‘My attitude to secrets is that if it’s funny, I’m going to tell people,’ says the Suffolk-bound writer of The Grantchester Mysteries
- Credit: Archant
‘I am interested in what Englishness means ? in old-fashioned things like decency. How does one lead a good moral life without compromise?’ says the son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury
Meeting James Runcie, while pleasurable, is also slightly disconcerting. He’s tall, charming, sports ostentatious footwear, and has an infectious giggle. He speaks at breakneck speed and ideas and stories are related in a scattergun fashion, writes Catherine Larner. You come away feeling a little dazed and also pondering: how much of our conversation will be used as future material?
“I do like anecdotes,” he says. “Now when people tell me stories, they say ‘you can’t use that’, or ‘you can have that!’ My attitude to secrets is that if it’s funny, I’m going to tell people.”
He does qualify this statement – there is some self-regulation to protect the innocent ? but you sense nothing is wasted with a man whose CV lists television producer, theatre director, screenwriter, lecturer, documentary filmmaker and novelist.
As well as collecting stories, he is also obviously very observant, noting details about appearance and behaviour, and this is evident in his ongoing project, a series of novels called The Grantchester Mysteries, which have been dramatized for television. Filming will start on the second series later this summer, on location in Cambridge, with Robson Green and James Norton as the lead characters.
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“It’s exciting,” says James. “I’ve been told it’s a hit – 6.6 million viewers. It’s the most-watched new series on ITV (Downton was the most-watched series). And it’s done well in America, in Australia and in Holland. But I do have to think of it as something different. It’s not just a translation of the novel. I have been really pleased about the production values and the acting, and the focus being on the effect of crime not just the crime itself. And I’m more than happy with James Norton as Sidney. He can do miracles with his cheek bones.”
The fourth book, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins, is out. Like the other books it is made up of six stories about a crime-solving country vicar, called Sidney Chambers. Each book progresses through the decades, reflecting changes in attitudes in British social history. This latest volume concludes in 1966 with the World Cup Final and the floods in Florence, Italy. James planned to finish in the 1980s with book six. The success of the television series may change things. “They are very keen to keep it in the 1950s for as long as possible,” he says.
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“I am particularly interested in how we have moved from post-war society, where we were looking to build a better Britain, to the solipsism of the 21st century and ‘how can I be famous?’,” James says. “These days everybody wants to be public. But back then there was still tact and manners, so Sidney has to understand what’s happening beneath the secrecy and the privacy.”
The clergy are, of course, privy to information unlike any other sector of society. Sidney is the canon of a village church just outside Cambridge. It’s a small community where people know their place through the roles they hold: the doctor, the teacher and the vicar. He is present at the rites of passage - births, marriages and deaths - and when people are at their most vulnerable and most confessional.
“This is Morse with morals, or a Trollope with crime,” James says about the books, while admitting he is more interested in manners and social behaviour than crime, and is influenced more by Dostoevsky or Jane Austen than Ian Rankin.
“I am interested in what Englishness means, in old-fashioned things like decency,” he says. “What is a good life? How does one lead a good moral life without compromise? Obviously one can’t just tell the truth all the time ? one has to be kind to people and occasionally lie – so what does truth mean? The books are more about behaviour and social observation than about crime.
“And I’m very interested in humour ? the idea that things can be comic and tragic simultaneously.”
He recalls an incident when he was a child – his father’s secretary saying that, when her husband left her, she wanted to think of the rudest word she could say, and came up with Harpic!
James is unabashed about acknowledging that the books draw on his experience of being the son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.
“If I had written this while my father was still alive, or soon after he had died, it would look opportunistic. But I have done other things now and he died nearly 14 years ago – I don’t know how long it takes people to grieve. I feel Sidney Chambers is partly a biography of my dad, and partly an alternative autobiography of what would have happened if I had been a priest.
“I wanted to present someone with moral seriousness and to show faith in action. But Sidney has flaws. He knows he’s charming, so he’s slightly vain. He has an over-eagerness to be loved, and he’s indiscreet of course, which is bad. He’s not actually that good a priest.” Maybe not, but in this warm, affectionate, thoughtful and amusing portrayal, Sidney is building a loyal, admiring and quietly passionate fan base.
• James Runcie is speaking at the Riverside Cinema, Woodbridge, on Wednesday, May 20, at 8pm. There will be live jazz from local trio Jenny Wren and her Borrowed Wings from 7.30pm. Clips from the TV series The Grantchester Mysteries will be shown on the big screen and James will reveal behind-the-scenes news of the TV dramatization, as well as talking about his new book. Tickets are £8 and available from the Riverside Cinema (01394 382174) and Browsers Bookshop, Woodbridge (01394 388890).