said yes.
AX: Was it easy for you to find Sister Boniface again, or did you have to go, “What was I doing before,” or are you in fact doing something different now?
LORNA WATSON: [laughs] Well, I did wonder what it was that I did ten years ago. That was my first thought. And I revisited the episode, obviously, to start with. And then I also let the scripts inform me, because although I did play Sister Boniface, one episode is different to ten episodes’ worth of character. Making an impact with her [in one episode is] slightly different to playing her in a whole series. So, I had to get to know her a bit, and a lot of that was the amazing scripts.
And then, I suppose, an extra element of that was, once we started shooting, we as a cast were able to find those little character moments that might not be in the script, but feel right. And so hopefully it’s a little balance of both. But I have to say, the scripts are so well-written that my job was always done for me, really. I remember on sort of Day 2 or Day 3 thinking, “Ah, okay, now I remember.” It took a couple of days, I think, to get into the feel of the character. But once she clicked, it all hopefully slotted into place, and felt right.
AX: What were things that you got from the script that helped you play Sister Boniface?
WATSON: Obviously, I got to know the forensic side of things in more detail. Although it was there in the FATHER BROWN episode, it was not to the degree that we have it in SISTER BONIFACE, I think a lot of it was down to her relationships with the other characters, because you learned a lot through those relationships, how other people treat her, and how she treats other people.
I suppose her dynamic with Sam Gillespie in particular – they’re almost like siblings, really, and they have a shorthand with each other, and just a general understanding of each other. And then also, I suppose, all of the cast. I mean, she is who she is with everybody, but certainly, her shorthand with Sam is a slightly deeper relationship. Also, these characters weren’t in FATHER BROWN, so these are new relationships for me and for Sister Boniface. I think that’s kind of it, really. It was just in the dialogue, in the relationships. That’s what informed me the most.
AX: In the first episode of SISTER BONIFACE, she and Sam are already working together, and we’re just coming into everything with Felix. Was there any thought of initially showing how Sister Boniface and Sam started working together, or did you just think, “Let’s hit the ground running”?
TROTTER: From the writers’ room perspective, particularly in crime narrative stories, which you have to tell in forty-five minutes, I want less set-up, I want to get straight on with it. The clever thing that Jude did was, she created almost the back story of this world through the eyes of Felix, who is shocked that he was in the wrong place anyway, but then finding out that this wasn’t the super-new Scotland Yard, top of the game cop scene – they’re all crazy, in a crazy world, doing all the things completely unnaturally. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a nun in the middle of it. The fact that the nun picks him up and takes him to the crime scene, and then starts solving, starts doing the forensics, I just love that immediacy. You’re straight in it. And I think the audience love that. The set-up – if it is worthy of doing, we could do a flashback story of when they first met. But we kind of did it with Felix, so I don’t think we need to do that.
AX: When actors are playing someone who’s very sad, sometimes they find it draining. Sister Boniface, on the other hand, is indefatigably upbeat. Is it fun or just exhausting to play someone so cheerful?
WATSON: [laughs] Sometimes I’d get the note, “Little bit more energy,” especially if it’s a first-thing-in-the-morning scene. But her brain never stops. So, I would say, yes, it was a little bit sometimes tiring, beginning of the day or at the end of the day. But at the same time, it has to be that way. The show itself is very pacey, actually, and her brain is the same. It’s just buzzing all the time with information.
But in a way, it helped, because the way she rattles off all this scientific stuff, it’s important that it is rattled off, because this is just second nature to her. It’s her world, and it’s important that she’s informative, but at the same time that sometimes people can’t quite keep up. That’s who she is. And she is in a different league in that sense. That’s why the police need her so much. But yeah [laughs], it’s a few cups of coffee sometimes, and a bit of cake, would help me get through the day.
AX: Would a real nun be allowed by her convent to be so out in the world? I know CALL THE MIDWIFE is another very popular show set at about the same time as SISTER BONIFACE, where you’ve got nuns doing pretty much nothing but interacting with the outside world, but would a nun from a convent that is less involved in the community have Sister Boniface’s kind of freedom?
TROTTER: From our research, the writer’s great-aunt was a nun, and they do lots of work all over the world. One person who we spoke to was talking about how one of the nuns wrote a book in the Holy Desert. So, they have a community role, and it depends how far they take it. Actually, there is a certain tension within the convent about what she does, and maybe Lorna could talk a bit about that.
