Show of the Week: Grantchester

ITV’s latest detective period drama might sound familiar: small-town murders in mid-20th century Middle England – often crimes of passion or as results of business partnerships gone wrong. Midsomer Murders, Lewis or Morse, anyone?

However, executive producer Diederick Santer says Grantchester is anything but the normal British cop show. He points to the central character – a “charming but complex” whiskey-drinking young vicar from 1953 Cambridgeshire played by Happy Valley’s James Norton – as his case in point.

“He is a really flawed character,” says Santer, founder of the show’s lead producer Lovely Day. “He’s got very strong faith and very strong morals, but is permanently in a crisis of self. That he likes drinking and the company of young women makes it really interesting and watchable, and James has drawn that out in his performance.”

Grantchester is based on The Grantchester Mysteries, a series of novels from literature lecturer and author James Rancie that follow vicar Sidney Chambers in the titular town of Grantchester. Santer took the books after Sue Swift – who assess the adaptive merits of novels for Lovely Day, its sister Shine Group company Kudos and Shine Pictures – brought them to him. Norton was quickly drafted in for the lead part, and soon after ITV greenlit the project. “We rather love it,” ITV’s director of television Peter Fincham said at a London screening earlier this month.

PBS’s drama strand Masterpiece – a keen investor in British scripted series – came on board after Daisy Coulam adapted the six books into six hour-long episodes. Santer says dialogue with Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton was plentiful throughout production and post-production. While each episode is standalone, over-arching themes such as the vicar’s complicated personal life run throughout.

Masterpiece is already a coproducer and investor in the BBC’s Sherlock and Call the Midwife and ITV’s Downton Abbey, and takes the same role with Grantchester. Norton is paired with Robson Green (Wire in the Blood, Strike Back), who plays an exasperated Cambridge police detective.

Eaton says PBS has “high hopes that our American audience will fall our the handsome – and troubled – vicar. We look forward to watching him follow in the footsteps of those illustrious crime solvers Morse, Lewis, Poirot, Foyle and, of course, Sherlock Holmes”.

Santer adds that as the Masterpiece drama slot is about five minutes longer than ITV’s, American audiences will get scenes British viewers do not. “A lot of the discussion has been about what glorious scenes we can bring back.”

Santer says the fact he was brought up in a religious family, and was aware of Rancie’s work through a family connection, meant the central Chambers character was “very familiar” from the start. “I really felt I knew him,” he adds.

Another point marking Grantchester out from its ITV predecessors is the tone: sex scenes are present, while the tone can swing from jaunty and playful to very dark: the vicar – who as a Christian disagrees with murder – is seen in flashbacks killing several Germans during World War II as part of the Scots Guard. “Yet despite his darkness, he is at heart a good guy,” says Santer.

The show: Grantchester
The producer: Lovely Day in association with Masterpiece
The distributor: Shine International
The broadcasters: ITV (UK), PBS Masterpiece (US)
The concept: Young vicar pairs with a British detective to solve crimes in Grantchester, a small Cambridgeshire town