As Grantchester prepares to get its own TV series, Jennifer Shelton grabs a word with leading man James Norton to talk Cambridge, dog collars and turning detective…
It’s not often a sleepy English village wakes up one morning to find it’s turned into a TV set overnight.
In April 2014, that’s exactly what happened in the picturesque village of Grantchester, set to appear in a huge ITV drama series of the same name.
Based on the Sidney Chambers books by James Runcie (son of former archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie), it stars Happy Valley actor James Norton as Sidney, a handsome, crime-fighting 1950s clergyman. The first episode airs on 6 October and, like James, we’re rather excited.
“I’ve seen rough cuts and it looks great. It’s always hard to watch stuff you’re in,” laughs James, “particularly this, as Sidney’s in practically every scene so there’s nowhere to hide! And if it all goes badly wrong we’ll know who’s to blame…”
This latest venture is rather a departure for James, who recently brought chilling conviction to the role of charming psychopath Tommy in Happy Valley: the polar opposite to sensitive, caring Sidney, a young clergyman still finding his place in the world – and who seems to attract trouble rather than create it.
“He’s such a rich and textured character,” says James. “It’s been a dream job. We got the script last autumn and it was the kind of script you read and your heart sings.
“Because it’s set in the 50s there’s a lot that’s held back, a lot of subtext. Plus the trauma of war that Sidney has experienced, his alcoholism and messed-up romantic relationships… And yet he has his faith and this wonderful positive outlook on life. So there’s loads you can get your teeth into as an actor.”
A Cambridge homecoming
He adds: “Funnily enough I studied theology in Cambridge and so did Sidney, so I was quick to drop that in at the first audition! I had a very happy three years in Cambridge and loved cycling around, punting and coming to Grantchester… That’s why it was such a special job for me. Cambridge was a home from home for a long time so it was a real pleasure coming back.”
James and the cast, which includes Robson Green (Waterloo Road) as Inspector Keating and Tessa Peake-Jones (Only Fools and Horses) as Sidney’s indestructable housekeeper, spent several days filming scenes at some of the most iconic locations in Grantchester, Cambridge and London.
“We shot in King’s Parade, King’s Quad, a lot around Grantchester and up and down the Cam. The people of Grantchester were so welcoming and happy to have us, as was Cambridge. There were some really special moments, like closing off the whole of King’s Parade to get a big establishing shot, where the shop fronts and the cars were all from the period and there were about 100 extras all in period dress… I remember thinking, ten years ago I was cycling down here on a rickety old bicycle as a student and now I’m cycling down as Sidney Chambers in a telly drama.”
Grantchester: The new Morse?
There have been many mutterings about Grantchester becoming Cambridge’s answer to Morse, but for James it’s the characters and psychology of these stories which sets them apart.
“Morse was wonderful in its own way, but what makes our murder mysteries slightly different is that there’s less of the whodunnit and more ‘whydunnit’. The crimes themselves are always crimes of passion. There’s less nitty-gritty and more about the reasons why: be it love, prejudice or jealousy.
“Then there’s the over-arching narratives which continue all through the series. It’s more about the people and the time, and hopefully that will stand us apart.”
Series one loosely follows the plot of book one, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, which sees our hero investigate a suspicious suicide, a scandalous jewellery theft and an art forgery which puts a close friend in the most sinister of dangers.
“Whilst being very warm and set in a beautiful 1950s village it’s by no means sugary,” warns James. “It tells the 50s very much as it was, when England was a damaged country. There were problems with rationing, prejudice against gay people and problems of race.”
Being set in the 1950s, when the local vicar popping round for tea was quite the norm, also gives Sidney a more prominent role in the community. It’s an unusual occupation for a heart-throb hero, especially one with such crime-fighting tendencies, but one suspects that’s all part of the appeal.
“Most of the time I was in the same black suit and dog collar – it got pretty comfortable!” says James. “I had to do lots of running and fighting, and though it’s an unlikely costume for a crime-fighting protagonist, it works.”
If the kind heart, tortured soul and heroism wasn’t enough, Sidney also comes complete with a gorgeous Labrador puppy, Dickens, in tow.
“The problem with Dickens is that everyone’s going to be looking at him and not the rest of us,” James laughs. “He was a total joy. There were meant to be three Dickens but he grew so quickly that we only needed one. They even called him Dickens so he answers to that now. He’s eaten his body weight in sausages over the last few months but we love him to bits.”
The first episode of Grantchester airs on ITV, 6 October, 9pm.
Watch the trailer here:
Cambridge is also set to grace the big screen this January with the release of The Theory of Everything, a new movie showcasing the early life of Stephen Hawking.