Q&A with Lorna Watson and Will Trotter of ‘Sister Boniface Mysteries’

Lorna Watson as Sister Boniface. Photo: BBC Studios

Look out, bicycle-riding nuns of Nonnatus House! There’s a new Sister in town and she’s armed with an IQ of 156, a PhD in Forensic Science and a Vespa! Appearing in only one episode of the now possessor of 100 episodes, Father Brown, Sister Boniface is hell-bent (sorry) on helping to make the streets of Great Slaughter safe for everyone and not let it turn into Midsomer or the sleepy little village of Kembleford where there seems to be a murder every week!

We had the great good fortune to be able to participate in an absolutely delightful sit down recently with Will Trotter (Executive Producer, Father Brown, Shakespeare & Hathaway and Sister Boniface Mysteries) and Lorna Watson (Watson & Oliver), a.k.a. Sister Boniface to talk about everything from how the series came about some 9 years after she appeared in episode 6 (“The Bride of Christ”) of the first series of Father Brown to what the Sister might take with her on Desert Island Discs!

Tellyspotting: I so appreciate both of you taking the time to talk briefly about the Sister. Very nice to meet you, Lorna. Good to see you again, Will. Sorry we won’t see each other in Liverpool again this year, but hopefully next year. Will for the first question for you is when you look back and, obviously, the limited face time that Sister Boniface had in Father Brown. What led you to consider a full series for the character of Sister Boniface?

Will Trotter: It was two or three things, one being Jude Tindall the writer who created the character in that first episode in Father Brown. And the shining light of that episode was Lorna Watson’s performance as Sister Boniface.

And we walked away going, she’s got to come back, we’ve got to use her. And then we discussed why don’t we hold her, she’s such a great character. We could actually do a spin off series using Sister Boniface because early on with Mark Williams on the Harry Potter track, who knows, he might get bored. TV changes, people change, commissioners change.

So I just thought lets keep it on the shelf and when it’s ready, when we’re ready, we’ll go to it. Well, Father Brown just carried on and on and on very strong through 9 more series and we just thought at one point we’re going to lose Lorna and we’re going to lose this idea. It’s going to lose its track so let’s try go for it. So Jude worked up a script. And we worked together to approach Lorna…

Lorna Watson: …and I said yes please! We ate sandwiches and cake and celebrated. Then we got knocked down and then we got to make it. So it’s been an amazing surprising brilliant journey. An absolute blast by the way we have so much fun making it. An unexpected, great adventure.

Tellyspotting: What was really clear watching the first couple of episodes and, Will you’ve done this for a long time with both Father Brown and Shakespeare & Hathaway, is that you have a central main character with Mark, with Lorna, and with the duo in Shakespeare & Hathaway but you place an enormous value in the ensemble cast that surrounds the main character if you both can speak briefly to the value of the ensemble cast, particularly in Sister Boniface.

Sister Peter (Tina Chiang) & Sister Boniface (Lorna Watson)

 Will Trotter: Yeah, well spotted. I don’t   like wjust solo enigmatic detectives. I quite like the ‘gang’ show because you get so much more value out of the gang.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               get character, light comedy so you get a lot and also you get a different point of view from your gang of characters.

So this show was just different from Father Brown with Father Brown in the 50s and this one in the 60s, with Lorna’s character on the cutting edge of science. And so the gang we needed around her was procedural proper procedural cops, unlike the Keystone Cops in Father Brown.

You know, they didn’t have any DNA. They’re just boot walking all over the crime scenes as well. Whereas in this, the gang needs Sister Boniface who was crucial for the cleanup. So we needed stories for the gang so, for example, Max’s character there’s the on/off love affair with Ruth who’s the editor; Gerry’s character has come from abroad thinking he’s going to new Scotland Yard and it’s all going to at the height of intelligence, they’re all building blocks to make it a very interesting world, which makes it more than just the puzzle. Because that’s really what I want character stuff and I want the humor. I don’t want the love interest and all those other things on top of solving the puzzle.

Tellyspotting: Lorna, from your standpoint, how was it? You’ve been able to attract some amazing people for an ensemble cast, but how as important as you as in the title role to have that supporting cast around.

Jerry Iwu (Sex Education) as DS Felix Livingstone and Lorna Watson (Sister Boniface). Photo: BBC Studios

Lorna Watson: Well, it’s crucial. You get to know Sister Boniface so much better for them as well. It just adds a whole new dimension to the show. It is about the forensics but it is also about relationships in life. And they’re all so different as well. That’s what’s brilliant about it. Even if you just if you look at Sam Gillespie and Felix, they’re so different and they both have different relationships with each other and Sister Bonafice.

I think the comedy is what you get from it, and also secondary characters like Mrs. Clan and there are so many of them that it just creates the world and without them the world wouldn’t be as rich I think. With them, you just want more, hopefully,

Tellyspotting: Lorna, both of you spoke about comedy briefly. A lot of your career is rooted in comedy, whether it’s sketch comedy, whether it’s situation comedy. As you approach a role, is comedy harder than drama, or drama harder than comedy.

Lorna Watson: That’s a hard one. To me, comedy is my comfort zone. So the first thing I do is I look for comedy in anything that I’m reading for. It’s where I feel most comfortable. The other stuff comes second to that. And then that’s just the way I work that I think you can get to know somebody and a character very well through comedy actually.

In my life in general, I use comedy to get to know people. So, I think the comedic aspect of the show was one that I obviously gravitated instantly towards but, as I say, she is multifaceted, multi-layered, and there are these other dimensions and she was so intelligent and I liked the fact that from having done one episode of Father Brown I was then able to really get to know her through 10 episodes.

