On Wednesday night, I attended the Bloomsbury Institute Book Club Grantchester Christmas Special event at Bedford Square in central London with author James Runcie and scriptwriter Daisy Coulam discussing how the first book in the Grantchester Mysteries series, ‘Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death’ was dramatised for television by ITV.
Set in the village of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire in 1953 and starring James Norton in the lead role, the series follows Sidney Chambers, an Anglican vicar and sleuth who solves mysteries together with grumpy northerner Inspector Geordie Keating played by Robson Green. The response to the book and the television series has been largely positive with the general consensus being that it is enjoyable if not particularly demanding reading or viewing – although, according to Runcie, A A Gill was a tad more scathing in his review of the series, it seems.
Runcie talked about his interest in the social history of post-war Britain in the Grantchester Mysteries series which will eventually span six books covering nearly three decades. His father, Robert Runcie, was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991 and his experiences during the Second World War and in the clergy informed the setting and characters of the book. Runcie wanted to move away from the more comical depictions of the clergy such as Dick Emery and The Vicar of Dibley and explore how a character in Sidney’s position would form relationships and deal with the secrets that others confide in him. Sidney’s surname of Chambers is also a nod towards the barrister Horace Rumpole, a character created by John Mortimer.
I watched the television series on ITV which was broadcast in October and November and read the book soon afterwards. The book itself is a collection of six cases and would therefore be ideal for adapting into six television episodes. Initially, it seemed that the series had been mostly faithful to the book with the details of the first story about Stephen Saunders more or less exactly the same. However, it soon became clear that the producers of the television series had taken certain elements in different directions, mostly for the purpose of developing the plots of the stories which were certainly lighter in the book. For example, the second story about the missing ring – based on a story Runcie’s mother told him about a dinner party she attended – had a murder added to it in the programme.
Runcie and Coulam gave an entertaining commentary to explain how the book was adapted to television based around three clips from the first, fifth and sixth episodes which were shown to the audience. With each episode just 41 minutes in length, a key challenge was ensuring every single shot conveyed some element of character or plot, particularly when setting the scene in the first episode. The first draft of the first episode originally opened with scenes directly related to the main crime story featuring Stephen Saunders. However, twenty two drafts later, the final version featured Sidney and Amanda instead.
Runcie seems reasonably open to new ideas and interpretations about the development of his characters for the television series. While showing another clip from the fifth episode set in London, Runcie said he originally wasn’t happy at all with the idea of Sidney having a one night stand with Gloria although claims that he is satisfied with the way it was produced in the end as it was done in a way which develops Sidney’s character and his relationships with Amanda and Hildegard. The clip from the final episode about cowardice during the Second World War was an entirely new story not featured in the book at all.
The event certainly left me with an appreciation of just how detailed the process of adapting a book to a television series can be. Changes to either the plot or the characters were not made lightly and every aspect was carefully considered. For example, it’s always hoped that viewers don’t notice historical errors such as the wrong type of weather during the England v. Hungary football match but as Runcie said, even though it’s inevitable that someone will feel the need to write a letter to The Telegraph about it, it’s the dialogue and storyline that matters most. As a result, the book and the television series feel very much as though they were produced to entertain the reader and viewer above all and both of them succeed in this.
The first series will be broadcast in the United States on PBS early next year and it was announced last week that the second novel in the series ‘Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Death’ will also be dramatised next year with Coulam returning as script editor.
Many thanks to James Runcie and Daisy Coulam for an entertaining evening and to Bloomsbury Publishing for inviting me to the event!