“What the Dickens?!?”
What do you get when you cross a sensual, jazz-loving redhead with a battered old salt? Need a clue? It won’t take more than just one. James Norton is Anglican vicar, Sidney Chambers; the uber-totty, if socially, philosophically and, morally conflicted man of the cloth whose post war bromantic chemistry heats to a boil after he discovers a penchant for spare-time sleuthing with a religiously ambiguous middle-aged and crusty, Detective Inspector, Geordie Keating (Robson Green). We’ve seen it all before – the young man/old man, unlikeliest of buddy/buddy alliances; each in search of his own truth as he skulks about the dark (metaphorically, speaking) with or without those post-war Victorian hang-ups and counterintuitive burgeoning of a social conscience and personal angst. Borrowing every virtue and vice from the Britcom crime-solving dramedy playbook, occasionally with shameless rip-offs of Agatha Christie, Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders and, Father Brown (among too many others to list herein), Grantchester (2014-present) nevertheless offers a sustained and refreshing effervescence beneath its highborn/high-starched collars and cuffs; moodily elegant as a pseudo-noir, and, with oodles of post-war nostalgia to boot. In only six episodes, Grantchester manages a minor coup; to establish its principles, characters and gain widespread acceptance on two continents – and – with Season Three already in the works – quite likely poised as an enriched substitute for our collective Downton Abbey withdrawal; a viable reason to fall in love all over again with a new assortment of cleverly homogenized, upper-crusts for whom homegrown homicide is much more about old-fashioned ‘locked room’ ‘who done it’s’ and far less involved with those grizzly copper/capers of our present age where the corpse gets splayed, decapitated or otherwise gruesomely disemboweled and put on public view to repulse; the crime itself, clinically dissected by a pair of rumpled and self-pitying dicks.
It is sincerely heartwarming to see a cops n’ capers melodrama made today that does not rely on the jittery hand-held camera and chop-shop styled editing to achieve its discombobulating thrills; better still, to wallow in Julian Court and Kieran McGuigan’s supremely edifying and lushly staged period cinematography. There is a pictorial gorgeousness to Grantchester that defies its contemporaries and for which Brit-born entertainment in general has long embraced an affinity, bucking the trend for fast-paced/cut-up performances, I suspect, primarily because in Britain they still train actors to command a scene on skill and stage presence alone without the trickery and camouflage of heavy-handed editing to confuse and anesthetize the audience. Grantchester demands its audience pay attention to even the smallest nuance and detail – the clues, neatly laid out for anyone possessing the intellectual wherewithal to solve a crime. Our Sidney Chambers is a very bright bulb indeed; at least ten steps ahead of the local constabulary and occasionally more than two preceding his counterpart. Geordie Keating is not a dull man; but he has become somewhat complacently jaded by his years on the force – careworn and stifled in his ability to seek out, embrace and engage the imaginative criminal mind.
The crimes we encounter in Grantchester are highly personal to at least one of these participants coming in after the fact; Sidney Chambers, serving as spiritual counsel to this very gossipy village just outside Cambridge, sternly managed by his otherwise devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), received in friendship by underling, curate, Leonard Finch (Al Weaver), while, working through his itching passion for two exotic women, each of whom decidedly outclasses him; long-time gal pal and heiress, Amanda Kendall (Morven Christie), who is about to be married to Guy Hopkins (Tom Austen), another member of the ruling class (simply because he asked!!!), and, German ex-pat, Hildegard Staunton (Pheline Roggan). Sidney Chambers is a lucky sod; Geordie acknowledging that his cleric’s collar has done absolutely nothing to diminish his animal magnetism radiating with the opposite sex. Apparently, however, it is exceedingly difficult to be a stud in Grantchester – what, with the locals chronically mindful of Sidney’s dalliances with Amanda, scornful of his ‘part-time’ hobby, fast beginning to dominate his sense of proportion and duty to his chosen profession; insidiously opposed to his burgeoning romantic prospects with Hildegard, and, Sidney himself, all but submarining these by indulging in a one-night indiscretion with smoldering jazz chanteuse, Gloria Dee (Camilla Beeput).
