In October 2011 Diederick Santer was given a book to read and told it was something he might like. He did.
“I loved it, and could immediately see its potential for TV. Not only that, I could recognise Sidney, his view of the world, his theology, his world, and his faith.
“There’s an unlikely thing that James Runcie and I have in common, and that is that we both have bishops for dads. (Well, an archbishop, in James’s case, which obviously makes him the winner.)
“Robert Runcie, was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1980s. He married Charles and Diana, he took on Thatcher. And although the fictional Sidney Chambers is not the real Robert Runcie, many of his characteristics and much of his history, he shares with Robert. His look, his tastes, his war record, his particular brand of faith.
“Another point of connection for me is Cambridge. I’m not quite old enough to have been in Cambridge in the 50s, but I do remember Cambridge in the 1970s. Not that different, just slightly bigger collars. So this show really is a step back into the past for me.”
“Because the show is rooted in real things – a real place, a real person – we hope that the show has a bit of grit and darkness. Yes, this is comfy crime in bygone Britain, but the sun doesn’t always shine, there’s not much food in the larder, the war only ended eight years ago and we don’t really talk about it.”
Grantchester stars James Norton as Sidney, Robson Green as gruff Inspector Keating and Only Fools and Horses’ Tessa Peake-Jones as housekeeper Mrs Maguire.
“Sidney is very real and human – he may be a vicar but he is no superhuman,” says Diederick. “Like all of us he is flesh and blood and suffers from human weakness. Sidney never has a crisis of faith – instead he is locked in a crisis of self.
“There’s been another important piece of casting – the village. Last year I spent time getting to know the people here and sharing with them something of our plans. I didn’t want to assume that I could just turn up with lots of trucks and people and do whatever I wanted! So we spent a lot of time discussing our plans with the people of the village, involving them (some of them are extras in the show!), and making them part of the programme. It’s named after their beautiful village, so it’s in some way their show too.”
On the last day of shooting, there was a film crew versus villagers cricket match. Says James Runcie. “James Norton and Robson Green played along with the crew and, appropriately, they lost! In a later novel there is actually a cricket match, so I said to the locals, ‘You’re all auditioning now!’ It was a lovely sense of community and Grantchester looks wonderful on screen.
The shadow of war
“The first book is called Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, by which I mean the shadow of the Second World War. That effect of loss. Everyone knew someone who had died,” says James.
“It’s very tempting to talk about post-war Britain starting in 1945. But for me the key year is 1953 because it’s the beginning of the end of rationing, the Coronation of Elizabeth II and the discovery of DNA,” he explains. “The year when Britain is first working out what kind of country it wants to be.”
Speaking about his inspiration, James explains: “I wanted to talk about that social history of Britain through the eyes of a clergyman, loosely based on my father’s experiences. But I wanted to have humour in it too. Loving, humane and funny, as well as tackling big issues about life and death.”
“I was born in Cambridge and went to university there, as did my daughter. My father went to Oxford University but trained in Cambridge as a priest. I wanted to set something in a small community that needed to be iconic and English. I settled on Grantchester, partly because of the Rupert Brooke poem – ‘And is there still honey for tea?’ – written by somebody who died in a war.
What does James think his father would have made of Sidney and his TV adventures? “The primary thing is he’d have been very amused by it. I think he would have loved it and would have laughed at it. He would have been secretly proud and he wouldn’t have told me.”
A flawed hero
Of his main character, James says: “Sidney Chambers is a loveable, committed priest who doesn’t quite know what being a priest means fully. His principal characteristic is curiosity. He’s interested in people and they trust him. But what does he do with the information he is given? Who can he trust and who can he love?
“He’s not a goody-goody. He’s got three main flaws: He drinks too much; He can be indiscreet, and he’s a little bit vain. But I hope all those flaws are forgivable.”
Adds James: “I wanted to break stereotypes. So Sidney prefers whisky to sherry and is not a priest who has been a pacifist or conscientious objector: he has killed and has a knowledge of death. The obvious question is, ‘How can killing be an act of courage in wartime and murder in peacetime?’ And are there other levels of killing? We address these this series in a story involving mercy killing, which one might call euthanasia and one might call murder. An issue still being debated today.
“As well as the murder plots, one of the ideas is to take moral extremes and ideas and look at them. Are there limits to forgiveness? What is friendship? What is love? What is commitment? What is discretion? What is trust? Is loyalty to friendship more important than loyalty to the state or the law of the land?
“It’s partly about the pressure to be good, the pressure to behave well. It’s exhausting being good all the time. We are very lucky to have James Norton at a very brilliant stage of his career after Death Comes to Pemberley and Happy Valley, where he played Tommy Lee Royce. This is obviously a very different role. From psychopath to vicar is probably better than vicar to psychopath!”
Grantchester airs tonight, 6 October, at 9pm on ITV.