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Sidney Chambers and Phryne Fisher

May 2, 2016

A few weeks ago, I watched the first episode of Grantchester, and found it very much in my sweet spot: Sidney Chambers, a somewhat irreverent young English village vicar solves mysteries, with banter and eccentric friendships.

James Norton Brody as Sidney Chambers from Grantchester TV showThere’s eye candy everywhere: the mossy stone of the village, lovely vintage dresses and suits. And of course, the jazz-loving, sherry-scorning, case-solving vicar, played by James Norton. Good gracious me!

My parents are watching and enjoying the series, along with, so it seems from my various Twitter and Tumblr feeds, two-thirds of the Internet. (I diagnose Downton Abbey withdrawal.) And then, almost eerily soon after I’d decided to queue up the entire show, a very nice publicist pitched me the fifth (!!!)  collection of Sidney Chambers stories by James Runcie. I hadn’t realized they were based on books.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Being the completist that I am, I decided I’d better read the other collections first. So I have spent the past week or so reading Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

It’s a similar trajectory to that of the Miss Fisher Mysteries, at least for me and a good number of my stateside friends:

  • Hey, I really like this mystery show I’m streaming, set in another country and evoking the aesthetic and values of a bygone era
  • Yes, I think I will binge-watch this!
  • I enjoy this mystery  where the clues keep me guessing
  • I really like that there is a great ensemble cast as the story goes on.
  • I like that there is humor, and subtle romance, great accents.
  • Oh hey, there are books? *grabby hands!*

Photo of Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher's Murder MysteriesIn both cases, I feel that reading and watching somewhat in tandem improves my experience of each character, as well as their mysteries and stories.

I’m consuming both forms of media in tandem: reading and watching either series as opportunity and mood strike.

I feel that experiencing both at once, or in tandem, has been enhancing my experience of both. In both cases, having seen the show first, I picture the characters I read as the actors who play them. (And I think the casting is excellent.) I’m primed to see variations between character development, and even the plotlines of specific stories.

Because I’m reading and watching so close together, I can notice the ways the plotlines veer from the source in adaptation. I just watched the second episode of Grantchester and noticed that an ongoing character arc played out vastly differently and also that there was a whole secondary crime completely absent from the print story “A Question of Trust,” which made the episode much darker than the original story. But also, in some ways less complex to solve as a crime, and therefore more workable as a televised version.

One major difference between the page and the screen is, of course, tied to how each medium expresses character. On the page, I get each character’s interior life in a way I can’t in TV episodes. I see their hearts. Both of them bring a tremendous amount of compassion and care to the world around them, a fact that sometimes gets lost onscreen. For Phryne, that means seeing her generosity (both in terms of money and care) as well as her appreciation for beauty, at times, carnally so. Although her raunchiness sometimes makes for some wry, funny prose that makes me giggle, there’s caring as well. Sidney Chambers’ interior life involves a lot of soul searching. I’m interested in the way he grapples with his faith as he bears witness to crime. Both his personal life and crime-related events seem to test his faith and leave him brooding. Experiencing the narrative of both characters’ inner thoughts deepens my experience in a way that even the best acting and staging of the show can only imply.

And then my mind wandered from the similarities in their cultural arc and my own media experience, to wondering what might happen if Phryne Fisher and Sidney Chambers met for a drink. Yes, at least three decades and two continents separate them. Yes, Miss Fisher is a wealthy and decadent flapper, and Sidney Chambers is a poor vicar.

image of Essie Davis in character as Phryne Fisher, with quotation: "my sins are too many and varied to repent. And frankly, I intend to continue sinning."I think that they could enjoy each other. Although she is decidedly not a churchgoer herself, both Book-Phryne and TV-Phryne seem ready to accept that others, like her companion, Dot, have faith. Provided the faithful are nonjudgmental, treat their fellows well, and act with charity. Phryne does not suffer cruel or petty people kindly, regardless of their religious motivation. She is generous with her wealth and her affections, growing a chosen family and helping those in need.

At least in what I’ve seen and read, Sidney Chambers is not an uptight priest. He loves jazz, would rather drink whisky than sherry, and has a sense of humor and curiosity as well as the compassion and keen academic intellect I might typically expect of his calling as an Anglican priest. He  and his detective friend Geordie razz each other in the pub over backgammon and pints. He’s grounded in his faith, for the most part. Even when he feels conflicted between his pastoral duties and the crimes and cases that rely on his detective abilities, he has a certainty about his faith that is held up in contrast to the mindset of some of the secular characters he encounters. His moral compass stays steady, even when confronted by both the book and screen variations of pining for Amanda: he’s anguished and moody, but respectful and self-disciplined. (Please bear in mind that I’m just starting to read/watch Grantchester. Those further along have alluded to some less-pious activities in further stories. Please refrain from spoilers.)

One of the stories in Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, “A Matter of Time,” takes Chambers into a jazz club, where a little teasing flirtation with an American chanteuse weaves into the story to temper the criminal mood. The TV show and the stories set up a particular love interest for Sidney in the form of Amanda Kendall, though they take her plot in different directions. I’m not sure what either permutation of that friendship offers in terms of solid evidence that Sidney Chambers and Phryne Fisher would get along, but it does prove that he can hold fast to his calling and his duties, even when surrounded by beautiful, rich women.

A sobering strand of thought: the way the mood of the two sets of stories diverges. Phryne Fisher is constructed as wish fulfillment in a lot of ways. Rich, decadent Phryne Fisher is lavishly described in prose, beautifully garbed on screen. She’s beautiful, and she has the money and status to surround herself with more beauty and ease. The money is never quantified, on page or screen. She’s so rich, it’s never an issue. She gets what she wants. She gets what she wants romantically, too: preserving a freedom of attachments and love that shocks some of the “respectable,” characters she encounters, awes others. But, she’s also generous with her heart and her finances: adopting two daughters, and helping those who come to her for sleuthing out financially as well as solving mysteries. She’s like some kind of spangled, sensual fairy godmother figure. When I’m in the wrong, (cynical) mood, her stories feel too good to be true.

Set that against Sidney Chambers, leading a vicar’s life. Fretting about the finances of the church. Eating the filling but not fancy meals his housekeeper sets to warm in the oven for him. Dolefully giving up alcohol during Lent. Being there to serve the needs of the church community at any hour. Listening to jazz, drinking whiskey, or playing backgammon in the pub, as the treats to himself that are few and far between. Nursing a heart that can’t have what it most wants, in varying degrees of brokenness/loneliness.

Maybe Sidney Chambers could use a dose of Phryne Fisher’s dazzling opulence. The man really, really needs a vacation. And I’m only one book and a couple of episodes in. I’m told it gets more dire.

image of James Norton as Sidney Chambers of the series Grantchester in the bath

Sidney Chambers, the vicar, in his bath. Completely gratuitous. Not sorry.

The two of them would certainly have a lot to talk about: the mysteries they encounter; their working relationships with the local law enforcement; defying expectations of their family and class; their experiences on the front during the War (different World Wars, I believe).

Yes, these are daydreams and strands of fanfiction, blurring and twining the worlds of two separate mystery enterprises.

I guess the short version is that I’m going to continue reading, and watching, both. Especially on evenings when I want a mystery that will wrap a satisfying puzzle up in historical trappings.


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