01 July 2017

tv's "Granchester" - the cleric and the detective

Anglican Canon Sidney Chambers (played by James Norton) had had a very tough WW2 with the tank regiment of the Scot Guards. After the war, he resumed civilian life and resilient faith, soon living as a canon in Grantchester near Cambridge. His life was sup­p­osed to be divided between teaching at Cambridge and running his green, peace­ful Grantchester parish.

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.


Andrew said...

I really like Granchester and it is interesting to learn that it is based on real people. "Perhaps also because of his handsome face and body". You noticed.....ah yes, red hair.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

I like the fiction of Grantchester. Who said it was about real people!?? Morven Christie.
Brookes' poem is one of my altogether all-time favourites - is there honey still for tea -
though of course completely out of context here. Morven Christie. Great article - but I'm completely puzzled that you haven't mentioned more about Morven Christie. Did I mention that?

Ex Pat said...

1953 was a tough time. Rationing was awful and the children were all sleeping in the one room.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, This is all a bit much for me. It seems to fall into the category of historical fiction, which I was never into, although this series looks like it has a lot of meat to it. Also, I have not watched TV for decades--no special reason, I just hardly ever watched, so it was a waste to pay the cable fees. However, now that I am in Ohio for my vacation, we watch the news programs, averaging three minutes of the shenanigans of Donald Trump interspersed with 57 minutes of commercials.

Hels said...


I knew that James Runcie was the son of Archbishop of Canter­bury Robert Runcie, just one of the most important people in all of Britain. And I even knew that war poet Rupert Brooke wrote the poem The Old Vicarage Grantchester (1912). But watching the tv programme, it never occurred to me that James Runcie would have read Brooke's poem. Nor did I ever think I would see a photo of the original Grantchester vicarage, with Rupert Brooke's name written on the print.

Long live blogging!

Hels said...


*sigh* I love it...

In Grantchester, in Grantchester!—
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low:…
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur

And I also think Morven Christie was hot :)

Hels said...

Ex Pat

Post WW2, life was very tough *nod*. We too had rationing regulations for food and clothing in Australia, but thankfully they were gradually ended between 1948 and 1950. I don't remember rationing at all, thankfully.

But I do remember that when all the soldiers were demobilised in Dec 1945, half the women in Australia were pregnant by January 1946. In 1953, here must have been 45 children in every single class at my primary school! Nowadays parents expect 20-22 children in a class.

Hels said...


I would not be paying for Foxtel (pay tv) either, if I did not want to enjoy a lot of the programmes. So if there are occasional programmes that I particularly wanted to see, I would go to the ABC Shops to buy a copy of just the relevent DVDs: https://shop.abc.net.au/t/formats/dvd

Be wary of Thump in the news. Your mental health should not be jeopardised.

bazza said...

I kind of went off of Granchester after the first series. You've made me think again and I will take a second look. You really dug deep for this post! Rather disappointingly, the Old Vicarage at Grantchester was bought by the disgraced (former Lord) Jeffrey Archer in the 70s.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s stupendous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Joseph said...

George Gently is another impressive bromance, set a decade later.

Hels said...


I knew nothing about the Archers' connection until a few years ago. It was then I read that the Archers liked to go from The Old Vicarage to the Rupert Brooke restaurant in Grantchester. Lord Archer of course knew that Brooke had lived in The Old Vicarage and noted that his wife Mary had spent a great deal of time and energy bringing the house up to date. Apparently the old vicarage still has the same look as when Brooke lived there.

Is there a connection? I suppose that Brooke and Archer were both writers.

Hels said...


Chief Inspector George Gently and his offsider Detective Sergeant John Bacchus are a very interesting duo, yes indeed! Gently is quiet, older, experienced, loves country life and old fashioned morality. Bacchus is young, handsome, up to date with 1968 music and fashions, interested in women and incapable of censoring his own mouth, even if required.

The only element I don't remember in their relationship is religion, a la Sidney Chambers and Geordie Keating.

Robin said...

`Lewis is my favorite too but it is in a large part because of Detective Sgt. Hathaway.

Hels said...


you are a woman after my own heart. Lewis is your favourite tv programme; James Hathaway is a complex, highly educated character; you have even more grandchildren than I do; and you included Emily Dickinson in your favourite books :)

You will love Grantchester.

mem said...

yes but Hels , John Bacchus is learning ! He is improving and starting to engage his brain and think things through . Those 2 men seem to me to embody 2 types of people and what is interesting is that they interact in a positive way rather then writing each other off and walking away from each other . A skill we all need to really work on !
I loved this post . I love Grantchester too . Very interesting about the Brooks and Runcie connection .

Hels said...


Like most men, Detective Sargeant Bacchus was maturing with age and experience. The only problem was that he was already a policeman with important legal responsibilities, _before_ maturity kicked in. Chief Inspector George Gently, on the other hand, seemed to greatly value the young side-kick's energy and boundless enthusiasm. A great pair.