Felixstowe Book Festival: James Runcie on his new Grantchester prequel
- Credit: ITV
The Rev Sidney Chambers, the amateur sleuth, is a much loved figure both on the page and on TV but why did he join the church? This is the latest mystery to be solved as author James Runcie tells Rachel Sloane
Some people seem to have more than 24 hours in the day, they achieve so much. James Runcie is the Commissioning Editor at Radio 4, a playwright for radio and theatre, a film maker and the author of 10 novels, including six highly popular Granchester books, about the clergyman/detective Rev. Sidney Chambers.
The Granchester novels are all set in post-war Britain, and James's latest book is a prequel, which explains how Sidney becomes a vicar.
"I've never really come clean about why he became a priest and why he made the most important decision of his life, and in such extreme circumstances. I mean, how do you believe in God when you are in the middle of war?"
The fighting in Italy is very realistic, graphic, and quite dark, and about as far from a quaint rural parish as you can imagine. Will the usual Grantchester reader be shocked?
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"It's not a comfortable read for the first couple of hundred pages but then faith isn't meant to be comfortable, but hard-won," James smiled ruefully. "It's important that Sidney is plunged into the middle of something that wasn't expected. A reader thinks: 'Oh I can just read this on a Sunday afternoon, and it will all be nice and jolly', and suddenly it's not at all."
But was it hard to write something so different from usual?
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"It is much more serious and much, much harder to write. After six books I thought it would be easy as I knew who he is, where he comes from and what he is about, and yet it took me about five goes to get it vaguely right.
"The two hardest things for me to write was the dialogue of war and how people spoke to each other. It can sound a bit Boys Own magazine with 'Fritz' and 'Bosh' and 'Blimey boys, that was close!' It was trying to get realistic dialogue that was impregnated with violence and fear. I had the letters of my dad's best friend and I remember him saying to me once that war it is the most extraordinary mixture of boredom and terror."
Sidney's family and friends find it hard to believe he is serious with his decision to join the ministry.
"When I was growing up priests were considered, on television, figures of fun with All Gas and Gaiters, Bless Me Father, then right up to The Vicar of Dibley. They were not taken that seriously. I wanted to reclaim vicardom. In a social situation people are often embarrassed by vicars - they don't want to sit next to the priest after the wedding. I started to include that in the previous books and in The Road to Grantchester, Sidney's mother and father can't understand what he is doing - and crucially, neither can his best friend, Amanda."
Much of the life of Rev Sidney Chambers is inspired by James' father Robert Runcie, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Does James ever feel as though his father is sitting on his shoulder as he writes?
"I am more used to it now though originally I did more. People often think it's my way of keeping him alive and in the book it's no coincidence that he marries a German piano teacher, which is what my mother was, so music and faith become a sort of dominant strand. Sydney is more me actually, and some is made up - it's a work of fiction. My father was never a detective and definitely never did some of the things he did in the television series."
One of James Runcie's biggest fans has never forgiven him for not letting Sidney and Amanda marry….
"All I can tell you is - they still might!" he laughed. "It was always my intention, though I didn't intend for Amanda to have such a colourful and eventful love life. She is the running character and this book explains why Sidney can't face marrying her, looking so much like her dead brother. That was an issue, but now he is older….."
James always intended to write a series of books tracing Sidney's church career,
"The problem is Sidney ends up being offered the Bishop of Peterborough in the last book of the series… although we don't know if he accepts. Having a Bishop solving crime would be a bit ridiculous, as would solving crimes in the late 1970's or '80's. Once you have forensics, it's hard to have an amateur sleuth nosing around. It has to stop in the 1970's. Even in the television series it's a bit odd…"
When an author writes a book, they then have to promote it, but luckily James enjoys this side of the work and is looking forward to appearing in the Felixstowe Book Festival.
"I like well-run festivals and I absolutely believe in the need for writers to get out and sing for their supper, but I don't like the two-tier ones where there are the famous celebrity authors, and then the rest. Once I went to one where I was met off the train and, as we drove past the golf course, my escort said 'we had Michael Palin there…. that's where we have the successful authors. You are in the church hall." James Runcie is appearing at the Felixstowe Book Festival on Saturday June 29.