It’s taken five directors (Tim Fywell, Harry Bradbeer, Jill Robertson, Edward Bennett, David O'Neill), and four writers (Daisy Coulam, James Runcie, John Jackson, Joshua St. Johnston) to bring Runcie’s collection of short stories – The Grantchester Mysteries – to life. Arguably, the results have been well worth the effort. Grantchester is tautly scripted, succinctly acted, and magnificently tricked out in post-war period costuming by Sam Perry and Emma Fryer. Composer, John Lunn (whose lush orchestrations greatly contributed to the flavorful patina of Downton Abbey) hasn’t exactly outdone himself this time around. While Grantchester’s score is complimentary, the musical program lacks an iconic ‘theme’ for its main title – each episode simply beginning without fanfare, and then a brief musical arc to connect between the prologue and the scenes yet to follow it; the end titles cue sounding more like a toss-away from the aforementioned series, than a new standalone for this fledgling detective drama. Aside: I do sincerely hope more attention is paid to this as Grantchester appears to be shaping up as another solid hit for the BBC.
A lot can happen in the middle of this otherwise outwardly bucolic enclave; all lush wisteria, cobblestone byways, thatched roofs and stucco facades, winding country lanes leading through tightly knit neighborhoods and centuries old farms, with enough period architecture to serve as mere window-dressing and backdrop for these truly intriguing mystery/adventures. Six of Runcie’s short stories make up Season One. The first episode is rather inauspiciously not very indicative of where the series is headed; the first-time ‘cute meet’ between Sidney and Geordie delayed while the writer’s cover a bit of back story; first, the lazily romantic double entendre between Sidney and Amanda; the two seen enjoying long picnics and a clumsy mid-afternoon swim – the latter, unintentional, as the rope Amanda is using to swing out over the lake suddenly snaps from its tree branch, sending her headlong into the freezing waters and Sidney, chivalrously diving in after her. Shortly, we will get more back story than we bargain for – Sidney, haunted by bygone nightmares from the battlefield and pressed to grapple with his heart-sore emotions, as Amanda has just announced her engagement to Guy, “…because he asked me…” Amanda reasons. Oh, now there’s a good reason, and how fickle is woman.
On the home front, Sidney has bigger fish to fry, his vicarage under constant inspection from the prudish villagers, headlined by crotchety groundskeeper, Mr. Brandt (Chris Bearne); the lot attending Sunday mass partly to hear the word of God, but mostly to observe and make sly comment on Sidney’s evolution as their moral compass; his household managed by the morally inflexible Mrs. Maguire, who finds his commitments to the church torn asunder by his love of jazz (the devil’s music), his predilection for strong drink (the devil’s tool), and, his manly lust for woman beyond his grasp in the social register. Sidney’s new hobby – crime-solving – will not fare much better with Mrs. Maguire’s respects. “You need looking after, Mr. Chambers,” she repeatedly reminds him. And indeed, Sidney could do worse than to have a housekeeper as stringently and singularly devoted to satisfying his every need – even if she rarely approves of at least half of them.
Things begin to sizzle in the present when Sidney is called upon to deliver the benediction and panegyric for the late Stephen Staunton (Eoin McCarthy) whose wife, Hildegarde is somewhat ostracized for being German (and therefore, equally suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer) during the traditional wake at a local pub. There, vamp-ish Pamela Morton (Rachel Shelley) confides in Sidney her suspicions that her husband’s business partner did not commit suicide by blowing his brains out as originally believed, but actually murdered. The question remains; by who? The firm’s secretary, Annabel Morrison (Michelle Duncan) adored Stephen, regarding him as the better half of a somewhat tawdry partnership. Pamela’s husband, Clive (Andrew Woodall) knew nothing of her affair with Stephen. And Pamela herself would have no cause to stir up an investigation if she had jealously pulled the trigger. Or would she? Part of the exquisiteness of Grantchester revolves around the writers’ ability to introduce us to ostensibly unrelated characters – the payoff in these intros revealed, in some cases, several episodes on. According this clever planning, we also meet Annie (Sia Berkeley) the prostitute, exploited for comic relief in Episode 1 as she rather humorously tells Geordie to ‘bugger himself sideways’, but later provides a pivotal clue to another puzzler in the series.
