What more can be said about 'Grantchester', ITV's 'Mystery Drama', and why say it now, just as season four has come to a close? The focus during these six episodes has been on the anticipation and replacement of the main character – village vicar Sidney Chambers – played by James Norton. The new vicar arrived on a motorbike in leathers – namely Tom Brittney as Will Davenport – resulting in a masterful segue, in terms of an entire team of actors reforming within a familiar dramatic structure.
Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the series, a handsome (single) vicar in a delightful (and real) English village assists the local cop and drinking companion (Inspector Geordie Keating, played with aplomb by Robson Green) in solving mysterious murders that disrupt the 'peace and holy quiet' of Grantchester, and at the end preaches a sermon of relevance to the crime. Amen.
It may sound less than promising, but the stories come from the 'Grantchester Mysteries', very readable books, with sound plots and good dialogue, by James Runcie, which are set beginning in 1953, and which, using the murder investigations as the vehicle for action, examine the post-war period in terms of social change without cynicism or moralising. They include two particular aspects of a changing society which we continue to struggle with in 2019: issues around LGBT awareness and the harassment of women in the workplace. While 'Grantchester' has never shied away from these, in season four it is the substantial sub-plots, not the murders, that create a particularly strong dramatic impact, especially in episodes four and five.
'Grantchester' has a clear moral compass, which is not to say that it is without confliction or a darker side amongst its characters, certainly not, and earlier seasons saw Sidney Chambers at war with himself over his calling; there was also the adultery of his friend Geordie. As a series it has had its detractors and its champions. Yes, it has a degree of nostalgia, cricket on the green and that sort of thing; yes, the inhabitants of Grantchester in the 1950s are church-goers; but, no, it isn't comic or played for laughs. There probably is honey still for tea. There have been criticisms of its ecclesiastical anomalies, also of certain historical anachronisms, and as far as police procedural is concerned, well, it's a story.
It rests, however, on the solid rock of dramatising the very human struggle of being true to oneself. This is hardly surprising, considering that its creator, James Runcie, is the son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury and that Diederick Santer, one of the executive producers (along with Rebecca Eaton) grew up with a father who is a retired Anglican bishop. Runcie is an award-winning programme maker, producer and film-maker; Santer is a former producer of 'EastEnders'. They both have form, and put it to good use.
Perhaps because here the crime investigations do not involve lengthy forensic discussions in the mortuary, and the viewer is spared repeated close-ups of the corpse of the day, there is plenty of room to develop, from episode to episode, the parallel dramas, such as the position of those identifying as gay. It is this that gives 'Grantchester' its depth and texture, and it is where the real grit lies that is grinding down social mores and prejudices so prevalent in the 1950s, and which remain relevant in a UK that struggles to define itself.
As Sidney's (and now Will's) curate, Leonard Finch, Al Weaver delivers a moving portrait of a gay man struggling to find a place in a society that will not come around to decriminalising his sexual activities until 1967. What is impressive about Weaver's performance, throughout the other seasons but especially in season four, is how he develops the character of Leonard, who begins as a timid, shy and uncertain new curate, desperate to find a way to 'fit in' to a society that wants not just to keep him at arm's length, but to erase him if possible. Grantchester, the place, is not ready to accept him for what he is, and he is fearful and ashamed.
While much has changed, there has recently been a row about teaching children in schools about same-sex relationships. Masuma Rahim's column in the Guardian last month strongly supported the application of the Equality Act in Britain's schools. As she succinctly put it: 'You cannot expect all people to accept the full spectrum of gender and sexual diversity, because that isn't realistic. You can – and should – fight discrimination against them'. Ofsted has said: 'All schools have a responsibility to prepare children for life in modern Britain and that includes encouraging respect for those who are different'.
Leonard feels very different indeed, and pulls back from the brink of marriage to a girl, in which he had hoped to become 'normal'. By season four he has found a very nice male companion, though circumstances demand they keep this hidden, until they are found kissing in the kitchen by Mrs C, the invaluable chief cook and keeper of the vicarage, acted by Tessa Peake-Jones.
