TWO months ago, James Runcie visited Grantchester. It was a strange experience. In one of the pubs, which also happens to feature in his novels, he bumped into his first babysitter. Outside the pub, he met a man whose wife had been his housekeeper at Cambridge University.
When he reached his destination - a cricket match between some locals and an ITV film crew - he had a chat with an old friend of his father, the late Robert Runcie, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, and watched a fictional approximation of his father, the actor James Norton, batting at the crease.
By the end, he confesses, his brain hardly knew whether it was coming or going. "The whole visit was like a weird collision of my imagination and my past - and, in fact, my past before I can remember it. I found myself thinking: 'Why on earth have I come here? This is mad.'"
James Runcie has spent the past four years mining the hard facts of his past - born in nearby Cambridge, educated at Trinity Hall, raised at the heart of Anglicanism - to forge the imaginary landscape of his Grantchester Mysteries (Feature, 1 February 2013). Now, the stories are being turned into Grantchester, a prime-time drama on ITV, to be broadcast in early October.
One of the good things about this turn of events is that the series is being shot - at least partially - in the village itself. No need to fake the "deep meadows" and "bosky woods" of Rupert Brooke's imaginings; nor even the famous "clock at ten to three": the Church of St Andrew and St Mary is the same one used for filming. In an industry where locations follow the money rather than authorial intent, that feels like a small miracle.
The other virtue is that it pitches a man of the cloth into one of the most prominent roles in this year's autumn schedules. In recent times, BBC comedy has given us Rev, and BBC daytime has served up a new Father Brown. But, aside from the odd mainstream dalliance (such as Martin Shaw as an exorcist in the BBC1 series Apparitions), prime-time drama, arguably, has not had a starring cleric since the heady days of Ballykissangel and Cadfael in the 1990s.
THE hero of the stories - which have been adapted, with Runcie's blessing, by the former EastEnders writer Daisy Coulam - is a young vicar, Sidney Chambers, played by Norton, who starred in last year's BBC series Happy Valley.
Based in Grantchester in the early 1950s, Chambers first falls into amateur sleuthing after becoming suspicious about a parishioner's apparent suicide - correctly, as it turns out. When a detective, Geordie Keating (Robson Green), spots his crime-cracking potential, the pair strike up a friendship, and begin to collaborate on other cases.
Chambers does not fit the usual tropes of the TV priest. He is young (aged 32) and keen on "hot jazz", but is not a trendy vicar. He blunders, but is not bumbling; he is single and lovelorn, but is not comically desperate like the Vicar of Dibley.
Runcie more or less wrote him as an antidote to all those clichés. "I was sick of comedy vicars," he says, "these weak figures of fun, with stupid voices and false teeth. I wanted him to be taken seriously." He also wanted an avowedly "sexy vicar", whose relationship-struggles would provide some of the dramatic impetus - "what is known in the trade as 'unresolved sexual tension'", he says.
Most of all, though, Chambers is hardy. Runcie modelled him partly on the 19th- century Anglican cleric and wit Sydney Smith, and partly on his own father (he describes him as "my dad's imaginary best friend").
Like Lord Runcie, who was a tank commander in the Second World War and won a Military Cross, Chambers is a war veteran - a theme that is developed in the TV drama, with flashbacks showing Norton downing a German soldier with his pistol. "I wanted him to have fought," Runcie says, pointedly. "I didn't want a conscientious objector."
INTERESTINGLY, these were exactly the things that attracted Lovely Day - the production company behind the series - to the stories in the first place. In fact, they could hardly have had a better champion in the series' executive producer, Diederick Santer. He was raised in Cambridge by a prominent Anglican; his father is the former Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd Dr Mark Santer.
"When I was young, all TV vicars were wet, soppy figures, played by people like Dick Emery and Derek Nimmo," Diederick Santer says, when we meet during a filming day. A road away, Norton is shooting scenes with extras in tweed coats and flat caps. Mid-century vehicles ghost past the windows.
"Growing up with a Church of England clergyman for a father, though, I didn't really know any vicars who were like that. My father wasn't like that. And Robert Runcie certainly wasn't like that. They were quite tough, in their own ways."
What Santer liked about Chambers was his "flesh and blood" normality. "With Sidney, we're trying to show the man behind the dog collar. So his crises are never crises of faith - they are crises of self: Am I good enough? Can I do this?"
Sidney's pastoral abilities, meanwhile, become a propellant of plot. "As happens to most clergymen, people tell him things. And, because he's an insightful, reflective character with emotional intelligence, those things become useful. He's certainly not 'More tea, Vicar?' He's one step ahead."
Santer's background undoubtedly helped Runcie to feel more relaxed about the adaptation. "Knowing the back ways round the C of E gave us a common language," Santer says.