The initial ‘cute meet’ between Sidney and Geordie is anything but cordial. Geordie has just had some rather disheartening news – no, not about another case, but a soccer match in which his team lost. We also meet Geordie’s wife, Cathy (Kacey Ainsworth) who will figure more prominently in an upcoming episode. Again, the writing sets up the particulars of each man’s invested interests in life. We get to know something – a lot, actually – about these people that is not on the menu of a straight-forward ‘who done it?’; such deviations to the central plot only serving to thicken and enrich the on-going bromantic chemistry that becomes the most enduring and endearing thread woven into the tapestry of their lives. Barking up the wrong tree will become something of a habit with Sidney, who, after reluctantly being brushed off by Geordie as trudging through ‘murky waters’, proceeds to take matters into his own hands by investigating the widow Staunton. Sidney’s unbiased approach ingratiates him to Hildegarde. But along the way, clues are planted by Sidney, with Geordie’s complicity, to deliberately snuff out a killer. And, predictably, one emerges before the end of Episode 1; although, perhaps not the one anticipated.
In Episode 2, Sidney reluctantly agrees to attend Amanda’s engagement party with his sister, Jennifer (Fiona Button) and her boyfriend, Soho jazz club manager-in-training, Johnny Johnson (Ukweli Roach); the swank affair staged at a pastoral country estate. Amanda’s father, Sir Edward Kendell (Pip Torrens), atypically toffy-nosed and condescending to intrusions made by the lower classes, does not approve of their invite – even if he tolerates it somewhat on his daughter’s behalf, still unaware of the depth of Amanda’s affections for Sidney. Amanda’s beau, Guy is in attendance; also psychology lecturer, Daphne Young (Pippa Nixon) as well as Guy’s best friend, politico, William Calthrope (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his rather shrewish wife, Lilian (Carolina Main) who, very shortly will become the corpse de jour of this unintentionally heated house party – the gathering distracted by the sudden disappearance of Amanda’s engagement ring and a wild accusation made by Guy that Johnny is the thief…and quite possibly, a murderer – simply, because he is black. In Episode Three, Sidney takes on a new curate at the vicarage; introverted, Leonard Finch whom Geordie quickly pegs ‘a pansy’. Guy asks Sidney to officiate his pending marriage to Amanda at Grantchester, seemingly unaware of how deep even the thought of it wounds Sidney and makes Amanda extremely uncomfortable. At the same time, Sidney is drawn into another marital quagmire when a middle-aged Lothario and serial polygamist, using the alias Arthur Evans (Kieran O'Brien), is accused of poisoning Daisy Livingston (Jean Marsh), the invalided mother of his latest fiancée/victim, Lucy (Lucy Black) who had strong misgivings about their marriage. However, when Lucy’s aunt is also found dead under spurious circumstances, Sidney begins to suspect the doctor (Mark Bonnar) presiding over Daisy’s cancer treatment of foul play.
Arguably, Grantchester hits its stride in Episode Four; ironically, one of two episodes not based directly on The Grantchester Mysteries short stories; the characters by now firmly ensconced in our memory; the writing as taut and compelling as serialized TV gets; each character’s personal traits begun to take on a life of their own as we follow this ensemble through even more heart-rending intrigues, beginning with Sidney’s chivalrous dawn rescue of affluent socialite, Marion Taylor (Flora Montgomery) from a burning mansion. Caretaker, Tobias Hall (Struan Rodger) is a dark horse, unsympathetic to his master, Dominic (Lee Williams); perhaps, shielding a more insidious family secret, rife for blackmail and involving local gas station pump jockey, Ben Blackwood (Rory Fleck-Byrne), who has been carrying on a notorious homosexual flagrante delicto with Dominic, unbeknownst to Ben’s father, Vic (Wayne Foskett). This episode pulls no punches; introducing us to the homophobic aspects of 1950’s English police officers; DC Atkins (Joe Claflin) harassing, assaulting and arresting suspects on mere suspicion of ‘buggery’; Sidney and Geordie divided in their opinions while pursuing the proper course of investigation. Lest we forget homosexuality was considered a crime in England, punishable under the law until 1967. This episode is also noteworthy for its superb subplot; Geordie, distracted by his infant son’s near fatal bout of pneumonia; his inexcusable absence, leaving Cathy to tend to the ailing child while he increasingly grows more sullen, morose and occasionally violent with drink and his blind pursuit of Dominic’s murderer.
