James Runcie talks Grantchester
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
James Runcie’s popular Grantchester Mysteries series is more interested in death than decomposition; more concerned with mourning than motive. In creating Sidney Chambers – a priest-sleuth with more than a hint of his late father, Robert – he wanted a clergyman who could be vibrant, energetic, funny and sexy, he tells Katie Jarvis
“Look,” I say to James Runcie, “none of us – not one single reader anywhere, at any time in history – has ever ever known a vicar’s/archbishop’s/parson’s/rector’s son or daughter who has not been horrendously naughty.”
This is not a question. It is a statement that merely needs qualifying with a raised eyebrow on my part.
“Ah,” he says, mentally sifting through a rainbow array of possible illustrations to an irrefutable premise. “I do remember, at university, a girl coming up to me and saying, ‘Vicars’ sons are either really repressed or really randy. Which are you?’ So I said, ‘Hang on in there, darling, and maybe you can find out!’”
Randy Runcie. It’s a great name. A great image. And James Runcie does, at one point, generously re-enact the differing techniques of two famous closet-gropers (No, no, I’m not telling.) (Not for my usual fee, anyway.) But he is being so hilarious that fellow diners at Calcot’s excellent Conservatory look as if they’d like their money back because they simply can’t be having as good a time as I am. And though he clearly loves the company of women, he’s not the least bit gropey himself. And, and, and… he’s been happily married to the woman all his books are dedicated to, for the past X aeons (the radio-drama director Marilyn Imrie, with whom he has a daughter, Charlotte, and a stepdaughter, Rosie Kellagher).
Oh, I don’t know. I guess, for one thing, it’s that women give him so many of the snippets he uses in his books - the stories he doesn’t make up, at any rate. Like his actress friend Siobhan Redmond. (He’s also buddies with Hilary Mantel, JK Rowling, the BBC’s Bridget Kendall and loads more; but that’s OK a) because he’s met them legitimately through work; and b) you can’t blame them for wanting to be friends with this vastly entertaining man.)
“Siobhan and her friend were in a ladies’ lavatory – the kind of place I never get to go, obviously – and her friend was very upset about a break-up. Anyway, this friend said to Siobhan, ‘He said he never wants to see me again, ever, for the rest of his life… What do you think he means by that?’”
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And he’s off into gales of full-bloodied laughter; the kind of laughter that understands that humour and tragedy are inextricably linked. The kind that understands that, if death and comedy are not married, they at least sleep together successfully on a regular basis. It’s hard to describe what he reminds me of: part professor (he looks rather like my old Latin tutor); part overgrown schoolboy. But in amongst the endearing comedy and the loudly-lively anecdotes, there’s a smaller voice of calm that discusses matters with serious intelligence. And it’s exactly those sorts of combinations that make James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries so popular and even – yes – essential reading for a society that not only values self, but takes endless photos of it. A reminder, as another corpse floats to the surface, in the bath at a Cambridge College, that you can hate the crime but love the sinner. That you can look for the best while fearing the worst. That sex should be discreet but death should be open. (Indeed, death is, James avers to me, something we should all practise for.)
That’s certainly the attitude of his sleuth vicar, Sidney Chambers, who fought in the war (the series starts in the 50s); who is funny and decent and clever but who sulks infuriatingly at inappropriate times. And who is the subject of an ITV series which almost gets it right – apart from the seventeen-pounds-fifty-pee price-tag (in the 1950s?). Or the idea that anyone in a country governed by Churchill would ever have said, ‘I’ll take that as a no, then’.
“Or that Sidney would have SLEPT with that jazz singer,” James says, marginally horrified, though reserving the full brunt of outrage for the fact that “What’s worse, he kept his boxer shorts on! No one would do that!”
Sidney’s birth was part-accident; part-planned, conceived when James was hopelessly wrestling with his fifth ‘serious’ novel, set on the Isle of Skye (“We go there a lot anyway”). “At the time, Marilyn was doing Rumpole and seeing a lot of John Mortimer; she said to me, ‘Why don’t you think of some returning, loveable character to write about, instead?’ She might even have said, ‘You know – someone like your father’.”
“Your father”, of course, was Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury for 11 years, from 1980. If I close my eyes and listen, he could be talking to me now – in terms of voice and modulation; but father and son are clearly hewn from different rock. “I didn’t have a sufficiently constant faith to be able to sustain a priestly life,” James says. He pauses, obviously referencing a partly-private set of thoughts. “..Sometimes people expect levels of grief. Because you have a famous father, they think you might grieve for him more - and because we were very close. I wasn’t brilliantly close to my mother and, therefore, I have much more guilt about her death. I think about it much more; I think I should have been kinder, nicer, more patient.” (His pianist mother is also a shade in the book, within the character of one of Sidney’s love interests, Hildegard, a talented German musician who loves playing Bach.)
It is Sidney, though, who transfixes: a priest who gives James the chance to right a few wrongs. For a start, he’s not a pacifist; he’s a man whose bravery during the war earned him a Military Cross – as did Robert Runcie (the only modern Archbishop of Canterbury to have killed a fellow human being). “I’d got absolutely fed up with false-teeth clergymen: Dick Emery, Bless Me Father, Derek Nimmo,” James says. “Some kind of holy fool – even the clergyman in Dad’s Army is an idiot. I wanted a more… it’s called ‘muscular Christianity’; I don’t really mean that but I wanted a vibrant, energetic, intelligent, charming, funny, witty, sexy clergyman.”
