Friday, January 16, 2015

Grantchester: Getting Cozy with Murder, Scotch, and Jazz

His drink is scotch and his music is jazz. He is Rev. Sidney Chambers, the Vicar of a bucolic community just outside Cambridge. However, his flock have a habit of bumping each other off. As if the funerals did not keep him busy enough, the Anglican cleric also becomes something of an amateur sleuth in the six-part Grantchester (promo here), which premieres this Sunday on PBS, as part of the current season of Masterpiece Mystery.

It all starts when the heavily indebted Stephen Staunton commits suicide, except he didn’t. With some prodding a parishioner who happened to be the deceased’s mistress, Chambers is soon convinced it was in fact murder. Initially, this brings him into conflict with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating, who has no patience for a na├»ve vicar poking his nose in an open-and-shut case. However, Keating soon discovers he and Chambers are sort of birds of a feather. They have both seen the dark side of life and use distilled beverages to take the edge off.

Poor Chambers’ backstory will plague him throughout the first season of Grantchester. During the WWII, he fought with the Scots Guards, but something happened during his service that continues to haunt him. While he was picking up the pieces, Chambers reconnected with his ambiguous girlfriend Amanda Kendall, but she is about to announce her engagement to a man more to her aristocratic father’s liking.

When he isn’t brooding over Kendall or solving a murder, Chambers just might have something brewing with Staunton’s German widow, Hildegard. Unfortunately, Ms. Staunton temporarily returns to the continent for the second episode, leaving Chambers to face Kendall’s ghastly engagement party solo. How bad is it? Johnny Johnson, the jazz club manager boyfriend of Chambers’ sister is framed for murdering one guest and stealing a fistful of jewels, including Kendall’s engagement ring, so pretty darn bad.

The third and fourth episodes could be considered Grantchester’s issue-oriented mysteries, but it would be spoilery to explain the hot button topic in the first case. There seem to be indications a nasty old lady was dispatched because she was standing in the way of her grown daughter’s marriage, but there is rather more to it than that. Whereas it quickly becomes clear the latter installment involves the criminalized status of homosexuality in 1950s Great Britain, with Chambers serving as a lonely voice of tolerance.

Easily, the fifth episode is the highlight of the series. Somehow, Chambers convinces Keating, the light operetta listener, to take a getaway trip to London so they can hear jazz diva Gloria Dee at Johnson’s club. Of course, they pick the one night there is a murder in the house. Rather awkwardly, it is Johnson’s sister, but at least he is not a suspect this time around. Frankly, Chambers starts getting rather annoyingly moody at this point, but Camilla Marie Beeput’s Dee more than compensates with her sultry and swinging interpretations of standards like “Franky & Johnny,” “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” You have to assume she will be back somehow in the next season.

It all nearly comes off the rails in the season finale. Keating is shot rather badly while investigating a lead with only Chambers for backup. Already wracked with guilt, Chambers really starts to lose his cool with Kendall. Yet, the nature of the mystery might help exorcise some of his ghosts.

Although James Runcie’s source stories are considered to be about as cozy as mysteries get, the television treatment is notably darker than you would expect. Chambers is no Don Matteo or Father Brown. He likes women, drink, and jazz, preferably Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Frankly, Grantchester clearly implies both he and Keating have a problem with their spirits (and their spirits), but their comradery is what really drives the show. As Chambers, James Norton is unflaggingly earnest and convincingly troubled. He also develops some nice easy-going chemistry with Robson Green’s Keating, whose attitude and bluster keeps things lively. (After Touching Evil and Wire in the Blood, Grantchester probably qualifies a light farce for Robson, the British mystery favorite.)

It is a strong cast all the way around, but Al Weaver is a particularly standout, helping facilitate Grantchester’s not inconsequential considerations of faith and service as Chambers’ assistant curate, Leonard Finch. Some of the episodic mysteries are stronger than others, but the characters wear well over time and the use of jazz is rather shrewd (seriously, who doesn’t dig Bechet?). The expository-heavy first episode might require a bit of faith, so to speak, but subsequent installments really set the hook. Recommended for fans of British village mysteries and hip soundtracks, Grantchester begins this Sunday (1/18) on most PBS outlets nationwide.