Fire, murder, scandal, love… last night’s episode of Grantchester had it all. It also provided a glimpse into the true character of the surly, troubled Inspector Keating, a character who’s fast becoming a favourite here at Edition towers.
Currently showing on ITV, Grantchester is proving the hit drama series of the Autumn, following the exploits of clergyman-turned-detective Sidney Chambers (James Norton) and his partner in crime, Inspector Geordie Keating. From the moment he glanced over the script, Robson knew he wanted in.
“The scripts for Grantchester were sent over to me when I was in Thailand doing Strike Back and within an hour I said yes. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in the 30 years I’ve been on TV,” he says. “You get to that stage in your life and career where you really want to enjoy what you do!
“It’s beautifully written: the themes are universal and the crimes are ones of passion. There’s a real truth to it. Not a word of the script was changed during filming. And I mean not a word. That’s a first. I just loved every second and didn’t want Grantchester to stop.”
Grantchester is based on the Sidney Chambers series of books by James Runcie, who was inspired in part by the life of his father, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie.
“I had the privilege of meeting Robert Runcie when I played Jesus in the York Mystery Plays in 1992,” says Robson. “So I’m now cast as a detective, I’ve played a surgeon and a werewolf and I’ve played the Son of the Almighty. How many actors can say that?”
He adds: “I knew about the James Runcie novels and read them when I got the role. James said to me, ‘The one thing I want you to do is live in the shadow of death. I want you to remember what World War Two did to these characters.’ We all know what it is to love someone and how it makes you feel when you lose someone you love. How we deal with that. Or how it is when something traumatic has happened in our lives.
“I think people in the 1950s were still hiding the scars of World War Two. It was only in the 60s when they said they’d never had it so good. It all looks beautiful and it seems joyous. But there’s this underlying insecurity and darkness.”
This darkness crept into Inspector Keating’s life last night when his baby son fell gravely ill.
“He (Keating) is devoted to his wife and family. They are the most important things in his life. You see what he has to deal with when the baby has whooping cough. The advances in medicine we have today didn’t exist in the 50s, so you expected the worst if a child had whooping cough or influenza. It was just something that happened. That’s why families were really large back then.”
Robson describes Keating as: “a no- nonsense, plain-speaking man who holds the mental scars of the war, which only manifest themselves later in the series.
“Geordie grew up in the north east. How he ended up in Cambridge isn’t explained. He’s fought in World War Two for King and country but came back to a land not fit for a King.”
He adds: “Geordie is a good man. An honest man with a definite sense of right and wrong. He knows what it is to lose a comrade, to lose someone he cares about. He knows what motivates people to kill. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So when Sidney comes to see him and says he suspects a man has been murdered, he dismisses him and says, ‘Why don’t you go back to church and pray for the wicked?’
“He tells Sidney to steer well clear of murky waters and not to stick his nose into police business. But then Geordie realises people tell the clergy secrets, confess their sins and misdeeds. That’s a really handy tool for a detective. So it’s an evolving relationship that turns into this very endearing duo. Two friends who depend on each other. You really care about them and want them to stay together.”
Off duty, Geordie and Sidney are regularly depicted enjoying backgammon and a beer in the pub (The Eagle from the outside, though the interiors are filmed somewhere else). Off screen, James Norton is a fan of the game while Robson doesn’t play: perhaps one of the reasons why Geordie takes great satisfaction in beating Sidney.
“When we filmed those scenes I’d just arrived back in Britain from working on Strike Back, a Lieutenant Colonel saving the Western world from a nuclear missile attack by the North Koreans,” Robson explains. “I land at Heathrow, go for a costume check and then am propelled into those pub scenes while in jet lag hell! But for some reason it just brought out the best in the scene. Again, the writing was perfect so I wasn’t concerned about it. They’re lovely scenes in the pub, I really liked them.
“James Norton is a star in the real sense. His kindness, charisma, talent and his joy for doing what he does were the best ingredients for any captain of that ship. It was relentless for him. Non-stop. I’ve been in that position before and I didn’t deal with it as well as James did. A lot of it had to do with the fact I was running a company as well. But James was a diamond. He’s going to fly. A name that is going to be up there with the best of them. A wonderfully talented, charismatic actor. Compelling to watch. His talent shines through.
“I never missed a second of James in Happy Valley and he makes very good choices. You just wouldn’t expect a transition from a pathological serial destroyer to this wonderful, inquisitive, charming member of the clergy.
“My relationship with James reminded me of the time when I was with Jerome Flynn and Gary Love in Soldier Soldier [James reportedly greeted Robson with a huge bear hug the first time they met]. If you get on with someone socially and behind the lens it will manifest in front of it. That’s very much the case with Grantchester and James. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.”
Robson was equally delighted with the village of Grantchester. “The villagers were really welcoming. So lovely, hospitable, kind, caring and understanding. They really warmed to the shoot and we got to play cricket against a local team. Both Grantchester and Cambridge look stunning on screen.”
After Grantchester Robson - who turns 50 in December - went on to film a second series of ITV’s Tales From Northumberland and is still travelling the world for both his fishing documentaries and Strike Back.
“I’m looking after myself and I feel great. It’s been one of the busiest years I’ve ever had but in a good way. A great problem to have in what is one of the most insecure industries in the world. Any actor who knows what they’re doing six months ahead, that’s a pretty good place to be in. And to be asked to be a part of Grantchester? I’m still the same as when I first started at the age of 20, which was, ‘You want me in your programme? Really? That’s great.’”