Having a priest-detective also allowed him to move away from the sort of “Scandi-noir of four pages of decaying corpse”. Instead, he wanted to explore grief; to explore the consequences of murder. “I rather like Death in Paradise, but I can’t write that. I’m not very good at how a click beetle got onto an island or why a roll of Sellotape was found in a safe. Stephen Fry said that Wittgenstein said there’s no greater mystery than the human heart. I’m not sure he did say that because I can’t find any reference to it. But the Grantchester Mysteries are not just about crime; they are about the mystery of the human heart.”
Even so, there’s no shying away from sensitive subjects. Child abuse is about to feature in the next Grantchester volume, out in May. With its 1960s setting, Sidney is going against the zeitgeist when he condemns public-school teachers for getting involved with young boys. “That obviously comes from my experience at public school, which was just at the end of ‘It never did me any harm’.”
Did he see any of that kind of behaviour himself?
“Yes, yes. Fortunately, I was an ugly boy so it didn’t affect me. But my best friend at school went to bed with his housemaster because the housemaster was ‘afraid of thunder’ so would the boy give him a cuddle? The housemaster was in his 40s and the boy was just under 13. I said, ‘You can’t do that! What are you doing?’ He [the friend] said, ‘Oh, it’s all right. It’s just a bit of fiddling’. He told his parents and they also had the attitude, oh, it will be all right.”
So there’s the sex. But the priestly format also gives James the opportunity to talk about another taboo subject; one that society avoids like the plague: death. Not so James himself. “I introduced the Bath Literature Festival once when David Starkey was in the audience. He said, ‘Well done, James, you only mentioned death five times.’”
Does he think about death a lot?
“Yes, yes. Not my own – other people’s.”
Err… That could be taken the wrong way.
“I don’t mean that I will other people’s! No… I do think about my own. Yeah, I do.”
“I’ve got an irregular heartbeat so I do think I might have a heart attack at any moment.”
Does he practise for his own death?
“Do you mean, do I lie down in a coffin? [This is funny, but slightly odd, as he himself is the one who has told me we should all practise for death.] Well, the readiness is all, as in Hamlet. I think there’s nothing like an awareness of death that makes you try to live life more fully and more vibrantly.”
The irregular heartbeat is obviously concerning. But it’s interesting too. If we are talking about things being a disguised way of discussing something else (such as using crime novels to talk about grief and the human heart), then maybe death is a way of addressing doubts about faith. (This is an unfair assumption on my part; more a musing out loud, without justification.) James Runcie clearly is religious: he has just given the BBC Lent Talks on Radio 4. But he’s certainly not precious about it. When we speak further about his past four-year tenure as artistic director of Bath Literature Festival and his current visiting professorship at Bath Spa University, he relates an incident at the rugby. “At Bath Rec, two weeks ago, the man of the match was asked for his thoughts on the game and he started by saying, ‘First of all, I’d like to give my thanks to God, the Lord Almighty, Father of Jesus Christ and Saviour of mankind’. There was a bit of a silence at the Bath Rec at this moment. You could see people thinking, ‘Just talk about the game!’”
Was he behind that thought?
“I very much admired him but I did also think, oh dear.”
Oh, goodness. Thanks to religion, et al, there’s so much I haven’t said, as per usual. About his work as a documentary-maker (he spent a year filming JK Rowling); about the dream job heading up literature at the Southbank Centre, which he’s just had to give up because he couldn’t fit the writing in…
Yes, the writing. And, so, seamlessly on to the new Grantchester out next month. As always, there will be a progression in time – in Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins, we make our way inexorably through the 60s. Events, such as the building of the Berlin Wall, have integrally featured through the series, but the focus isn’t so much on the actual as the perceived – about changing mores and morals. I’ve no idea how Sidney will react to the pill or new abortion laws (though I’ve no doubt he will welcome a new understanding of homosexuality, a recurrent theme). But I’m pretty sure James himself rues some elements of a so-called progressive society. Of course, he chose the setting of Grantchester, specifically because of Rupert Brooke: iconic Englishness.
“I arrived on the [TV] set and called out, And is there honey still for tea? and everyone said, ‘What are you talking about?’” he laughs, ruefully.
He’s full of these types of marvellous anecdotes – so much so that I wonder, for a moment, whether or not they become an unwitting smokescreen for more revealing statements. I don’t mean anything sinister – I really, really take to him. He’s such a likeable combination of lack of guile and biting intelligence, it seems to me.
But something I read on his website makes me think again. It’s the page on which he talks about his late father, in fact, where a good proportion is dedicated to a story not about his dad, but, rather, a funny incident he would love to have related to him. So, yes, I guess anecdotes are as revealing as anything. In that spirit, I ask James Runcie for a final anecdote that sums up his relationship with his all-important father.
“I don’t know if it sums it up,” he muses, “but it’s one that makes me laugh. It was my godmother’s 75th birthday party, at her home in Earls Court. We were on the train from St Albans and I said to my dad, ‘What are you going to give her?’ And he said, ‘I was just going to give her The Oxford Book of Letters’. I said, ‘That’s not enough! It’s her 75th birthday!’
“When we got off at Earls Court station, I said, ‘Let’s give her 75 roses’, so we bought them from the florist, in those buckets you find outside. We were just approaching the house when I said, ‘These are from both of us.’ And he said, ‘No, they’re not. They’re just from me.’ We rang the doorbell, my godmother answered, and my dad said, ‘Merrie, happy birthday! I’ve brought you 75 red roses!’ and Merrie said, ‘Oh Robert, how vulgar!’ I said, ‘It was his idea. I’ve got you The Oxford Book of Letters’.”
James will be discussing the Grantchester Mysteries on Thursday, May 28, 7.30pm, at The Convent, Convent Lane, South Woodchester GL5 5HS. For further information, visit www.theconvent.net and theconvent.netgig.co.uk