'Grantchester'

A PBS Mystery with a Vicar at Its Center

Have sermons ever featured so frequently in a television whodunit? The formulaic but likeable new mystery series Grantchester is hardly a theology-powered drama. But the episodes regularly sample homilies at the Anglican church that’s home to the tale’s protagonist, Rev. Sidney Chambers (James Norton). A handsome, young, jazz-revering vicar in a picturesque 1950s English village, Sidney periodically bemuses his friends and parishioners with his flair for solving crimes. Yet his sleuthing rarely takes him too far from the church where he and his bumbling curate, Leonard, preach on forgiveness, the importance of not judging others, and other uplifting topics.

The digestible snippets of sermon, the amiable virtuousness of Sidney, the tidy plotting—all these elements help make Grantchester, airing in six parts, January 18 to February 22 at 10 p.m. on PBS, decisively feel-good entertainment. Based on the mystery series by James Runcie—who modeled Sidney on his own father, Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991—“Grantchester” (part of PBS’s Masterpiece programming) is soothingly old-fashioned, falling comfortably within the bounds of the cozy mystery genre.

Not that the show ignores darkness and loss, even outside of its crime-puzzle storylines. Very brief flashback sequences regularly remind us that Sidney fought in World War II, earning a decoration for valor (as Robert Runcie did). The flashbacks are just vivid enough to suggest the horror of that battlefield experience. And the tendency of the clerical Sidney to turn to alcohol for comfort (he loves whiskey and disdains sherry) testifies to the lingering effects of trauma.

Still, Sidney seems to have survived war remarkably well, retaining an upbeat vision of the world and a resilient faith. When Leonard (Al Weaver) flees Grantchester, spooked by the more demanding aspects of the priesthood, Sidney furiously pursues him on a bicycle. Catching up with the curate at a rural bus stop—one of the many settings that allow the camera to take in the gorgeous Cambridgeshire countryside—Sidney gives a morale-boosting talk, emphasizing the happy aspects of their profession, without denying the draining dimensions.

“For every funeral, every sick child, every tiresome knock at the door, there’s a wedding or a christening, or a quiet chat at the fireside about the status of the priesthood,” he says. “It’s life we deal in, Leonard. The good, the bad—all the gray areas in between.”

Needless to say, the comically hapless Leonard returns to the homey digs he shares with Sidney, a drolly brusque landlady named Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), and an adorable retriever puppy named Dickens. As for Sidney’s sleuthing habit, the vicar views it not as a distraction from his pastoral duties, but as an extension of them. “As a priest, isn’t everything our business?” he asks rhetorically, at one point. “There is no part of the human heart which is not our responsibility.”

As this bit of summary may imply, Grantchester is so heartwarming it verges on being cloying. Fortunately, Norton lends Sidney a good deal of depth: this gumshoeing vicar is unflaggingly patient with parishioners, and he usually seems to come up with the right calm, inspirational rejoinders to people experiencing distress, but you can see—in the shades of sadness and ambivalence that cross his face—that such responses require effort on his part. The heartless behavior of a debutante named Amanda (Morven Christie), whom Sidney loves, despite her engagement to a wealthier man, further taxes the young clergyman’s equanimity.

Also providing a valuable counterweight to the story’s more sugary aspects is the figure of Inspector Geordie Keating (the compelling Robson Green), a hard-bitten local cop who, improbably, becomes a best friend, and regular backgammon partner, to Sidney. Geordie is all too aware of the class differences that other characters would prefer to gloss over. And his cynical comments and flinty expressions add some welcome grit to Grantchester. Unlike the remarkably enlightened Sidney, Geordie is not so willing to prioritize compassion over law and custom: when an investigation reveals a suspect’s homosexuality, Geordie is happy to arrest the man (homosexual behavior was illegal in 1950s Britain), despite Sidney’s pleas to ignore the matter.

But such sobering moments are few and fleeting in Grantchester—a television show that may prompt recovering English majors to rifle through their poetry anthologies. Back in 1912, after all, the English poet Rupert Brooke wrote “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” a now-lyrical, now-tongue-in-cheek paean to the eponymous Cambridgeshire hamlet. That long poem’s humor and nostalgic yearning—Brooke wrote it while in Germany—find a sort of pop-culture equivalent in this retro TV show.

“Say, is there Beauty yet to find? / And Certainty? and Quiet kind?...” Brooke wrote. “Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?”

For viewers of Grantchester, the answer is yes.

Published in the January 23, 2015 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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