Was the 1950s world of Grantchester really so rose-tinted?

"Realism isn’t what anyone wants here. The complicated relationship with our own past means it has become more like a therapist to us"

Wasn’t the past lovely?


It must have been a splendid place to live, judging by recent ITV dramas – Cilla, Downton and this new one, Grantchester (Mondays ITV). Obviously you always have a bit of a problem with the past. There are generally snobs and sexists who spoil the fun a bit. But the houses are gorgeous and everyone wears nice outfits.

This must be why we spend so much time there, bathing in nostalgic dramas as if they were health spas. Recently, the 1950s have become our favourite destination, via Call the Midwife, The Hour, Quirke and now Grantchester, which relates the adventures (peal of churchbells, please…) of a crime-fighting vicar.

Grantchester is on one level very enjoyable and on another perfectly ludicrous. There’s a scene in the first episode where our clerical hero, Sidney Chambers, sits on a bench in a Cambridge police station in 1953 and is extremely close to, practically touching, an attractive woman next to him.

“Need a girl?” she asks in a loud cockney accent, making clear why she’s been arrested. Did tarts chat up vicars in
Cambridge police stations in 1953? Put the question out of your mind. It’s the wrong question.

The scene is there to show us that Sidney is not scandalised or flustered but declines politely, sweetly even. That’s because, like the best costume drama heroes, Sidney’s not really a 1950s character at all but an enlightened
voyager from the present – he’s just like us, in other words. He’s there to treat any outbreaks of snobbery and prejudice. He preaches to his parishioners in terms that a Californian shrink would approve of. Everyone finds him a breath of fresh air.

That’s the odd thing about how these dramas regard previous decades – as at once both idyllic and stifling. On the one hand the past is great because there’s no Botox or sexting. On the other, the locals are a bit uptight. Swings and (brightly painted, wrought-iron) roundabouts.

In episode two of Grantchester, judging by the “next week” tease, Sidney hooks up with a black friend, who then comes under suspicion when there’s a theft at a country house, a type of storyline I feel I’ve seen so often it’s practically the ITV ident.

Certainly, it would be good if we could cope with an injection of realism and complexity in our period dramas. I’d like to claim a series like Peaky Blinders was more realistic, but I suspect it’s just a fantasy of a more BBC2 kind, ie dark and stylised and at times eye-wateringly violent. Different channels call for different flavours of escapism. So naturally, as a BBC2 bloke, I love it.

But realism isn’t what anyone wants here. The complicated relationship with our own past means it has become more like a therapist to us. It’s where we go for solace, even if that comes via a cartoon parody of the 1950s.

If you really want to learn about 20th-century history, try David Reynolds’ gem of a series, Long Shadow (Wednesday BBC2). If you want drama that drills into a recognisable 2014 world, catch up with The Driver (also superb; Tuesday BBC1).

If you want tarts and vicars and jazz and nice scenery and an hour off from the present – you know where to go.


Grantchester is on ITV tonight at 9.00pm