WATSON: Yeah. Reverend Mother Adrienne doesn’t quite understand. I think she feels as though Sister Boniface’s passion for forensics is an indulgence, and how is it that she gets away with doing this? But Canoness Basil, her superior, doesn’t have a problem with it. And actually, she’s solving crimes. She is helping the community, it’s just in an unusual, unconventional way. But the intent behind it is to be helpful, and to put criminals away. So, I think the message there is that it might be an unconventional route, but she is still doing good.
AX: Is there anything different about playing a nun from playing someone who isn’t a nun?
WATSON: Well, yes, I think there is. I was just talking to somebody about this, that when you put the habit on, how it sort of transforms you. And also, how only your face and hands are on show, it does really affect your performance, and that’s on a literal level. One of the other actors, who plays Ruth, Miranda Raison, said to me once, “Have you noticed how relaxed everyone is on set all the time?” She said, “I think it’s just because there are nuns hanging around everywhere, and it’s very calming.” [laughs]
And I thought, “Oh, what a lovely thing to say. I suppose you’re right.” I felt very chilled out as a nun, I have to say. But I suppose that physically being in a habit, and just having the action focused purely on your face, is very different from roles I’ve played, and also, specific to Sister Boniface, I’ve never played anyone this intelligent.
AX: Was there anything that either of you had to learn about in order to make SISTER BONIFACE?
WATSON: Well, definitely on the pronunciation side of things, my poor friend Kylie, who’s a doctor, got quite a few late-night panicky phone calls from me, saying, “I need you to tell me how to pronounce this,” things that I couldn’t find on Google Pronounce.
TROTTER: Well, our writers, obviously, as soon as they come up with the idea, we put that through the researchers, to make sure that it’s working, it’s viable. Often, things come out of that process. And of course, the forensics and the science there, that has to be rock-solid, we have to know that it works. You can’t cheat an audience on that. And all the dialogue poor old Lorna has to do, that she does so brilliantly, has to be correct. So, we do a lot of research.
Because I do a lot of crime shows, I read crime stuff – one of the books I’ve read was WHY WE LOVE SERIAL KILLERS, which was a very dark book, and it’s mostly about American serial killers, by the way. One of them was BTK [Dennis Rader], which was Bind, Torture, Kill, and he was quite a famous serial murderer, and one of his things was, he would take trophies from his crime scenes, which is very dark and horrible. So [for a particular episode], I said to Jude, the writer, “I think what would help here is if he takes his own little prize, if you like.” And I think that sometimes these things come out of nowhere. They’re probably out of research, or reading the newspaper. You talk to a writer, and anything you can give them, if they think it’s a good idea, they’ll take it.
AX: How dark can SISTER BONIFACE get? Because you do have a serial killer, but his trophies are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than, say, body parts.
TROTTER: Yeah. [Real-life serial killers] take all sorts of things – photographs, jewelry. It’s not just about body parts. We’re not dark, obviously. The subjects are dark. We make this so that everybody can watch it, and enjoy the puzzle. A family could watch this. And also, it’s the release, the humor that we get through Lorna and the gang’s performances and the writing, is what’s hugely entertaining. So, we can do dark stuff, but we do it in, if you like, a light-touch way.
AX: What would you both most like people to get out of SISTER BONIFACE MYSTERIES?
WATSON: I hope that people feel like they’re watching something that they haven’t quite seen before. It feels quite unique to me, although it’s a popular genre. The elements of the forensics in the 1960s, I think, is a very unique dimension to the show. I hope they enjoy the various diverse characters that we have on the show as well, and also, I suppose, the thrill of solving the puzzle. So, it feels like it’s got a lot. It’s got warmth, it’s got drama, it’s got pathos and comedy, and it is something that you can sit down with as a family and enjoy.
TROTTER: I can echo all that. And when these shows really work, it is about the puzzle, it is about all that crime stuff. But this is a kind of comedy/drama crime show, so therefore, you want to spend time with those characters, and in the end, you want to feel good about yourself, and the people around you, and your community. And you might actually think, “You know what? I haven’t talked to my neighbor for about a month. Are they okay? [laughs] I might pop round there and say hello.” So, you’re left with a sense of being – I hate to say it – a better person.
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Article: Exlcusive Interview with THE SISTER BONIFACE MYSTERIES star Lorna Watson and executive producer Will Trotter