With a script from the creator of Endeavour, readers of the books had high hopes for this, the first in a series of adaptations of the Grace novels. Pre-publicity tapped into the buzz surrounding the casting of John Simm as Grace, with the author himself saying he couldn’t have wished for a better lead. Indeed, he now finds himself picturing Simm when he writes. You couldn’t get a better recommendation than that.
Grace doesn’t disappoint. It’s hard to imagine another production company being serious when they suggested the action be relocated to Scotland. This opening instalment is a love letter to Brighton & Hove (and west to Shoreham and east to Newhaven). From its opening swooping drone shot of the West Pier and the shore (fast becoming a cliché), it puts us firmly in a series of real locations, which only adds to the reality.
Stag and hen night bar crawls, a mooch down the lanes, walks along the prom, may be obvious choices, but for a first outing an audience wants those familiar touchstones. It also means if there are any plot twists (and there are plenty, here) they may jolt us but remain firmly part of the reality.
In recent years, Brighton has been used as the backdrop for both Cuffs and The Level. Both presumably tried to tap into the success of James’ novels. But unlike them Grace doesn’t mess with the geography. We don’t slip from one location to another with a turn of the corner. The opening up of the action to further afield and the mentions of Lewes and Crowborough means the action doesn’t feel constrained and opened up the possibility of further instalments in a multitude of locations. Albert Square this wasn’t.
It isn’t just the setting that is real. John Simm underplays the character of Grace, in a good way, a character which on paper could be seen as a bit old hat. The disappearance of his wife and being confined to a desk job, but ignoring his boss and continuing his own investigations may be familiar tropes, but James’ writing and Simm’s portrayal give them a freshness. There’s no downing of booze and stand-up rows but a trip to a medium and a failure to arrest a suspect. Our hero is flawed but like the backdrop is believable. Indeed, his flaws seem to grow out of the city. Simm’s Grace definitely feels at home here.
At times darker than your average ITV Sunday night drama; you may think twice about attending a stag do and you’ll definitely find yourself looking up a bit more when you visit the city. But it’s all the better for it. Never sensationalist or over the top, such scenes just heighten the drama and the stakes. Thanks to James’ plotting and the two-hour slot there’s no time to dawdle or even breathe. The fact that all the cast seem real – there’s that word again – especially Simm, is no mean feat, but they hit the ground running.
Another novel has been adapted for later this year and, if this first instalment is anything to go by, the rest of the Grace novels will surely follow.