You can be forgiven if you miss an episode of “Downton Abbey,” now in its fifth season, but you would be very remiss if you failed to see the remaining episodes of “Grantchester,” as well as the earlier ones.
By Paul Hicks
You can be forgiven if you miss an episode of “Downton Abbey,” now in its fifth season, but you would be very remiss if you failed to see the remaining episodes of “Grantchester,” as well as the earlier ones. This new crime series, which fills the slot right after “Downton Abbey” on Public Television (PBS), is based on a novel by James Runcie, whose father was Archbishop of Canterbury. Set in the 1950s, it is about a village vicar who dabbles in solving crimes.
Whether programs like “Grantchester” are labeled “crime,” “police procedurals,” or “mysteries,” they represent the lion’s share of my TV and VCR viewing. However, it appears that I am not nearly as hooked on the genre as a person named Tim Barron, who has posted on his website: “My appetite for British crime and mysteries is insatiable and beyond an addiction level” (timbarron.net/entertainment/british_crime_tv_series.html).
Barron has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of British TV crime series on his website that is useful for both neophytes and long-time fans. He has organized the series by various categories, such as “Detectives” (police solo/duos/teams and private), “Citizen Sleuths,” and “Forensics.”
Barron gives a thumbnail sketch and comments about each series, but by clicking on the accompanying photo, you are linked to an article in Wikipedia with more information on the cast, setting and story lines. If you are a Netflix subscriber, as we are, you can check on its website to see if the series is available by mail or streaming. If not, go to the Westchester County Library System’s website and see if it is available at one of the member libraries.
Most of the British crime series that are included on Barron’s website were produced by either the BBC or ITV, and many were shown in this country on PBS as part of “Masterpiece Mystery!” (Prior to 2008 it was called just Mystery!). The latter’s website (www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/ mystery/) has a list of its prior productions.
If you want to purchase any of these series, a good resource is Acorn Media, which publishes and sells DVDs of many popular crime series online through their website (www.acorndvd.com/ crime.html). They also offer streaming on demand. The almighty Amazon is another place to shop for the avid collector. As with other Amazon product purchases, the customer comments can be very helpful.
One of the pleasures for an armchair detective, who is also an Anglophile, is the chance to be transported not only into the plots but also into various urban and country locations around the British Isles that are settings for the stories. Of the many series I have watched over the years, the following are just some of my favorites selected for many reasons, including the role played by the locale:
“A Touch of Frost” manages to treat murder and other serious police work with a light touch, thanks to the acting skills of David Jason in the role of Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Frost. The series, set in a fictional Midlands city, ran from 1992 to 2010.
“Broadchurch” takes place in a small village on the Dorset coast, and the seascapes are outstanding. A very troubled David Tennant, as DI Alec Hardy, and his Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) are excellent in their roles.
“Foyle’s War” is set during and just after World War II, mainly in Hastings on the south coast of England. It is well written and finely acted, especially by Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle and his assistant, Samantha (“Sam”) Stewart, played by Honeysuckle Weeks.
“George Gently,” played by an understated Martin Cross, is the DCI paired with a loose cannon DS named John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby). It is set in the 1960s in Northumberland, and the vintage baby blue Ford Corsair that Bacchus drives is almost as memorable as the vintage blood red Jaguar driven by Inspector Morse (John Thaw).
“Inspector Morse” is one of the classics and ran for 33 episodes between 1987 and 2000, but it remains remarkably fresh. Set in and around Oxford, it is the prototype of the senior/junior detective model, which was resumed in its sequel, “Inspector Lewis”, where the sidekick is DS (later DI) James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). Even its prequel, “Endeavor,” is worth watching,
In “Prime Suspect”, the incomparable Helen Mirren takes on the old boy system of London’s Metropolitan Police (the “Met”) as Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Jane Tennyson. I agree with Tim Barron’s opinion that, “this, quite simply, is a superb series.”
“The Fall” stars another top female cop, Gillian Anderson, as a glamorous DCI, who has been seconded to help the Belfast police catch a serial killer. Her brains match her looks, and the suspense is gripping.
Last, but far from least is “Vera,” starring Brenda Blethyn as a rumpled DCI, who is far from glamorous but wonderfully appealing. Scenes of the Northumberland countryside add to the mood, and the chemistry between Vera and DS Joe Ashworth (David Leon) is “spot on”.
It is too early for me to tell whether “Grantchester” will make it onto my “top ten” list, but it looks promising. Mike Hale, a TV critic at The New York Times, described it as one of “that bland bangers-and-mash called cozy mysteries.” Others in that category, in his opinion, are “Inspector Lewis” and “Foyle’s War,” which would certainly make it a contender by my reckoning.