Santer's father also proved a useful sounding board for 1950s clerical procedure. Just the other day, he says, they shot a scene where Chambers failed to reverence the altar as he made his way to the vestry. Santer put in a call. Would this matter, he asked. Yes, his father said, it probably would. "So I made them reshoot the scene."
IN CASTING the role of Chambers, Lovely Day needed an actor who could balance sympathy with a credible sliver of steel. They eventually plumped for Norton - a 30-year-old who was fairly unknown until earlier this year, when a chilling and violent role as the psychopath and rapist in the hit drama Happy Valley raised his profile. This should take care of the steel, one imagines.
"The producers pushed the Grantchester filming dates back to accommodate Happy Valley; so there was a time when I was trying to get my head around a 1950s vicar and a contemporary psychopath, and trying not to get the two mixed up," Norton tells me.
Travelling down to Grantchester was something of a relief, he says - "I'd been having some quite dark, weird dreams on Happy Valley" - not least because, once again, it was part of his own personal history. Norton spent three years in Cambridge, studying theology. (He was awarded a First.)
"It was a nice line to drop in at the audition," he says, laughing loudly, although it was not quite the full-immersion research for Chambers which one might imagine. "I was interested in the psychology of religion; so I did a lot of Jung and Freud rather than Christian theology. So when people ask me about Sidney's theology, I'm as clueless as the next person."
Nevertheless, Norton had a good feeling for the Cambridge that Santer was trying to recreate on screen. He used to stroll the Grantchester Grind, the famous meadow walk between the city and the village. He sometimes drank in Sidney's pubs. He felt a surge of déjà vu when the cameras filmed him cycling down King's Parade, not too far from his old college, Fitzwilliam.
He loved the fact that many of the supporting artists in the service scenes were real-life Grantchesterites (see panel). "They were pretty eager to begin with, but you could see them glazing over by the time they'd heard my sermon for the 14th time."
PERIOD purists will occasionally cluck at liberties taken on screen. It is hard to imagine a single vicar of the early 1950s being quite so publicly flirtatious, perhaps, and Runcie admits that some lines made him flinch.
"Robson Green says 'Christ on a bike!' at one point, which is absolutely not period," he says, laughing. "Though it is quite funny, because Sidney cycles."
But viewing the past through the lens of the present is hardly new in TV drama. "I'm OK about it," he says. "In fact, I'm more than OK about it, because I don't think you can have everything trapped in aspic. You can be playful with history, provided it's obvious that you're being playful."
What delights Runcie is the fact that a mainstream channel has been prepared to place its chips on a Church of England vicar. He describes himself as having "a doubt enriched by faith" where belief is concerned ("I sound like a completely fence-sitting Anglican, don't I?"), but, over time, he has become increasingly enthusiastic about the stories' Christian core.
"Without wanting to put people off, this is an unfashionably Christian series. It comes directly out of the Christian tradition. And I think that that's another thing that makes it different."
Now all that remains is to see if viewers like the series. If they do, then Grantchester may find itself receiving a few more visitors in the coming months. Incidentally, Runcie could not play in the cricket showdown, but turned up to watch the final overs. "The locals fielded a seriously weakened team, but still won," he reports. Although it was not all bad for the film crew: Norton ended up top scorer.
WITH the greatest respect to the current incumbent, Grantchester's vicarage has never looked so smart. It is a bright day in May, and the entrance to number 44 the High Street has been fitted with a shiny new door. The walls are peppered with wisteria. Only closer scrutiny reveals that the flowers are plastic.
"On the whole, they've improved its appearance, but that wouldn't take much," says the man who meets me at the door - the Revd Dr Stuart Mews, who was, until his recent retirement, Hon. Priest-in-Charge of Grantchester.
There have been several vicarages over the years. The one celebrated by Brooke is now occupied by Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare. But the present building was perfect for filming, because it looks on to St Andrew and
St Mary, the church overseen by Sidney Chambers in James Runcie's books. (The interiors were recreated in a studio.)
The producers worked hard to win local hearts and minds by attending parish-council meetings before filming; many members of Dr Mews's congregation play extras in the service scenes.
The "handsome" location fees have not gone amiss, either. "It's an easier way of raising funds than jumble sales," Dr Mews says. He is not a huge fan of the original novel: "I find, as a book, that it does lack pace," he says, and adds that, when they last met, Lord Archer was inclined to agree with him. But, overall, he is enthusiastic.
"Father Ted was a buffoon, and Geraldine Granger [the Vicar of Dibley] was an airhead. This is portraying a vicar as a human being who is prepared to get in there, and do his best to sort things out. Maybe it will encourage people to look for country ministry."
The one thing that does not quite stack up, he says, is the crime rate. "This year, we buried a man who was 104; so I recommend Grantchester as a place to live a long and healthy life. We're waiting for our first murder."