Episode Five returns our bromantic crime solvers to more familiar territory. Having invited Hildegarde to move into the vicarage to teach piano, Sidney decides to encourage Geordie to partake of a London outing to the Straight 8; a jazz club managed by Johnny’s brutish father, Archie Johnson (Peter Egan). We also meet, Johnny’s sister, Claudette (Natasha Cottriall); alas, not long for this world – heinously bludgeoned to death in the alley behind the club on her way to meet lover, Walter Sterling (Nakay Kpaka), deemed an undesirable by Archie. The club’s bouncer, Tommy (Andy Beckwith) is suspicious of Archie’s chauffeur, Justin (Ted Reilly), confessing to Geordie and Sidney that some years ago, Archie allowed his temper to get the better of him, murdering one Charlie Rush, the man Archie suspected of having an affair with his wife. Since that time, Archie has held this affair against his own children. At Claudette’s wake, Johnny confronts his father, suggesting he might have killed his own daughter. But Sidney suspects a far more insidious plot afoot. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard DCI Jacob Williams (Nicholas Sidi) is unimpressed by Geordie and Sidney’s meddling. He orders the pair to return to Grantchester at once. Defying this edict, Sidney remains behind in London. Separated from Geordie and on a bender after being reunited with Amanda at the Straight 8, resulting in Guy’s revelation his fiancée has deep-rooted affections for the vicar of Grantchester, Sidney falls prey to a momentary lapse in character. He awakens the next morning in singer, Gloria Dee’s boudoir; the two having shared a passionate evening of which Sidney is able to recall very little. Returning to Grantchester riddled with guilt, Sidney lies to Hildegarde, but later, with Leonard’s guidance and compassion, will eventually confess his indiscretion to her.
Episode Six, also not based on Runcie’s book, offers us a future glimpse into Sidney’s deep and abiding respect for Geordie. Investigating the murder of a Cambridge police detective, Jones (Matthew Jure), Sidney is reunited with the prostitute, Annie, who saw a man conversing with the deceased cop moments before he was shot; the name ‘Merlin’ mentioned in their lethal conversation. After Geordie is near fatally wounded while pursuing a suspect in an abandoned warehouse, Sidney takes up the case alone; discovering ‘Merlin’ is not a person, but a corporation managed by a rather thuggish land developer, James Heath (Adam James). Among his many indiscretions, Heath beats his wife, Grace (Natasha O'Keeffe). Sidney learns that Jones and another murder victim, Thomas Langshaw, both served in the military under Heath. However, when he asks Heath to provide him with a complete list of the men who were in his squadron, Sidney is instead promptly shown the door and told not to return. Stymied in his endeavor to avenge Geordie’s near death, and suffering from too much drink, Sidney crashes Amanda’s engagement luncheon with a misguided and thoroughly belated declaration of love. He is promptly refused, manhandled by Guy and escorted out by Amanda’s father. Sidney is haunted by Geordie’s last word ‘heart’ before slipping into a coma. Grace leaves an envelope for Sidney containing a list of the men who were in his squadron, implying to Sidney he was a violent man before and during the war too. Eventually, Sidney tracks down Robert Miller (Paul Hilton) on his farm, an erratic ex-G.I., tormented by the memory of being ordered by Heath to cold-bloodedly assassinate three captured German soldiers during the war; Miller’s inability to do so, branding him a yellow-bellied coward by Heath and the rest of the men in his squad.
