It’s hard to imagine a TV drama series that could be any less ambitious than Grantchester, in which a 1950s local Cambridgeshire vicar cycles around his parish solving some rural mysteries. You could have made this show 30 years ago with perhaps a cameo from Joan Hickson and it would have looked and felt exactly the same as it does now, here in 2014. Normally these days when a TV company makes a period-set drama you get that oh-so-knowing post-modern ironic edge to the proceedings, a nod and a wink to the audience to say “Yes, we know it’s a bit twee, but actually we’re really rather cool and smart hipsters once you get to know us,” but not here: Grantchester is as painfully earnest and uncomplicated as its lead character Sidney Chambers.
Not that this is a necessarily negative observation, however. There’s a time and a place for something warm and simple that you can wrap around you on a dark autumnal evening while you’re sitting there getting ready for bed, drinking a hot chocolate with the cat sleeping snuggly in your lap while the rain lashes against the window. But you do wonder why no one at ITV noticed that they already made something very similar in terms of a period crime drama set in a university city (Endeavour, not to mention the BBC’s Father Brown daytime adaptations) and also wondered if there really needed to be any more undemanding cosiness in a schedule that already boasts Downtown Abbey on Sunday nights.
It’s not even that the show is all that interested in the crime aspect, despite the fact that it’s adapted by Daisy Coulam from James Runcie’s The Grantchester Mysteries series of novels. Here it’s just a hook to hang the episode on so that we can just relax in Sidney’s company. The mysteries are very slight and probably amount to no more than a third of the running time: episode 1 had Sidney convincing the police that a local suicide had been a cleverly planned murder, while the second instalment was the pursuit of a lost, presumed stolen diamond ring at an engagement party followed by a suspicious death. Even with each episode lasting only 45 minutes it still felt like there was more padding than plot.
All of which means the producers of the show are hugely relying on who they’ve cast as Sidney to maintain our interest in the rest of the episode, since he needs to be able to carry the show on sheer acting talent and natural charisma alone. And here we get to the crux of why – despite everything else going on – Grantchester works far better than it should. The secret is out, and his name is James Norton. Most recently seen in Happy Valley and Death Comes to Pemberley, it’s Norton’s charm and subtle playing of the Anglican clergyman (and World War 2 veteran) that brings the show to life and makes hanging out in Sidney’s company such an easy pleasure, and as a result is surely a star-making role for him.
The risk is that Sidney could easily become an annoying goodie-goodie holier-than-thou type, so it’s just as well that he’s fallen in love with the wrong woman and spends too much time down the pub getting drunk while playing backgammon, all things that ensure his halo gets knocked slightly askance to a rakish angle so that underneath the choirboy looks there’s also something slightly naughty at work. Best of both worlds? Pretty much.
The other key component of the show’s successful set-up is in pairing Sidney with the slightly grumpy local police detective Geordie Keating, played by Robson Green. Initially it seems it’s going to be the usual sort of hackneyed adversarial relationship between the two, with Keating barking at Sidney to stick to writing sermons and leave the crime solving to him; but very quickly they warm to each other and become the best of pals over the backgammon board, and it’s this gentle bromance that puts the ultimate cap on the cosiest of cosy crime serials.
It’s a show that succeeds despite or maybe even because of its lack of higher ambitions. It won’t be for the more cynical viewer, or those who just simply like something to actually happen in an hour’s TV viewing, but it will appeal to those who find modern life just a bit too demanding and fast-moving for their personal liking. Worryingly, I’m increasingly thinking that I’m close to moving into that camp myself, as a sudden fondness for shows such as this against my own better cerebral instincts keeps reminding me…
Grantchester continues on ITV at 9pm on Mondays. Series 1 will be released in the UK on DVD on December 1, 2014.