Postcard from London

By John Martin

Interviewed in 1979 when his father Robert Runcie was announced as the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, James Runcie, then a 20-year-old Cambridge student, told a reporter he wasn’t terribly certain about things of faith. In the years that followed, almost imperceptibly, that started to change. Towards the end of his time at Canterbury the elder Runcie hinted as much. “For our children growing up, music was compulsory, religion was optional.” Now, he said, both his offspring seemed much “more interested” in the latter.

Religion and faith are at the fore in James Runcie’s Grantchester, which premiered on ITV October 6. His fourth novel in the series is due for publication next May. The chief character is clergyman-cum-sleuth Canon Sidney Chambers (James Norton), whom Runcie cheerfully admits is loosely based on his late father.

James Runcie builds in characters bearing associations with family and friends. Sidney is named after Sidney Smith, one of his father’s favourite vicars. In the first of the series Chambers is intrigued by a piano-playing German woman who loves Bach (James Runcie’s mother, Lindy, was a piano teacher). “I didn’t intend them to be a fictionalised, alternative biography of my father — and I still hope they aren’t — but one cannot easily escape a strong paternal influence.”

The series opens with a funeral scene after which a woman insists that her secret lover did not commit suicide but was murdered. For the police there can be no other explanation, but Chambers, a keen listener with an eye for detail, unpicks a clever murder plot. So begins an unlikely partnership in crime solving between Chambers and the abrasive, earthy Inspector Keating (Robson Green).

The cop once testily refers to the Cambridge-based Chambers as “Christ on a bike.” Parallels with the life of Archbishop Runcie add texture. Keating asks Chambers, “Were you a padre in the war?” “No, I fought in it.” Chambers suffers nightmare flashbacks, in which he aims his gun to kill an enemy soldier.

Robert Runcie as a 23-year-old tank commander heroically rescued a colleague from a crippled tank. The next day he drove the tank to a highly vulnerable position to knock out three anti-tank gun placements. For these acts he was awarded the Military Cross. He was one of the first Allied soldiers to enter the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His was a generation that went to war in 1939-45 to confront a huge evil, and if that meant taking lives, so be it.

The first volume of the series, all self-contained stories, is set in 1953, the coronation year of Queen Elizabeth II. Britain is just beginning to emerge from post-war austerity. Runcie’s novels stretch across the next quarter-century and trace the massive social change that ensued. In 1953 DNA had just been discovered. The Pill would soon transform attitudes about sex. Britain would become more affluent but more self-absorbed as a former colonial power struggling to discover a role for itself in a fast-changing world.

It made sense for Runcie to make his lead character a clergyman. Sidney Chambers, in common with Robert Runcie, was (in his son’s words) someone “sharing his love of humanity, his ability to think the best of people while sometimes fearing the worst, his cheerfulness and his love of the ridiculous, as well as his sadness and disappointment in the face of human failing.”

Archbishop Runcie is best remembered for his advocacy of a thoughtful faith, which he laced with a sharp wit and sense of fun. He once said the Church of England was “a bit like a public swimming pool: most of the noise comes from the shallow end.” He said a somewhat strident member of the Church of England General Synod was “the only bull I know who carries his own china shop with him.” Among the many earthy bits of advice offered to students during his days as principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon: “Sleep with your eyes open, yawn with your mouth closed.” For him the best of Anglicanism was perhaps best summed up in the paradox of “passionate coolness.”

James Runcie told the Telegraph: “My editor once said to me: ‘These are disguised sermons, aren’t they?’ I am not ashamed of that and I am hopeful that the television series, as well as being dramatic, consists of thoughtful and moral meditations on subjects such as loyalty, friendship, deceit, cruelty, and generosity. There are all the usual human fallibilities and they are taken seriously; but they are also viewed, wherever possible, with a kindly eye. (Hate the sin, but love the sinner.)”

What would his father think of it all? “I can almost see him, aged 93, in a wheelchair perhaps, with a rug over his lap, watching the filming of that war scene. I think he would have been bemused — and amused. I can imagine him laughing about it afterwards and saying that it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t think for a minute that he would ever say that he was proud of me, but I hope he would at least be secretly intrigued.”

Canon Sidney Chambers is a world away from the shallow, jokey, caricatures of a Dick Emery, Derek Nimmo, or Arthur Lowe. Adam Smallbone in Rev is nearer to contemporary reality. As with the Channel 4 series Call the Midwife, which is due to return to television screens at Christmas, Grantchester suggests that British television seems to have found a way to portray an unvarnished version of real faith, a character living out the Christian life amid all the complexities and temptations that go with it.

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