A distraught woman, all red lips and stylish hat, pleads to the clergyman: “I can’t go to the police, but you— the human heart— that’s your responsibility isn’t it? You can ask any question of anyone, however private.”
Yes, thinks the clergyman, I suppose I can. Now how shall I wield this unique power?
And there you have the premise of Grantchester, the enjoyable new series that premiered on Masterpiece Mystery, January 18.
Our clergyman is Canon Sidney Chambers (James Norton), hunky in the Ralph de Bricassart mold and tantalizingly available. He comes with the requisite cassock and bicycle, plus a few predilections we might not expect—a taste for Sidney Bechet, a passion for backgammon, and a dislike of sherry among them.
The time is November 1953. We know this from a mention of a fateful soccer match that England lost to Hungary. Said game resides in the collective consciousness of U.K. soccer fans the way Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” resonates with American baseball fans.
The place is Grantchester, a real village near Cambridge that’s been immortalized in a Pink Floyd song and in the mystery novels by James Runcie on which the TV series is based.
The situation is the apparent suicide of a lawyer that could very well have been murder.
The woman, a Mrs. Pamela Morton (Rachel Shelley), has reason to believe that the dead man did not take his own life. Because her suspicion involves…erm… intimate knowledge of the deceased, she won’t go to the police. Sidney Chambers does, and that’s where he meets Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green).
Keating is grumpy and stubborn as provincial policemen tend to be in these sorts of English village mysteries. Yet unlike the array of inspectors who find characters such as Miss Marple mere nuisances (When will they learn?), Keating immediately places Sidney in the assets column.
“People feel they can tell me things,” Sidney haltingly explains.
“You’re lucky. No one feels they can tell me anything,” Keating replies, mental wheels turning.
With that exchange, a dynamic duo is born with Keating relying on Sidney to glean information and help solve cases. Nobody promised this would be realistic. On the other hand, it’s an awfully pleasant way to spend an hour in front of the TV on a winter’s evening.
Grantchester has all the elements we’ve come to expect from a standard cozy, historical mystery TV series, right down to the canon’s overbearing housekeeper (Tessa Peake-Jones) who’s invariably more holy than the clergyman she serves. Filmed in the actual village of Grantchester, it’s quaint and pretty to look at. And halfway through Episode 1 we get a puppy!
You can’t argue with the appeal of the lead actors. James Norton and Robson Green are always fun to watch. Morven Christie, who plays Sidney’s friend Amanda Kendall, is good as well, although I have my doubts about her character’s likeability—not to mention her judgment. (You’ll see…) The character of Amanda caused some grumbling among U.K. viewers.
The teleplay written by Daisy Coulam was pretty true to the short story on which it was based (“The Shadow of Death” from Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death). That might not be the case with future episodes, if U.K. viewer comments are anything to go by. Regardless, Grantchester stands on its own merits.
Grantchester was a success from the start when it debuted in the U.K. last fall and it’s already been renewed for a second series set to begin filming in the spring. Less cartoonish than the TV version of Father Brown, less intellectual than Morse and its progeny, less mopey than Foyle, Grantchester manages to appeal to fans of all of them. If I compare it to Midsomer Murders, that’s not faint praise. There’s a reason the greater Midsomer metropolitan area is both the most adorable place on earth and the fictional murder capital of the U.K. Viewers can’t get enough of it. Perhaps the same will be true for Grantchester. (I did mention the puppy, right?) Episode 2 airs next week on Masterpiece Mystery.
Leslie Gilbert Elmanis the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter@leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.