Television is in a pretty great place right now, what with all the new compelling dramas that have hit screens over the past year, but the arrival of the New Year has brought with it the return of many of our old favourites, the first being Grantchester, which returned to ITV for its fourth series on Friday. While the investigative drama is always an audience pleaser, there is perhaps even more anticipation for this particular season, following last year’s announcement that it will, unfortunately,y be James Norton’s last. No, you’re crying.
With Norton’s departure imminent, there was a possibility that the fourth series could’ve been overshadowed by this fact, but — judging from the opening instalment — this isn’t the case at all. In fact, Sidney Chambers (James Norton) seems more settled than ever at the beginning of the episode. A wonderful opening segment finds the charming vicar ignoring his best friend and cop Geordie Keating’s (Robson Green) advice, opting to chase down a criminal who pulled a knife on the pair earlier. In spite of the dangerous circumstances the two protagonists find themselves in, it’s an incredibly joyous introduction — one that is just about as quintessential Grantchester as you could get, thus proving that this is very much still the show that we know and love.
The narrative of the episode is established really well by writer Daisy Coulam, and is done so through Sidney’s tiresome work. After nearly resigning from the church in the previous series, the vicar is taking his job very seriously this time around — or at least, trying to. He’s craving excitement, however, which he gets when he attends a seminar — that’s about religion’s role in the civil rights struggle — with Leonard (Al Weaver). Reverend
Nathaniel Todd (Paterson Joseph), who is speaking at the seminar, finds himself and his family to be the targets of severe racial abuse. Things escalate when Nathaniel’s son, Charles (Tok Stephen), is murdered in what Nathaniel believes to be a racial attack.
While much of Grantchester’s optimism is still present, this episode possesses a much darker tone, which is not only down to Sidney’s continued internal conflict, but also is due to the important subject matter that the instalment deals with. Much like Call The Midwife intends to do in the future, Grantchester is exploring socially relevant issues as it moves further into its respective decade. We’ve seen homosexuality explored numerous times before — specifically in regards to Leonard — but this premiere episode shines a light on another prominent issue from the ‘50s, and that’s racism.
However, in spite of the subject matter, Coulam doesn’t allow the episode to become a history lesson, but rather educates the viewer through the struggles of these well-written characters. As is the case with plenty of issues the show has dealt with in the past, Sidney is our conduit into these harsh times, as he struggles to understand how one can be so cruel to another human being due to the colour of their skin, or because of whom they’re attracted to. His brief relationship with Violet Todd (Simona Brown) takes up much of the episode, and it’s through this partnership that Coulam accomplishes much of what she set out to do. While we’re on the subject of love interests, the show hasn’t yet struggled with Amanda Kendall’s (Morven Christie) absence, but this could well change going forward, given that she’s such a crucial part of Sidney’s narrative arc.
In addition to social issues and strong narrative, another thing that the premiere episode handles very well is the introduction of new vicar Will Davenport (Tom Brittney). I think I speak for everyone when I say that, when a successor is introduced into a television series that you love, there’s often a fear that the newbie’s arrival will a) overshadow the protagonist’s farewell arc and b) that they simply won’t be able to live up to the original leading character. While it’s true that they rarely measure up to what’s come before, a decent execution of their introduction can aid in allowing us to accept this change. That’s exactly what Coulam has pulled off here. She successfully introduces Will to the viewers without having him detract from Sidney’s current storylines. Not only that, but Will has all the makings of a great character — he seems to be an all-round likeable guy, and perhaps his best quality is the fact that he’s not even remotely like Sidney, suggesting that the series could be very different should it return for a fifth outing. Brittney is really great in this role and he certainly has what it takes to be Grantchester’s new leading man.
I watch and review a lot of telly, but Grantchester is one show that I often find myself thinking about — even when it’s not on the air. Perhaps it’s because dramas like this one are far and few between. While it shares similarities with plenty of previous murder mystery series’, there’s an originality in its concept, and the dynamic between Sidney and Geordie is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on TV. Without these two, the show simply wouldn’t work, which is why Norton’s impending departure is such a hard pill to swallow.
Truth be told, Norton is as sublime in this instalment of Grantchester as he’s been in every previous one and, while the thought of his departure doesn’t remotely overshadow the narrative, I must admit that I did experience some degree of melancholia while watching this episode, knowing that soon I’ll have to bid farewell to one of the greatest, and most conflicted, TV protagonists in recent memory. While the scripts have always been top-notch, much of Sidney’s brilliance comes from Norton’s superb performance, and we’ve been truly lucky to have such a wonderful actor bring James Runcie‘s creation to life. Before we get all teary-eyed, however, we can simply enjoy the beauty that is Grantchester, which has returned as strong as it ever was.
Grantchester continues Fridays on ITV at 9pm