James Runcie, author of the Grantchester Mysteries, describes how his mystery series was developed into Grantchester, the newest addition to PBS' Masterpiece Theater.
I wrote four novels before The Grantchester Mysteries and they were all pretty much un-filmable. Friends used to say to me: ‘You work in television. Haven’t you thought about making it easier for yourself?’ But I think I was willfully obstinate, almost proud that my work was so literary that it could not be filmed. What nonsense!
And so four years ago I made a crucial decision to write to entertain rather than impress. My wife, Marilyn Imrie, directs John Mortimer’s Rumpole for BBC Radio 4 and she suggested that I think about writing a novel with a loveable returning character. The first could even be a series of inter-linked short stories. A book of six stories, for example could make six tv episodes…
I was off. Take an iconic English village, Grantchester, just outside Cambridge; pick a period of post war British history (the 1950’s, when the country was still recovering from war, the death penalty was still extant and homosexuality was illegal) and create a world. I wanted to write about social change and give the stories a moral focus in which characters were put on their metal.
There is no greater furnace in which to test that metal than crime and so these would become detective stories. All I needed was a detective with a keen sense of morality, a clergyman perhaps: someone who was the recipient of confidences, who could go where the police could not and who would approach people with a loving, forgiving humanity. He couldn’t be a Roman Catholic, like Father Brown, because I wanted him to be young, unmarried and prone to unresolved sexual tension; not the comedy cleric so often seen in sit-coms and movies but yes, a sexy vicar.
The first book, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, was published by Bloomsbury in 2012 and was optioned by a wonderful company called Lovely Day who sold it to ITV and PBS Masterpiece Theatre. Scripts were written (not by me, I had more novels to write) and there was then a lot of to-ing and fro-ing before the magical green light. This meant casting.
It’s curious. I do have thoughts about the characters in my head as I write but they’re not that defined. I don’t worry over-much about physical characteristics so much as temperament, morality, humor and judgment. So I didn’t have any fixed notions about who should play the main parts; Sidney Chambers, his two main love interests, his Police Inspector friend, his curate and his housekeeper. We just needed good actors who were intriguing, loveable, and sexy: and if they weren’t, then there was always Dickens, the loveable Labrador puppy to keep the audience going.
A long time ago, after the success of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Richard Curtis wrote that the secret of his success was to cast Hugh Grant in as many films as he could. Well, I love James Norton, rising star, lovely man, and so sexy he can make women shudder with a twitch of a single cheekbone. He is Sidney Chambers. I think he’s marvelous as are Robson Green, Morven Christie, Pheline Roggan, Tessa Peake-Jones and Al Weaver.
They are a new family and, as we start preparing for the second series and Book Four is about to be published (Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins) it’s hard not to have them all in my head as I write. I have to send them away on little holidays so that they don’t distract me. But I know they are always there as inspiration and encouragement, helping the imagination to become as rich and as deep as possible.
The television version is not definitive; liberties are taken, plots are changed, and the characters may not always be as readers have imagined them; but I don’t think that necessarily matters too much. It’s an interpretation. It doesn’t have to be definitive. The books will always be there. I’ll keep writing. And the world goes on.