So how did Sidney Chambers manage his time, able to preach and comfort parishioners while still getting involved in solving local crimes? Fortunately he lived in a comfortable vicarage, with a full-time housekeeper Mrs Maguire (played by Tessa Peake-Jones). Thus Sidney could afford to pace himself, not having to run both the parish and the vicarage. Without overdoing it, the stories explored priestly loneliness, the sense of living in constant public view, and the true fulfilment that a vocation can bring.
It was 1953 and Chambers was young, handsome, redheaded and religious. He presided over the peaceful local church but, every so often, a crime shook Grantchester from its sleepy self-confidence. Sidney unexpectedly became close friends with the local police inspector, Geordie Keating (played by Robson Green), another WW2 ex-servicemen.
Geordie encouraged Sidney to step over the normal boundaries of pastoral care. The detective became Sidney’s best friend, a regular backgammon partner and a fellow drinker. Perhaps Geordie was aware of the class difference between the two men. But for me, Geordie’s sceptical comments and unemotional expressions added realism to Grantchester.
Chambers had the tricky task of hosting the funerals after suspicious deaths, but he still had to deliver a sermon on the nature of forgiveness. I wonder if the Church thought the good reverend’s duties, clerical and quasi-legal, were complimentary or clashing.
But because he was a cleric, Chambers believed in his parishioners and they believed in him. He could thus exploit his standing in the Church to gain access to the bereaved. Perhaps also because of his handsome face and body, he successfully obtained information about crimes. Not reliable enough information to take to court perhaps, but enough to convince Keating to let him see the case folders.
Sidney (James Norton) and Geordie (Robson Green) in Grantchester
Chambers was flawed, of course. He was in love with a woman who was engaged and then married to another man, did questionable things during investigations, suffered from PTSD after WW2, and his love of whiskey was the subject of parishioner wonder. But his flaws were not given too much weight, and were instead swiftly turned into a resolution by his holier-than-thou housekeeper. Actually Mrs Maguire was in the story specifically to keep the vicar in check!
Sidney turned out to be a very progressive 1950s vicar; he saw through stereotypes and immediately accepted that the parish’s new archdeacon Leonard Finch (played by Al Weaver) was gay. When Leonard fled Grantchester, afraid that he couldn’t fulfil the more demanding aspects of the priesthood, Sidney gave Leonard morale-boosting support. He emphasised the happy aspects of their profession as well as the difficult aspects. Of course Leonard did return to the cosy vicarage! The hapless, heartbroken curate had to look for romance elsewhere after Daniel Marlowe (played by Oliver Dimsdale) left him for another man.
Men being sensitive? Imagine that!
I had no idea about Granchester’s literary inspirations. Clearly the series understood the life of parish priests because of its source material - the books written by James Runcie. Runcie was the son of Robert Runcie (1921–2000), who became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Like Archbishop Runcie, Sidney served in WW2. The two men shared appalling war-experiences inside the Scots Guards, university life and careers in the Church of England.
Note also the English poet Rupert Brooke rented rooms in the real Grantchester vicarage before WW1. He wrote The Old Vicarage Grantchester (1912), a now-lyrical reference to the Cambridgeshire hamlet. When Brooke died in the war, Brooke's mother bought the house in 1916 and gave it to Rupert's best friend, the economist-parliamentarian-aristocrat Dudley Ward. Brooke's poem’s nostalgic yearning may have been another literary source for James Runcie.
The original vicarage was built in the late 17th century.
Rupert Brooke rented part of the house in 1910 and after he died in the war, Brooke's mother bought the house in 1916 in his honour.
Let me repeat that Sidney Chambers was VERY handsome in a cassock. And note his normal, non-clerical love of jazz records. Bromance, a core of programmes like Midsomer Murders, Inspector Lewis, Inspector Morse and Sherlock, grew. But this was bromance between very different types of men (as it was in my absolutely favourite tv programme, Lewis). Chambers was probably extricating himself from duller parish duties to sneak off for an afternoon of drinks and backgammon with Geordie. Keating, a rough copper with little time for church-going himself, learnt the value of having a decent cleric on his side. So was Chambers, a man of faith based on Godly goodness, drawn to explore the darker side of human nature? This was an assured blend of mannered sleuthing and errant flock-tending!
I thought I would not like the tendency to end many episode of Grantchester with a sermon, which usually referred obliquely to the anti-Christian motives behind Grantchester’s crimes. But it worked well in reinforcing the canon’s true vocation. He might have drunk whisky rather than the traditional sherry, and might have fallen for attractive women, but Sidney’s faith was portrayed as a strength rather than a weakness, a rather radical notion.
The conflict between duty and love was best seen in Sidney and Amanda’s relationship. Amanda Kendall (played by Morven Christie) was Sidney’s forbidden lover. Sidney was not presented as a saintly stereotype but he was plagued by knowing that as a clergyman must put duty above his own needs and lead by example. The couple was battling the impending decision: If Amanda divorced her miserable husband, she could not marry Sidney; and she could not have a relationship with Sidney unless he left the church.
The programme found ways to illustrate that the godly do not need to be insulated from the world eg Chambers truly related to those who were in crisis eg ex-servicemen. Real faith encompassed the whole of life, not just the religious bits. He drank, worried and had his heart broken. He had scars, both physical and emotional.
Because everything was a priest’s business, Grantchester was not a theology-powered drama. In any case, Britain did not have had an official separation of Church and State. But Sidney Chambers worried about the separation between the roles that he and Geordie shared together. Confession to Sidney would be protected; confession to Geordie could lead to arrest and trial.
Lewis is my absolutely favourite tv programme. Granchester is my second favourite.