Grace: nine reasons the new Brighton-based TV detective series is the best thing on television right now

Grace – the new Brighton ITV detective series based on the best-selling Roy Grace novels by Peter James – has been Sunday night’s most viewed programme for two weeks running now.

GRACE
GRACE

Think about it, and it’s not difficult to see why it is has established itself quite so quickly and quite so dominantly.

It’s a great programme, well acted, meticulously plotted, full of twists and turns and with a very strong sense of location.

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All the ingredients are there… but let’s break them down.

Here are nine reasons why I think it is comfortably the best thing on telly at the moment.

I am sure you will think of other reasons and you will probably disagree with mine. But that’s all part of the fun!

Reason number one

The starting point has to be that John Simm is quite simply the perfect Grace. Simm was brilliant in Life Of Mars (2006-07), that hugely-successful TV series about a detective who, after being involved in a car accident in 2006, wakes up to find himself in 1973, trapped in the thoroughly un-PC world that we all lived in back then. So Simm has certainly got form as a copper. But he sheds his “previous” so effortlessly now to become a very different kind of detective in the new ITV series. You don’t think of DCI Sam Tyler; you think solely of Roy Grace, and that’s a measure of Simm’s skill in the part.

And the great thing is that Simm has been so quick to get into his stride.

Author Peter James has spoken in the past about various actors he would have liked to see as Grace. And many of them would have been fine. But from the word go, the casting of John Simm has felt right…. Which brings us on to reason two. And this is the big one…

Reason number two

We’ve all waited for TV adaptations of our favourite books, haven’t we. And how many times have we been disappointed with the results as a bunch of strangers barge their way into our minds – via the TV screens – and unceremoniously supplant the images we have cherished for years. And so we howl an indignant “No! That’s not what he looks like!”

Well, we’ve yet to experience that with the TV version of Grace. Grace has been part of our reading psyche for a decade and a half now. Grace (or our own particular versions of him) is completely established in our minds.

And yet John Simm and the gang have wandered in and made themselves completely at home. Yes, fleetingly you might think ‘No, that’s not Cleo’, but it’s not long before she is. And that has been the joy. Grace has been brought to the television screen with absolutely no sense of betrayal. The image I have held of Roy Grace for so long has gone – and I am more than happy to have John Simm in my mind from now on.

But talking of Cleo….

Reason number three

Number three has to be the way that Cleo’s arrival in episode three has added a huge new dimension to the series. There had been chunterings from episodes one and two that Simm’s Grace was rather morose. Cleo has changed that in an instant. Zoe Tapper as Cleo and Simm as Grace have made us feel straightaway the attraction between them. Simm – again all part of his skill in the role – gives us a Grace transformed whenever Cleo is around. He absolutely lights up. And suddenly there is so much more depth to the character.

Peter James has often said that he wants his characters to have a background; not just to be people who solve crimes and then go home without giving those crimes a second thought. He wants his cast to be people with home lives, people whose work lives have a direct impact on their not-at-work lives. With the arrival of Cleo, Grace is suddenly that fully rounded character – and the great news for the series is that the change makes us all invest in him so much the more. And that’s what is going to keep us coming back.

Reason number four

Reason number four is that Peter James has so skillfully given himself somewhere to go with the books and now with the series. Each book stands alone. Each book can be enjoyed alone. And it is certainly the same with the TV episodes.

But the real delight is that we get so much more from each book and each episode when we read or view it in order. With each book, James is developing a world – a world that leaves us wanting to know what happens next.

With each book, we know that a complex crime is going to be solved – and there is huge satisfaction in that. But we know too that Grace’s relationship with Cleo is going to develop; we know that the mystery of the disappearance of Grace’s wife will deepen; we feel that his difficult relationship with ACC Alison Vosper (Rakie Ayola) is pretty certain to sour further; and we know that DS Glenn Branson (Richie Campbell) is a friend he is going to need increasingly.

And that’s the point. Those relationships develop from book to book, from episode to episode. They have their own momentum which will always carry us forward even when the current crime has been solved. Which brings me to reason number five.

Reason number five

I am not sure I can remember the last time I was so disappointed when an episode of anything finished. Reason number five is the sense of expectation that each episode so skilfully builds. It reminds me of that appalling feeling of “How am I going to get through the next week!” I used to feel at the closing credits of every episode of Dallas back in the late 70s. It’s a shameful secret to share, I know, and I would stress that I did many years of penance by studying culture at the highest level, even completing a PhD about a very obscure French dramatist whom absolutely no one now remembers. But oh, that Dallas excitement, that wishing away of the entire next week ahead. There is something of that (albeit slightly more measured) as the Grace credits roll each week. Which brings me to reason number six for enjoying it all so much.

Reason number six

The fact is that we know that there is so much more to go. The most recent two episodes have made Grace the most watched TV programme on successive Sundays. We have got two more to go after that in this current season.

Clearly there is no way they are not going to be making more after this. So that will be five done, five enjoyed. So let’s remember the fact that Peter will be bringing out Grace novel number 18 later this year. If I were any good at maths, I’d be working out when the TV series at maybe four a year will catch up with the novels at one a year. How long can Peter James stay ahead of the game? Who knows. The key thing is that it is a long game.

Which lets in reason number seven.

Reason number seven

OK, this is very self-indulgent, but the fact is that I feel personally invested in it all. I have interviewed Peter James for every single one of his Graces so far and for plenty of his other projects too, non-Grace novels (The House on Cold Hill is my favourite) and for his Grace stage adaptations. And he is quite simply the best interviewee around – effortlessly interesting, generous with his time and… well, very very Gracious. A lovely man, a man very happy to chat about his craft and a man who does so fascinatingly. It has been a privilege to have had something of an inside track on the whole Grace saga right from the beginning.

Reason number eight

Talking of perspective, let’s give Peter his. Reason number eight is that Peter James has done something that no one else has done in more than three decades: he has created a detective and a detective series absolutely rooted in a very specific place.

My student days, both undergraduate and PhD, were in Oxford in the days of Morse. Plenty of students I knew earnt a few quid sitting drinking in pubs as pretend punters in the background while Morse and Lewis thrashed out a case in the foreground. Morse and Oxford became synonymous. Grace and Brighton are coming together in exactly the same way. There will be positive implications for Brighton, just as there were for Oxford all those years ago.

Reason number nine

But none of this would have counted for anything if it had not been for reason number nine – the fact the TV series has been realised with such authenticity and with such care.

Peter has always prided himself on the fact that real cops like his books in a world where the police, apparently, generally have to resist the urge to throw something at most fictional depictions of their work. Peter’s links with the police are everything to him. He gets it right. It matters to him hugely that he does so.

And clearly the TV crew have now taken exactly the same approach to his novels. They get the right locations, they have got the right actors and they make it all converge in the brilliant way that Peter does. In his books, Peter sets so many hares running; we jump between parallel threads safe in the knowledge that he is going to bring them all home in the end. And that’s the approach the producers have taken to the TV series. We jump between plotlines, between characters, yet it is never staccato. It always flows. The editing is excellent – so excellent that you have to remind yourself to remember to notice it.

So there they are, my nine reasons for loving the TV adaptations of Peter’s Roy Grace novels. But maybe one reason is enough. The best thing about the series, as I said, is that it doesn’t betray the novels which preceded them: if anything it makes you admire them all the more.

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