My wife and I have been watching the excellent BBC series “Grantchester” which just completed its latest season with the usual cliff-hanger. The series is extremely well done and focuses on a young Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire back in the late 1950s who befriends a policeman and helps him solve crimes. Old hat, perhaps, but the intricate personal stories of the two men are what hold the series together.

It turns out that the Vicar, Sidney, is in love with Amanda, a woman he has known most of his life and whom he would have married except for his strained financial situation and the fact that the woman’s father would have none of it. He forces her to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love and together they have a child. But she is also in love with Sidney and as the series progresses it is clear that the two of them will be drawn closer and closer together.

Throughout the series, focusing on the relationship between these two people, the struggle is the ancient one between “want and will.” Sidney is a man of the cloth and in the 50s when these events are supposed to have taken place he cannot marry a divorced woman. Thus, even if  Amanda leaves her husband who is cold and remote Sidney would have to leave the Church in order to marry her. And what is he to do? He is well-loved and much relied upon by those in the Church, including his housekeeper and the young Curate (who happens to be gay, another taboo of the times and a fascinating story in its own right).

Sidney begins to lose his faith in the Church and to have serious doubts about his abilities to carry out his duties as head of the small Church. He finally decides to resign and move to London with Amanda and her daughter. The move is planned and he has written his letter of resignation when he begins to realize that his duty is to those people who depend so much upon him in the small village and especially within the Church itself. He chooses duty over love, though it hurts him to the core.

On the face of it, this is pure melodrama, and the crimes that Sidney helps his detective friend, Geordie, solve seem almost incidental. But it is so well done, and we become so involved in Sidney’s life and in the lives of those around him, that we are drawn in as if it were quicksand. And in the end, it forces us to an awareness of how different was the age in which these events took place — just over a half-century past. There were social and churchly taboos that have been largely removed in the interim. But also missing is the sense that each of us, especially the spiritual leaders among us, have duties that take precedence over the desires of the heart. Ours is an age in which what we call “honesty” demands that we not only know what we want, but we pursue it with all the vigor at our command. Duty has become a notion that grows fainter with each passing day. It will soon become a word very few will be able to understand — a word in a foreign language.

The series was fascinating to me especially because of the very battle I recount here, the battle between what Sidney wants so dearly and what he knows to be his duty. It is a battle that is the core of Immanuel Kant’s ethical system which has played so important a part in my philosophical development — and a struggle I have written about in previous blog posts. Kant thought the very center of all ethical decision-making was this very struggle between what we want and what we ought to do. Ethics is about trying to be clear about what it is we should do and then somehow finding the courage to do the right thing.  But, as I say, this struggle is now only the topic for a television series about an age gone by and about the struggles of a man who must seem a total stranger to so many in the audience, so many who have no idea what it means to struggle to do the right thing because they are busy doing “their own thing.”


12 thoughts on “Grantchester

  1. Hugh,

    What a treat to see that you’ve written about “Grantchester.” We’ve been hooked on it for a couple of seasons, and for many of the reasons you write about. It is melodrama and it is, ostensibly, a crime-solving drama, but within that is something so much deeper. It can be maddening to see the characters agonize over life-changing ethical decisions, when to us — distant viewers — the right choice seems clear. But the execution of the decision isn’t as black-and-white all the time; human emotions are mighty powerful. And that, I think, is one of the series’ greatest contributions: how it portrays our humanity, and how it affects how we weigh what is the better choice. Love, envy, greed, duty, etc., can lead us to see a dilemma only from our point of view, when there are often wider ramifications. The series deals wonderfully with that, and usually, after much wrestling, as you write, points its characters toward the better ethical choice.

    Still, I found myself trying to outwrestle Sidney on his decision! I think I’d have gone with Amanda — herself in a dire situation and as much in need of Sidney as his small congregation — instead of the rigid, dogmatic church. Amanda is the only one in the four relationships who faces an unjustly unhappy ending. Well, such is the power of.a good and complex TV series! We can root for several characters and their outcomes.

    • The cynic in me notes that if Sidney went with Amanda the series would be over! Sidney needs to stay put and continue to work with Geordie solving crimes. Linda thinks Amanda will turn up again — pregnant with Sidney’s baby. (Sounds like daytime TV, doesn’t it???)

  2. Hugh, my wife and I also adore Grantchester for all the reasons you and Dana mention. I would add the torments that face Leonard also add to the mix, as he is a gay man who feels he does not know which way to turn. Some of the more poignant scenes have been with him as he comforted Amanda and when he befriended the woman who lost her father after care taking him so long – he eventually proposed to her as he thought that would satisfy the Bishop. It is excellent writing and well done. Keith

    • Indeed. The plot summaries sound like pure melodrama, but the show is so well written and directed (AND acted) that is rises to the very top of that genre. Well done, indeed!

  3. I never heard of this series before, but it sounds interesting … I shall have to try to catch an episode. A bit of something for everyone, some detective work, romance, the age-old conflict between duty & desire. There was a time when duty most often won out over desire, but today … in the “me-generation”, I’m not so sure. Thanks for this … I will search for it on the BBC website or Amazon.

      • Yes … that, my friend, is the problem! Of late, I have been up writing, researching, reading others’ posts, etc., sometimes until the sun is coming up. I do make time to read each day, but between the blog and taking care of a home & family, there are just not enough hours in the day! I tried to order more time from Amazon, but all I got was a bloomin’ clock!!! 😀 But … I am content with what I do, so all is well. But I will make time to check this series out, and I suspect my daughter will love it, for she loves all things British and is a fan of Doc Martin and a couple of other BBC series.

  4. Dear Grant,

    I am an ardent fan of the show. It reflects an era that I lived through which was a bit rigid. It was a time where if one was not married, one guarded their virginity at all costs. What a waste.

    i do miss the concept of ethics being a part of one’s life. My adult children and I have discussed this topic relatively frequently as all of us have had to leave better paying jobs for the managements’ lack, thereof.

    This is why I wonder why folks agree to work for the president under his terms versus those who are trying to mitigate any harm that he does.

    Thanks for this post.

    Hugs, Gronda

  5. One of daughters and I have watched all the episodes. Our least favorite character was Amanda – by far. While pressured by her father to marry, she did have the choice to exercise her free will. (I will concede she did live in another time….) We also felt she toyed with Sidney’s emotions because her wants were deemed more important than his. Until next season….

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