I have discovered the ITV series Grantchester on dvd. A little late, yes, but in my defence I thought it would be boring like the books.
Reader, it is not. In fact, God has never been so sexy.
James Norton stars as the Reverend Sidney Chambers, a vicar with a past and an attractive set of cheekbones. He is not a natural fit with the life of a clergyman; he has a definite problem with the bottle, a penchant for jazz, and a familiarity with women in the biblical sense.
Despite his unconventional attributes, the show trots out the familiar tropes of the detective genre. Rev. Chambers has a buddy in the form of Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) of the Grantchester Constabulary, and their partnership evolves into a genuinely affecting bromance. Like their archetypal forebears, their sense of right and wrong frequently renders them outcasts at odds with their superiors, both in the force and the Church, and the greatest mystery plaguing them is their existence. Both Keating and Chambers have military pasts that haunt them, meaning solving crimes is a way of ordering psychological chaos and righting past wrongs.
The religious backdrop renders the moral heart of crime-solving more conflict-provoking for our heroes and more dramatic for us, the viewers. As a man of the cloth, Chambers has unique insight because he has to minister to both the perpetrator and the victim, and also try to heal his community when it is divided in the aftermath of a criminal act. While a persuasive heart to heart with a parishioner can convince them to come forward with crucial information or persuade a killer to turn themselves in, Chambers also bears witness to the cruelties and shortcomings of the justice system. Each episode finishes with a sermon, but not of a trite, preachy kind, as Chambers’ awareness of the double-edged nature of both crime and punishment frequently leads him away from absolution. This is heightened in season two when it becomes apparent that Chambers entered the Church to atone for his responsibility for a fellow soldier’s death during the war. As a result, Chambers sometimes sees himself reflected in the face of a murderer, further narrowing the distance between criminal and crime solver.
Another key aspect of the series is the success with which the period setting is carried off. Its not all vintage dresses, picnics and thoughtful walks in open fields (although there is a fair bit of that). The time is the early 1950s. A dalliance with your typist can saddle you with an illegitimate child and a secret that you take to your grave. There is no such thing as no-fault divorce, meaning you need to be named and shamed to legally separate. You cannot marry up or down, or even sideways if your beloved is of a different racial background. Furthermore, homosexuality is out, and the death penalty is in. These circumstances aid the moral dimension of the series, because it means that so much is at stake. You must really want to kill someone if you are prepared to risk the death penalty, and Chambers sees firsthand what it means to take an eye for an eye.
Like all good historical fiction, Grantchester alludes to contemporary problems through the lens of the past. In series two, clerical child sexual abuse is in point. This series revolves around the death of a pregnant teenager. In trying to help her abort her baby, her friend accidentally kills her and is sentenced to hang. But the person responsible for her pregnancy is a vicar, whom Chambers knows well. Chambers is outraged when the Church moves to cover up his colleague’s actions and move him to another parish (Spotlight, anyone?). But unlike the vast majority of incidences of clerical abuse throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ultimately the bishop is held responsible- a comfort that fiction allows. It is also the epitome of why we are drawn to detective fiction: the need to be reassured of order and justice when the meting out of punishment is beyond us.
Photo of the Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden supplied by the Armchair Critics’ Mother.