The scenes in episode four are painful to watch as Mrs C remains silent and refuses even to look at Leonard, for whom she has been a sounding board and valuable ally. She is concerned that Leonard has been led astray and will not get into heaven, but be damned forever. Her behaviour and beliefs seem decidedly outdated now, yet these attitudes clearly must be addressed over and over again, and the Equality Act is one way of approaching this.
Al Weaver and Tessa Peake-Jones create an enclosed circle of anguish, their faces expressing the loss of a friendship that means so much to them both. However, through this trauma, Leonard becomes empowered in that he expresses his anger, taking responsibility for himself and standing up for what he believes in. He also becomes angry with Will. The image of Leonard with his suitcase at the crossroads says it all. His role in the drama subtly shifts as he finds his dignity, and the relationship with his partner becomes real, to himself and to the viewer. They cannot come out of the closet, but from a 21st-century perspective they are the champions. The resolution exhibits compassion and compromise; after all, this is 'Grantchester'.
A different struggle of gender politics in season four of 'Grantchester' encircles Cathy Keating, Geordie Keating's wife, played by Kacey Ainsworth, an award-winning actress previously in 'EastEnders'. She has taken a job, now that the children are older, at Swinnerton's, the local department store, somewhat to the chagrin of her husband.
Cathy is a woman feeling the first flush of empowerment, and the delight of earning her own money, thereby creating some domestic friction. However, this is not to be about the 'threatened male', but rather how the sexually-harassed woman at work in the 1950s confronts a situation that is reminiscent of Topshop in 2019. Cathy is put into a position where, like Leonard, she is fearful and ashamed, and also without the group support that exists today. A salesman at the store makes unwanted advances, secure – as he thinks – in the knowledge that he can get away with it.
Current research at Yale, as reported in the New York Times, by the political scientist Sarah Khan examines the concept of 'common knowledge', which shows that while celebrity outing of sexual misconduct – #MeToo – achieves publicity and positive results within a high profile social group, the ordinary female employee remains vulnerable because there is insufficient shared experience to create a sense of security should a complaint be brought.
In Cathy's case, taking her complaint to the store manager results in virtually being accused that she brought it on herself. He would like to 'hear no more about this silly misunderstanding'. Silence is expected. The defence at Topshop was that it was 'playful prodding'. Victim blaming may preserve the status quo, but not for long.
The fear of not being believed is one of the main reasons women do not report sexual misconduct. In this scene, Ainsworth gives a stunning performance as her face expresses innocence, disbelief and shock. The sexual harassment continues. If Swinnerton's had put in place the system for reporting this, as most businesses should, and many do, she would have had the support of colleagues.
While sexual bias is still a feature of the 21st-century workplace, working women have latterly commented that not only do they trust the support of their female colleagues, but they also feel secure that many of the men are supportive as well. Some, however, still remain concerned for their positions in bringing misconduct charges; there is always the discouragement to try again when a charge fails; and the male defence that the women themselves are the aggressors continues a skewed gender balance. The spread of 'common knowledge', that others are like-minded, will give women strength in these sexual power games, and a performance such as Ainsworth's is inspiring.
Cathy finally tells Geordie what has been going on, and while he would like to play the powerful male to her weak woman she prevents him – 'This didn't happen to you! This is my fight!' – thereby asserting her independence. Together with Mrs C they hatch an ingenious plan and in the final episode they prevail spectacularly. Of course they do.
'Grantchester' has been developed for television by Daisy Coulam, who has also been its lead writer. Also on the team were Rachael New, and directors Stewart Svaasand and Rob Evans, for episodes four and five. Season four of 'Grantchester' has given viewers a good number of corpses – by poisoning, pushing and puking – along with lovely bucolic scenes in the water meadows and some philosophical discussions between the cop and the vicars down the pub.
However, this season's stars are the three actors who created the so-called secondary stories, which wove their way throughout and dealt sensitively and intelligently with topics that resonate over half a century later, where at least the silence that once surrounded them has been broken.