As for my comedy backgrounds. I’m used to playing in my double act anyway, the naive clown and I think there is a naive Sister Boniface. I also think there’s a clever clown in her. So it was really lovely to play both of those clowns in person.

Tellyspotting: Well, Lorna, we’ve now known each other for an entire five minutes, but I get the sense that there is a little bit of you in the Sisters character and vice versa.

Lorna Watson: Yeah? Definitely not the forensic part, I must stress that as I’m quite scientifically challenged. But, I think yes, I think there probably is, maybe it’s my comedy background, I don’t know, but I do have quite a childlike approach to life. I spent a career being silly for a living and I suppose that kind of wide eyed innocence that she has and the playfulness that she has I can certainly relate.

That’s an interesting one…just how similar are we?  I think she questions and she’s honest. She’s a very honest person. She said there was no gile there. Yeah, but I think just the forensicrēs that I knew. I definitely feel a comfort when I’m playing her. I feel like I know her.  

Tellyspotting: You both touched briefly on the fact that we are in the early days of forensics. DNA didn’t exist. And, as you said, people are just walking through crime scenes. What do you think Sister Boniface’s character, what got her interested in forensic science to get a PhD

Will Trotter: I think it’s probably a question for Jude as she created the character. But she comes from a Catholic background. I think one of her Aunties was a nun, she was quite ancient. And I mean, she took her auntie to see Book of Mormon. We have this view of nuns and they’re quite sort of straight laced. And if you look at the nuns in Sister Boniface, even the higher status ones, they’ve all got character, they are all quite strong willed. They are all very interesting people.

I think her view of Lorna’s character with Sister Boniface was she wanted her to be very, very clever, very intelligent, in fact part of the backstories is that is she is part of GCHQ when she was at university so during the war she becomes one of the codebreakers. And, she has to choose in life whether she goes on to the brilliant scientist or she wants to give herself to God.

So she chooses that, but she doesn’t throw away that part of her gift, which is in this case science, but it could have been anything else. It could be law but science fit very, very nicely with crime, and we’re quite fascinated by CSI. So, I think of the time, the 50s, that golden age of writing with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, they’re amazing women, and I think they were all writing about crime. Agatha Christie actually wrote a lot about crime scene investigation so she did a lot of science, poisons, all sorts of things. People don’t realize she did a lot of study about it before she committed it to paper. So I think maybe it’s just inherent in crime shows that the science is involved.

Tellyspotting: Lorna, does it help you entering into this character to have that backstory to know more than just what is on the printed page of the script? So you know, in your head, a lot about this character and her history and her background?

Lorna Watson: Yeah, I think it is very important. The scripts themselves were amazing. When I first read them, they were very informative. And I felt like I knew not just my character, but who each of the characters was. But to have that extra background element giving the character its motivation, its drive, its reason, I think, that’s just really helpful to have in the background.

When she’s right, she knows she’s right. She’s been doing this for years. And that sort of thing does inform how you how you deliver the dialogue. So, it’s credibly helpful.

Will Trotter: I forgot to mention when Jude wrote the first thing, that first episode of Father Brown, she created Sister Boniface as the vintner, the winemaker is in the convent. So by its very nature, she’s involved in all that business. The alchemy. So that sort of lends itself to a backstory too .

Tellyspotting: So you have 10 episodes under your belt with Sister Boniface and, obviously, you have 100 now with Father Brown, do you have 90 more ways to figure out how to commit a murder. In an odd way. What does it say about you know, someone who can figure out hundreds of different ways to commit murder?

Will Trotter: Crooks will find difficult problems for you to solve. It is a challenge in a different way from Father Brown and it presents a challenge because we have to come up with clever ways to do the forensics. That’s the justification for Sister Boniface’s role. So that’s one of our problems.

But the writing is so brilliant and the fact that those writers very simply had one episode to go to work on and we develop that Sister Boniface’s character anyway, and how they got her voice and probably a lot down to Lorna’s performance where they were able to project straight on to it. As long as she’s still in the role. I think we’re looking at 100 episodes.

Tellyspotting: The good thing is you have a Vespa now instead of a bicycle so you can get to the crime scenes a lot faster.

Lorna Watson: Very good point.

Tellyspotting: One last question for both of you and this is a totally a personal one. I happen to be a big fan of the Desert Island Discs series. So what would Sister Boniface take with her on Desert Island Discs and, Will, if you have something that you personally would take to the island?

Lorna Watson: Wow, that’s so difficult for me. I guess it would be the Bible wouldn’t it., or Well, the Vespa would be handy to get around the island but they you got the petrol thing, I guess . I think maybe it’s got to be something kind of scientific. Gosh, I’m going to have to think about it. Hang on, go over to Will and I’ll think about it.

Will Trotter: Well, I’ve been trying to play a guitar for most of my life. Honestly, I still haven’t achieved it. So there you go. That’s my one thing, I guess. And I guess a book Ulysses by James Joyce. Never got around to reading that but 63 I might be dead by the time I finish it.

Lorna Watson: I can see Agatha Christie as a book also!

Tellyspotting: I have to think that we’re in the 60s so the Sister has to be into 60s music! There’s some great music here.  Will, it was great to see you again and, Lorna, lovely to meet you and I very much look forward to the series in the coming weeks.

With that, we had to say goodbye to two wonderfully talented individuals, Will Trotter and Lorna Watson.

Bur, before we go, here’s a bit of behind-the-scenes on the set of Sister Boniface Mysteries.

Sister Boniface Mysteries will hit Britbox in America on Tuesday, February 8 and, hopefully, make its way to a public television station near you later in 2022.


In: Mystery