One of the best aspects of this year’s drama hit Happy Valley was the performance by James Norton as the despicable Tommy Lee Royce. Norton singled himself out a one of the faces of the future by portraying an evil man who had somewhat of a humanistic side. This week sees Norton given his biggest challenge to date as he takes the lead in ITV’s latest crime drama Grantchester in which he stars as sleuthing vicar Sidney Chambers. Norton’s turn in the drama couldn’t be more difference to his performance in Happy Valley and the same could be said about the variation in quality between Sally Wainwright’s incredible series and the rather formulaic Grantchester.
Set in 1953; Grantchester itself is a picturesque Cambridgeshire village in which Mr Chambers is the priest in residence and is looked after by his belligerent housekeeper Mrs Maguire. The early scenes in Grantchester are devoted to exploring Sidney’s character as we see the flirtatious approach he employs when frolicking with his childhood pal Amanda Kendall. It’s quite obvious from the get-go that Sidney is completely in love with Amanda so he’s later devastated when she announces her engagement to another. Writer Daisy Coulman, who has adapted the series from the books by James Runcie, is keen to point out that Chambers is different from your average priest. Before the first advert break we’ve seen him smoke, enjoy a drink at the local pub and most scandalous of all was his enjoyment of a jazz record. Another way in which Sidney differs from other priests is the way in which he is quite happy to investigate the death of one of his parishioners who seemingly took his own life. The parishioner in question is Stephen Staunton whose funeral Sidney presides over and whose untimely death has been the talk of the village. However Sidney is later approached by Stephen’s lover, and the wife of his business partner, who believes he was murdered by a jealous rival.
This revelation leads Sidney to hand this piece of information over to the police which brings him into contact with over-worked Police Inspector Geordie Keating. Although Geordie is happy to hear Sidney’s story he’s too worried about fraudulent meat at the local butchers to give the priest’s fanciful tales any sort of real consideration. Anybody who’s seen similar crime dramas before knows that Sidney is going to stop there and before you can say anything more he’s hunting round for Stephen’s will and checking the authenticity of his suicide note. Eventually Geordie starts to pay attention to Sidney’s claims and the two form somewhat of a mismatched crime-fighting duo. Of everything that happened in Grantchester I found the odd couple pairing of Sidney and Geordie to be one of the highlights. Although there’s nothing new about our mismatched detective duo their scenes together were the most interesting of episode one as the pair found an interesting chemistry. The scene in which they played backgammon was a particularly enjoyable watch as was the moment in which Sidney visited Geordie at home. My main problem with the story itself was that I never truly cared who had murdered Stephen so I had little interest when the culprit was finally revealed. I think to be completely invested in a crime drama like Grantchester you need to at least be intrigued by the central mystery plot but I personally found it rather dull.
If I didn’t know where Grantchester was being placed in the schedules then I would swear that it would be airing on Sunday evenings possibly just before Downton Abbey. In a similar way to Our Zoo, Grantchester feels like it belongs on a Sunday due to its nostalgic setting, beautiful exterior shots and gently-plotted storylines. But whilst Our Zoo had the performing animals that kept me interested in the story, Grantchester has nothing in the way of originality to keep me involved. Although there is an animal, in the form of a dog that Amanda gives Sidney as a gift, it simply acts as a bit of light relief in between all of the crime-solving business. From Sidney’s unrequited feelings for Amanda to his partnership with Geordie; everything about Grantchester felt clichéd and a little dull. On the plus side the real-life village of Grantchester was beautifully shot from the outset and the never-ending fields and winding country roads at least provided a bit of escapism from the modern world. But no amount of beautiful scenery can make up for a tired story that has been played out on TV countless times before.
One thing about Grantchester that I can’t criticise is the quality of the acting, with the lead performers all doing their best to make the audience care about their characters. Grantchester at least allows James Norton to prove that he’s not a one-trick pony by excelling as the thoughtful and sensitive Sidney. The menacing grimace he had on his face during Happy Valley has been replaced by a reflective look which allow the audience to believe in the reliable nature of the central character. Norton makes it easy to believe why the characters are quick to trust Sidney and by the end of the episode any memories of Tommy Lee Royce had gone from my mind. Norton also shares an easy chemistry with Robson Green, who has momentarily given up his extreme fishing jaunts to play frustrated Inspector Geordie. Green plays to his strengths throughout as he deals well with Geordie’s one-liners and is completely believable playing another salt-of-the-Earth type. The supporting cast is filled with familiar faces including Raquel from Only Fools and Horses as Sidney’s housekeeper and Little Mo from Eastenders as Geordie’s wife. In my opinion, the only weak member of Grantchester’s central cast was Morven Christie who I found unconvincing as Sidney’s love interest Amanda. I just didn’t feel there was any spark between Norton and Christie and I’d find their love story a little hard to believe if I were to watch any more episodes of the crime drama.
However, after one episode, I don’t know if I’ll bother with Grantchester as I found it tough to sit through this first instalment without getting bored. There’s nothing offensive about the drama and indeed I found it to be well-shot and well-acted with Norton being a particular stand out. But at the same time there was little surprise to be had at any point during Grantchester and I knew exactly where the story would lead. Whilst I’m sure the majority of the audience are looking for familiarity with a series such as Grantchester, I personally like a little bit more bite from my dramas and so probably won’t be tuning in for more crime-solving from this likeable village priest.
What did you think of Grantchester? Did you enjoy it more than I did?
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