James Norton in Granchester

Detective Vicar is an unusual character combination. But considering the amateur sleuths who have graced our screens, including authors (Jessica Fletcher), magicians (Jonathan Creek) and even chefs (Henry Crabbe), it’s really not that odd. And, flexibly interpreted, Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of pious PI, Cadfael the Monk, back in the nineties is a reasonable replica.

It’s a formula that ITV are revisiting in their adaptation of James Runcie’s popular novels ‘The Grantchester Mysteries’, starring James Norton as spiritual sleuth, Sidney Chambers. Who, in addition to God and murder is also a World War Two veteran, jazz lover and a reluctant sex god. With his good looks, intelligent caring personality and an ability to tear it up with the lowliest of thugs, he could almost be a candidate for world’s most perfect man. If it wasn’t for all the boozing, self-loathing and brooding introspection.

Based at his parish in Grantchester, Chambers is pulled into the orbit of the local constabulary’s DI Geordie Keating, played here by the increasingly charismatic (now that he’s not handling fish on Channel 5) Robson Greene. Together they investigate a series of murders against the familiar Sunday night backdrop of post-war Britain; where the imperial decline has been more than offset with snippets of National Trust arcadia and tasteful music.
The mysteries themselves are of the seedy variety: homosexual hate crime, revenge and a touch of bigamy but the case solving plays second fiddle to the personal life of Chambers himself.

This kind of television is never the most challenging and it’s not supposed to be. It needs to be reassuring and nostalgic like most costume drama and ‘Grantchester’ very much follows in this tradition.

Yet there is also something different about the drama, something which after the first two episodes really kicks in and makes ‘Grantchester’ very watchable. That something is a black cloud of melancholy; it hangs above the show with subtle menace, lurking in the minor chords of the soundtrack and the tragic murders. But mostly in the haunted, sad gaze of Sidney Chambers.

James Norton is terrific, he has an understated yet magnetic star quality that is ideal for the reflective Rev. Chambers. He muddles his way through a love life fraught with bad timing and regret as well as struggling to cope with the psychological damage he sustained during the war. Norton’s character depth is enough to convince that this wonderful person, who acts with honour and nobility will never find peace or happiness, due to the very traits that make him the good person he is. It’s heart breaking.

The show is not all doom and gloom. There are some lighter moments provided by Tessa Peale-Jones and Al Weaver as the Chambers’ house keeper and curate respectively and some great scenes of bonhomie and friendship between the vicar and the policeman. These relieve the tension and help make the innate sadness of the main character even more bitter sweet.

ITV has produced a traditional, unchallenging Sunday night drama that also manages to be philosophical, depressing but eminently watchable. Quite an achievement.

Grantchester is available on DVD or digital download now