Posts Tagged ‘father’

James Runcie: 'My father would have been bemused and amused by Grantchester'

October 5th, 2014

The six-part ITV series is based on The Grantchester Mysteries, a sequence of novels I began to write five years ago. 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.

Robert Runcie became a clergyman shortly after the war. He lived in Cambridge at the beginning of his ministry (I was born there) and was later chosen to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1979. He didn’t go round solving murders, but when I began to write a series of six crime novels, intended as a moral history of post-war Britain, it seemed almost obvious to make the central character a clergyman (the only alternative would have been a doctor). He would be a fictionalised version of my father, 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.

I wanted to place this man in the midst of social change, beginning in 1953, the year of the Coronation. Britain was beginning to find itself again, DNA was discovered, the death penalty was still in effect, homosexuality was illegal, and career opportunities for women were limited. The novels would stretch over some 25 years and trace how modern Britain evolved, chronicling and balancing what I take to be good things (higher living standards, medical advance, the abolition of the death penalty, greater opportunities for women) with the bad (the decline of community, selfishness, intolerance, racism, homophobia, crime).

The series is easy enough to describe. It’s an Anglican Father Brown, Morse with morals, or Barbara Pym with no clothes on. This, by the way, is important. I wanted a sexy vicar, and I know we have found in Norton just the man; someone fresh from playing a psychopath in Happy Valley, who is a world away from the comedy clergy of Dick Emery, Derek Nimmo, and Arthur Lowe and much closer, I hope, to Tom Hollander’s excellent Adam Smallbone in Rev. That series has, in many ways, prepared the ground – without it, we might not have had such a positive response to the original, seriously unfashionable idea (a central character who is a practising Christian? Was I out of my mind?). Setting the tale in the Fifties obviously helps, as it makes the religion more confident and less of an anomaly than it is in Smallbone’s aggressively secular world.

READ: Why does Happy Valley have everyone talking?

James Norton stars as Sidney Chambers in Grantchester (ITV)

Not that this is cosy. Like my father, Chambers fought against evil in the war; now, he has to confront different evils in the ensuing peace. What keeps him going, apart from a strong faith, is both his love of intrigue and his compassion. The paradox is simple: as a clergyman, he has to think the best of people; as a detective, he must assume the worst.

The Fifties setting offers a more closed world than the one we know today. This is a time of tact, reticence and, for want of a better word, manners. It is far from shouty modern life in which people declare their most intimate secrets either on Facebook or over their second pint of lager. Sidney has to decode conversations in which privacy is fiercely held and secrets are dangerous. He has to understand both what drives people to commit acts of desperation (sex, money, betrayal, revenge) and what may eventually redeem them.

His talent as a detective lies in his ability to listen and to understand far more than he is being told. People share confidences that they wouldn’t with anyone else (particularly the police) and so Sidney becomes party to information that he must either withhold or reveal. (The series begins after a funeral when a woman insists that her secret lover did not commit suicide but was murdered.)

Grantchester is not Dostoevsky (although he is an influence), but it comes, as you might expect, from a liberal Anglican sensibility that understands ambiguity, seeks understanding and embraces tolerance.


There are, perhaps, indulgences. Sidney (named after my father’s favourite Anglican, Sydney Smith) becomes intrigued by a piano- playing German woman who loves Bach (my mother taught the piano); his first love (played by Morven Christie) is an amalgamation of two of my best friends; while Inspector Geordie Keating (played by Robson Green) is named after Roly Keating, now chief executive of the British Library.

The series is written out of affection for its characters and is designed to entertain rather than impress (it took me four novels to work that one out), and there is little of the gruesome evisceration found in the work of Stieg Larsson or Martina Cole. We are closer to John Mortimer’s Rumpole and even (bizarrely, hopefully and ambitiously) P?G Wodehouse.

Recalling that writer’s Great Sermon Handicap, in which bets are placed on various clergymen’s sermon lengths, I have to confess there is perhaps an element of preachiness to it all. 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.)

I try to imagine what my father would think of it all, and 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.

And this is, of course, is what fiction does. It brings the dead back to us. It allows thought, conversation, an alternative afterlife. It reminds us that we are not alone, that we can find moments of respite beyond our own flickering humanity and that, while those who are no longer with us can still be remembered, death’s dominion is neither dark nor desolate.

Grantchester begins on ITV on October 6 at 9.00pm

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Lost war tales of Tarrant’s father

May 25th, 2014

Chris Tarrant fondly remembers his late father as his “closest friend”, but the television host has revealed he wishes he had spoken more with him about the Second World War.

The 67-year-old has written an account of his father Basil’s war diary, recounting stories including how the decorated Army officer won the Military Cross for leading a night patrol of 16 men on the German-Dutch border which overcame 60 enemy soldiers.

In a newspaper interview Tarrant said he could talk to his father about “anything”, but “the only thing that was taboo was the war”.

He said: “It was a generational thing. The ones like Dad, who had been in the thick of the fighting, rarely said a word about it.

“From childhood, I knew better than to ask. After he died, I realised I barely knew him at all.” Tarrant said he regrets not taking his father up on an offer of visiting Juno Beach on the 50th anniversary of D-Day for a television programme.

“Dad was proposing, for the first and only time, to talk about his war experiences and I rejected it.”

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