ITV’s Grantchester returns with Geordie and Sidney enjoying a swim in the river, a picnic with family and friends, and a stroll home cheerfully singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ – but it quickly takes a sharp turn as Sidney is arrested for sexual assault on a minor, leading us into a bleak tale that encompasses teenage pregnancy, backstreet abortion, sexual exploitation, and ecclesiastical cover ups.
Lovingly recreated though its 1950s setting is, it’s a stark reminder that despite the nostalgic air this is a world of foul-mouthed youths, of institutionalised police brutality, a world where homosexuality is still criminalised and where the death penalty is still in place.
If all this sounds like a criticism, it’s not. I will admit, though, to being a little surprised that the second season starts with quite such a miserable affair as this (although one might argue that its theme of abuse by those in authority is rather topical).
Of course we never for a moment believe the assault Sidney has been charged with, nor does returning guest star David Troughton as dour and unfriendly Chief Inspector Benson, and the charge is dismissed in a matter of minutes. It soon emerges that the only ‘evidence’ is the word of the girl’s father that he has read all about her affair with the vicar, in her diary. “I was arrested on hearsay?” exclaims Sidney – and it becomes even more laughable when we learn that the alleged diary is missing.
So too is Abigail Redmond, the girl in question, and the first part of the episode deliberately invites us to suspect the outraged father of child abuse. Comedy actor Neil Morrissey plays Harding Redmond dead straight, not in any way encouraging us to like or to trust him, and only after it becomes clear he’s guilty of nothing more than being an over-protective parent do we get a glimpse of a more vulnerable character: “You think I didn’t notice… the way grown men looked at her? She grew up. I didn’t know how to take care of her anymore.”
The daughter of course is found dead, in a photography studio belonging to another apparently-obvious suspect, the seedy photographer specialising in ‘special interest’ magazines. But he turns out not to be the culprit either, not responsible for the murder – and not responsible for the fact that the deceased fifteen year old was pregnant.
The police take charge of the body but rather oddly they don’t actually seem to do anything with it, and both the pregnancy and the cause of death (choking on turpentine) come as a complete surprise to the authorities when Sidney drops by to tell them. I don’t expect Robson Green’s plain-speaking Geordie to start talking about DNA or chemical analysis, but even in the 1950s I’m pretty sure the police could have managed a decent autopsy.
This ability to suddenly produce key pieces of information isn’t limited to Sidney either. Is it sloppy writing when people suddenly point out important chunks of plot to move the story along, or is it a deliberate way of adding unexpected layers to the characters? I’m inclined to believe the latter – so we’re bound to wonder how, for example, curate Leonard (Al Weaver) knows that the seedy photographer is gay; and how stern housekeeper Mrs Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones) deduces the tragic truth that poor Abigail was trying to abort her pregnancy, from seeing an empty bottle of turpentine.
Of course, discovering new things in apparently established characters can cut both ways. When Sidney debates the sanctity of the confessional with Rev Sam Milburn (Andrew Knott) we assume it’s nothing more than airing the dilemma they face, leading Sam to apparently break that confidence by revealing that the poor dead girl was pregnant.
But as the episode ends we realise that in fact this was his confession, that he was having the affair, that he was the father. The missing diary turns up and is indeed telling of Abigail and the vicar – her dad’s only mistake was in which vicar he thought it was.
As for the girl’s death, it turns out to have been an accident rather than a murder – a friend trying to help her abort the unwanted pregnancy via some half-remembered old wife’s tale about turpentine doing the job.
All of which makes for a very grey ending. The bishop arranges for Rev Milburn to be sent to another parish and is happy for that to be the end of the matter; while the misguided friend remains in prison, and will almost certainly hang. It’s a good strong episode, but without a hint of rose-tinted sentiment to it.
Here endeth the first lesson.
Aired at 9pm on Wednesday 2 March 2016 on ITV.
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