Miller tells Sidney he believes Heath is murdering these men so that his war crimes are kept secret. However, as Sidney waits for Miller to go with him to the local authorities he discovers in a photograph that Miller has a rather prominent tattoo of a heart on his forearm. Miller shot Geordie. In the ensuing tussle, Miller momentarily subdues Sidney before fleeing the farmhouse. Telephoning for help, Sidney pursues Miller into the fields. As the police close in, Miller takes his own life with the same gun he used to shoot Geordie rather than face incarceration. The incident stirs a memory for Sidney that he confesses to Geordie, who has awakened from his coma. During the war, one of his soldiers was ambushed by a German officer in the woods. As the man lay dying in his arms, Sidney put a bullet into him as no amount of medical attention would have saved his life. In the spirit of candor, Sidney returns to Hildegarde and makes his one night stand with Gloria Dee known. Having once been betrayed in marriage, Hildegarde cannot forgive Sidney and leaves the vicarage with a broken heart. In the final moments of Season One, Sidney is reunited with Amanda in the art gallery where they first met. Although Guy has magnanimously afforded him an invitation to their wedding, Sidney will not attend. Amanda reasons this is for the best and the two part company as friends. In montage, Grace Heath displays bruises sustained by her husband’s vicious abuse to his investors, thereby destroying his credibility as a businessman. Hildegard begins a new romance as Amanda walks down the aisle. Surrounded by his extended family, Sidney and Geordie enjoy a picnic together; Sidney, hopeful about the future, even as Geordie teases him about finding a wife who enjoys listening to Bechet as much as he does.
Grantchester Season One is a deliciously understated and tasteful affair; easily one of the most unassuming and engaging ‘new’ dramas on television today. James Norton and Robson Green have wonderful chemistry. Their friendship is slightly unbalanced by the series focus on Norton’s waffling vicar. If a flaw can be found in Grantchester, it is that the buddy/buddy formula of the piece occasionally suffers in Green’s absence; Geordie often coming in at the last minute to help Sidney solve another one, using his badge to add a note of officiousness to standardize the morality of this atypical police procedural melodrama. Grantchester is a lot more than that, however, and intriguingly, we do not seem to lose the momentum of its crime-solving badinage, despite the fact there is so much more going on behind the scenes. The supporting cast is uniformly solid, if underused. Given the limitations of six, one hour episodes, it will be interesting to see if Season Two rectifies some of these shortcomings with more involved story lines. Bottom line: Grantchester is top-tier ole-fashioned entertainment in the best sense and tradition. You have to look long and hard to find other serialized dramas as wittily written. Faith, love, and, murder: heaven help us!
Part of the Masterpiece Mysteries series line up, Grantchester looks pretty spiffy on Blu-ray from ITV and PBS Home Video. The widescreen image is stunning and practically flawless, utilizing a subdued color palette that bodes well for its stylized Kodachrome-ish post-war fifties patina. There is really nothing at all to complain about here; a flawless effort with six episodes spread over two discs; solid contrast, crisp detail and generally desaturated hues to mimic an older vintage, yet still thoroughly please contemporary sensibilities. It is one of the oddities of PBS Home Video that they continue to master their discs in 1080i rather than 1080p; for what reason and to what purpose, I am sure I do not know. Grantchester was shot digitally, so a true 1080p rendering ought to have become standard practice by now. The audio is rich and enveloping, John Lunn’s score leading the charge with clear dialogue also benefiting. Extras are a tad disappointing; a lot of junkets strewn together to suggest a ‘making of’ when in actuality they can be distilled into little more than self-aggrandizing sound bites. Not a fan of these to be sure, as they offer virtually nothing to augment one’s appreciation for the monumental talents represented both in front of and behind the camera. Talking heads saying silly things is a very poor substitute for a quality ‘behind the scenes’ look into the particulars of how such a series is put together. Oh well, it’s the series itself that matters. Grantchester Season One comes highly recommended. We are sincerely looking forward to Season Two! So should you.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)