Meet the new Morse: ITV unveils crime-fighting clergyman inspired by Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie


Poirot has solved his last case and Morse is no more. Now ITV hopes that a crime-fighting clergyman, inspired by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, will solve a detective-shaped hole in its prime-time schedules.

ITV has commissioned Grantchester, an initial six-part series set in Cambridgeshire in 1953, which centres on the crime-fighting exploits of Sidney Chambers, a charismatic, charming young Clergyman, who turns investigative Vicar after a parishioner dies in suspicious circumstances.

Grantchester is adapted from Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, the acclaimed first novel in a six-book series written by James Runcie, son of the late Robert, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991.

Runcie told The Independent that his father “became part of the character of Chambers.” The author said: “He is a mixture of my father and myself. Sidney is an alternative fictionalised autobiography.”

With David Suchet this week hanging up his wax moustache after 25 years as Poirot, ITV is searching for a new, long-running screen detective and Runcie has promised a series of stories which will take Chambers from 1953 up to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.

Where Inspector Morse boosted tourism to Oxford, Grantchester will showcase the city’s ancient University rival alongside Cambridgeshire’s surrounding fenlands and meadows. “A river is very good for drowning,” said Runcie.

Every TV detective must have his quirks and Chambers, a dashing 32 year-old bachelor with an eye for the ladies, displays a fondness for cricket, warm beer, jazz and the works of Tolstoy and Shakespeare.

“I’m sure my father did solve many mysteries,” said the Cambridge-born Runcie, who chose a vicar-detective as his protagonist after taking advice from John Mortimer, the Rumpole author and a family friend. “People would tell him things which couldn’t then be repeated.”

“A clergyman can go to places the police can’t. They are present at births, marriages and deaths and they receive unofficial confessionals because people would open up to clergy, especially in the 50s.”

Sidney Chambers was named after Robert Runcie favourite clergyman, Sydney Smith. The Archbishop had been Dean of a Cambridge college and, like the fictional Chambers, had fought in the Second World War. “Writing Chambers helped me come to terms with my father’s death (in 2000),” his son said.

Chambers’ dry humour is a hit with parishioners at the church of St Andrew and St Mary’s but he has a knack of intuitively asking the right questions which result in a sleuthing breakthrough.

In the first series, Chambers investigates the suspect suicide of a Cambridge solicitor, a scandalous jewellery theft at a New Year's Eve dinner party, the unexplained death of a well-known jazz promoter and a shocking art forgery, the disclosure of which puts a close friend in danger.

James Runcie, author of the Sidney Chambers mysteries (Teri Pengilley) James Runcie, author of the Sidney Chambers mysteries (Teri Pengilley)
Shooting begins next Spring and two actors are currently vying for the lead role. “I wrote it partly with Benedict Cumberbatch in mind but he’s probably too busy now,” said Runcie, who believes that ITV are looking to “sex up” his vicar with a shirtless scene.

Chambers follows in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton’s crime-solving Roman Catholic priest Father Brown, played by Mark Williams in a recent BBC1 adaptation.

“I was desperate to explode the myth of the comedy vicar,” said Runcie. “From Derek Nimmo to Dick Emery and his false teeth, vicars have always been mocked as slightly stupid people who speak in these high-pitched, sing-song voices – although some actually do. My Chambers is a mixture of charm and danger but I hope the series is also ethically provocative.”

Grantchester will be produced by Lovely Day, a sister company of Kudos, the company behind Spooks and The Hour. Diederick Santer, executive producer, who previously was in charge of EastEnders, said: “Sidney is a charming, but complex character, a man of faith burdened by his past despite a distinguished wartime record, he’s funny, dashing and inquisitive. He loves being a parish priest in the exquisite village of Grantchester, but somehow it’s not enough and he still finds time to fall in and out of love and solve crimes.”

Runcie wrote the novels with half an eye on an ITV slot. “There is a gap in the detective market but we can’t repeat what has gone before,” he said. “Grantchester shouldn’t have a cosy glow like Miss Marple. There are social tensions in my stories because they begin during a period when we still had the death penalty and homosexuality was illegal.”

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