The first time I saw the word Grantchester I thought someone was having a bit of a laugh. It sounded like the kind of fictional town you find in Viz magazine, but on further inspection Grantchester is, in fact, a real town – just to the south of Cambridge. As I read more of the set-up – crime-solving vicar, 1950s setting – I began to shake my head. It sounded like the kind of patchwork quilt job Downton Abbey is to period drama, taking all the best bits of a genre and stitching them together, hoping they’ll somehow fit.
I like the mid-century era and find it fascinating. With its post-war hope, its burgeoning consumerism, its improved standard of living, its expansion of social housing and other enterprises and a new generation itching to escape the austerity of the war years, including rationing, which wasn’t totally banished until 1954 (although it was partly reintroduced during the Suez crisis).
So in many ways I was looking forward to Grantchester. And in terms of style it didn’t disappoint. It presented a rural community with dirt tracks, bucolic avenues, vicars on bikes, amusing housekeepers and ruddy-faced children. All the tropes and paradigms we’ve seen before in other crime dramas, reconstituted and re-applied.
The last time we saw James Norton was, of course, as the terrifying Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley, and his transformation into the do-gooding, smiling and foppish vicar Sidney Chambers – who jolly well helps the people who no one else will with extreme earnestness – is initially difficult to stomach. Add to that his star cross’d relationship with a childhood sweetheart who decides to get engaged to someone else, and suddenly you have Mr Nasty turning into Mr Butter Wouldn’t Melt. This is not necessarily Norton’s fault – he’s a fine young actor – but it just took a bit of time for this volte-face to sink in. And there are some things to like about Sidney – he enjoys a pint (the village pub is beautifully realised), a smoke and a bop to some jazz records.
As for the case he’s sticking his nose into, it was an interesting, if hardly gripping one. A local solicitor was found slumped on his desk, revolver in hand and his brains Jackson Pollocked on the wall behind him. An apparent suicide. Except… except. A glamorous, elegant young woman – who turned out to be his mistress – approached Sidney at the funeral to whisper her suspicions almost coquettishly to Sidney. She thought murder most foul was afoot. The rest of the mourners also whispered, less coquettishly, about their suspicions of the dead man’s wife – a German woman. So soon after the war, Germans were still regarded as the enemy and in this small town the whispers were as loud as thunder.
This was all it took for Sidney’s interest to be piqued. He visited Cambridge to meet with gruff Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who is more concerned with making sure his cases are wrapped up in time for a session down the pub and a look at the football results. No help for Sidney there. So it was up to him to roll up his cassock and get to work himself.
What followed was a breezy, enjoyable hour of amateur sleuthing. At the end Keating was impressed and gave Sidney the go ahead to work on more cases. That easy.
There’s nothing wrong with lightness in a genre where portentous, bruised skies are the norm (hello Scandinavian crime drama), but Grantchester had none of the wit or fizz of a Christie mystery, none of the intrigue of a Midsomer Murders or none of the tension between unlikely crime solvers we’ve come to love.
This has Sunday night drama written all over it – not least because it features a crime-solving priest – but with its period detail and breezy nature Grantchester is an enjoyable romp. Or as much of a romp with murder at its heart as it can be. Don’t expect much depth or sturm und drang.
Grantchester continues Monday’s at 9.00pm on ITV.