Runcie is the son of Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Rosalind Runcie. He was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, Marlborough College, and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He gained a first-class degree in English from Cambridge University in 1981.
Runcie has written the novels Canvey Island (2006), The Discovery of Chocolate (2001), The Colour of Heaven (2003), and East Fortune (2009).
2012 saw the publication of Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, to a favourable critical reception. The book, which consists of six short stand-alone mysteries, is the first in a series of six works of detective fiction, entitled The Grantchester Mysteries. The second, Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night, was published in 2013. Runcie is published by Bloomsbury.
Runcie's sleuth novels are currently being turned into an ITV drama titled Grantchester. Filmed on location in Grantchester, Cambridge and London, the initial six-part series was shown in the UK in Autumn 2014.
He also writes lifestyle pieces on the subjects of family and literature for major UK newspapers.
From 1983 to 1985, Runcie worked in radio drama for BBC Scotland as a writer and director. His work included Miss Julie, The White Devil, Roderick Hudson, Men Should Weep, and A Private Grief.
More recently, James Runcie has produced Arts, Music, and History programmes for the BBC. He is a freelance director of documentary films, and has produced documentaries featuring the writers Hilary Mantel, J.K. Rowling and JG Ballard, as well as making My Father, filmed a week before Robert Runcie's death, and the six-part series How Buildings Learn. He works freelance for the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4. He has worked with presenters including David Starkey, Griff Rhys Jones, Andrew Motion, Alain de Botton, and Simon Schama.
In 2009, Runcie was appointed Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival. He left the post in 2013 to take up a position as Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre in London.J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life
From October 2006 to October 2007, Runcie spent a year filming J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life for ITV, as the author was completing the final novel in the Harry Potter cycle, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The programme featured intimate access to Rowling's daily life, and included deeply personal interviews about her childhood and her own struggles with her writing process. The film frequently shows Rowling in tears when she remembers her life before writing the Harry Potter books. Runcie conducted his own interviews and narrated the film; when it was shown in the United States, additional commentary was provided by Elizabeth Vargas.
This film was transmitted on 30 December 2007 by ITV, and included in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince DVD as supplement.
Runcie won a Royal Television Society award for his film Miss Pym's Day Out in 1992, and has also received Royal Television Society nominations for How Buildings Learn and The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Miss Pym's Day Out was also nominated for a BAFTA Huw Wheldon Award for the Best Arts Programme in 1992.
He has won two BAFTA Scotland Radio Drama Awards for Watching Waiters and Mrs Lynch's Maggot, and been nominated for a BAFTA award for the film Great Composers – Bach.
Runcie married the Radio Drama producer Marilyn Imrie in 1985. They have one daughter together, Charlotte Runcie, born in 1989, and James is also stepfather to Marilyn's daughter, Rosie Kellagher, born in 1978. Kellagher is a freelance theatre director. Charlotte is a writer and poet who studied at Cambridge University.