July saw the conclusion of the third season of Grantchester, one of the many mystery series imported from the UK (in this case, BBC) for PBS’s Mystery! Of the series I can say one good thing: it introduced me to the books. Authored by James Runcie, son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, the “Grantchester Mysteries” follow the investigations of an Anglican priest, Canon Sidney Chambers, into murders, thefts, and kidnappings in the general vicinity of Cambridge.
The first novel begins in 1953, and by the sixth and last, Sidney (if I remember correctly, after the Anglican cleric Sydney Smith) has made it to 1971. I’m on my fourth Grantchester novel, so, as you may guess, I like them.
The obvious tendency is to compare Sidney Chambers to Father Brown, and, indeed, many have. “No detective since Father Brown has been more engaging than Canon Sidney Chambers,” states Salley Vickers from one of the dust jacket’s reviews. That’s fair enough. The stories and Father Chambers himself are charming, witty, and sufficiently intriguing that one can imagine mystery fans reading them for decades to come. Sidney naturally has a sidekick, Inspector Geordie Keating, with whom he solves the various riddles that come his way while he tries to fulfill the pressing duties of a busy parish priest.
Many of these details come across in the PBS/BBC version although with less wit and charm. Other details get shunted to the side or erased outright, doing such violence to Runcie’s creation that no true fan, except one star-struck with James Norton’s puling Sidney, could countenance the result.
A few examples should suffice—and please be prepared for more than a few spoilers.
From the opening minutes of season one of Grantchester, Sidney is clearly in love with Amanda Kendall, his sister’s best friend and, as the book has it, “dark, commanding, and full of opinion”—the last trait by no means derogatory. She is played by Morven Christie who, being beautiful and vivacious, looks the part. Sidney and she have their share of fun—or as much as the priesthood allows—but our hero’s hopes are quickly dashed: Amanda is engaged to Guy Hopkins, a rich and thoroughly imperious creep.
Worse, by episode two Sidney must attend a party in which the couple will make the news public. Among the guests are Sidney’s sister and her jazz-playing boyfriend who happens to be black. At the party, the engagement ring goes missing, and, voila!, we have a mystery with a dash of racism to season the stew. In addition, our heartbroken cleric is hitting the booze in the privacy of his study as he listens to his beloved jazz records. Amanda marries Guy, from which all sorts of un-priestly events spin out of control for three seasons.
That, as I have said, is the BBC version. In the book, Sidney certainly finds Amanda attractive, but from the start, it’s pretty clear that he has doubts she’d make a good cleric’s wife, doubts she shares. Romance never quite blossoms—or perhaps only enough to keep the reader guessing but no more. Certainly, she is engaged to Guy Hopkins, but in the business of the missing wedding ring, he shows himself to be a first-rate ass, enough to convince her to break off the engagement. And so it stands: Guy disappears. Put it all together and you find no dipsomaniacal Sidney, no broken heart, and no marriage. And the sister’s boyfriend is not black.
Besides that, Sidney in both chapter and episode one has met a German widow whose husband appears to have committed suicide. There’s a mystery there, all right, but there’s romance too. She is Hildegard Staunton, a gifted pianist, beautiful and smart, qualities to which Sidney is hardly indifferent. The television series and the book do indeed place Sidney in a dilemma easy enough to appreciate: which girl to choose? On PBS Hildegard sticks around for a season, but by the beginning of season two, she knows it’s a hopeless cause. Sidney, she laments, plainly loves someone else, a married woman no less, and it isn’t long before she’s headed back to West Germany and out of the series.
Not so in the real Grantchester. Hildegard does go back to Germany, but Sidney can’t forget her. In fact, he says in a later novel that he knew she was the one almost the moment they met. To make a long story short, they marry (a point James Runcie insists was important to him), and, at least by the middle of the fourth book, they’re still married with a new daughter Anna.
Well, how can Sidney drink himself cross-eyed over a married woman who in the books isn’t really married, and be married to a woman who ran back to Germany for good? And what about baby Anna? Something is clearly wrong here, and the something is the script-writers at the BBC who somehow figured not only that a good mystery was not good enough but that the whole plot needed re-working.
Those are real problems. Now, I won’t say Runcie’s murders and thefts are as intriguing as Simenon’s or P. D. James’s, but they’re good; after all, that’s why they’re called “The Grantchester Mysteries” on the dust jackets. Given the taste of readers for the genre, what PBS and the BBC have done, namely, turn some good mysteries with enjoyable characters into PC awash in soap suds, is unconscionable.
Which brings me to the PC angle. Sidney’s sister’s boyfriend is not the only aberration. A couple of clinching homosexuals appear in an early episode, except in the books they don’t. If that’s not enough, Sidney gets a curate named Leonard Graham who loves Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, making for some rather dreary sermons.
Leonard in the books is somewhat effeminate but little else. BBC revisionism transforms him into a tortured character who meets a local, homosexual photographer with whom he almost but not quite commits himself body and soul. Not to worry, PC goons. After disappearing for a season and a half, the photographer re-emerges at the end, when Leonard and he exchange a passionate kiss signaling the beginning of a happy life together. For Sidney and Geordie, this is just how things should be. The end.
Runcie’s version is another matter. I suspect he knows that in 1964 an Anglican priest and a hard-boiled copper would have responded to an open homosexual liaison with thoughts more complex than amor omnia vincit. Hence, the real Leonard never surrenders to the photographer who is not a homosexual anyhow (he has a son from a broken marriage). Leonard gets his own vicarage and more or less disappears in the middle of novel three.
I could go on—and on. The TV Sidney jumps in bed with the still married Amanda; he nearly leaves the clergy because he cannot accept the fact that God will not let him, Amanda, and even Leonard be happy—which he emotionally tells his black, African Archdeacon (neither black nor African in the novels). Geordie has a torrid affair with his secretary who doesn’t exist in the books, and who rather ironically looks, for the world, like a blend of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. A temptress! Sidney must stay in the ministry not, as his housekeeper Mrs. McGuire (a character who disappeared from the vicarage when he married Hildegard) assures him, because of the Church, but because they, the Grantchester community, need “him.” On such terms, he may as well marry Amanda, doff the collar, and hang out his shingle as a shrink.
Those are only a few of Grantchester’s myriad sins. Word is the BBC is contemplating a fourth season—possibly without Sidney. (James Norton may be the next James Bond.) Pray fervently to God they scrub those plans. If they don’t, given what we’ve seen thus far, Sidney’s replacement may show up, let’s say around 1968, as an Imam.