Why the vicar of Grantchester is James Norton's most complex character yet

by The Listener / 22 May, 2018
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James Norton in Grantchester.

British actor James Norton has played a painter, a prince and a murderer, but none has been so conflicted as Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers in the UKTV series Grantchester.

Sidney Chambers is a former soldier who likes jazz, drinks too much and is in love with his friend Amanda – how does that square with being a vicar?

Like many of those brave men he was a hero, but with that came immense cost, which is reflected in his drinking and troubled romances. Everyone thinks he must have got away with not fighting in the war or was a padre, but Sidney has taken human life and probably had more than his fair share of horror. The fact he is a vicar doesn’t distort the very normal journey he’s going on as a young man. If anything it makes all those trials, obstacles, relationships, traumas and temptations more acute.

A theology degree from Cambridge, just down the road from Grantchester, can’t have done any harm when it came to auditioning for the role?

It feels like there should be some divine intervention attached to this story but, no, sadly it was very mundane. The role came in the usual way from my agent, but it was a very fortuitous coincidence, having done theology at Cambridge, which I then was able to talk about in the audition. It was a great opening gambit. You could see their ears prick up when I told them. Having also travelled around the world and spent a lot of time in Nepal and India, my degree was mostly based around Hinduism and Buddhism, so I didn’t actually do much Christian theology. When I was at Cambridge, I did more theatre than theology, much to my professor’s and supervisor’s annoyance.

Author James Runcie was inspired by his father’s experiences as a village priest and as a Scots Guard during WWII – did you know much about Robert Runcie before you got the role?

I read Robert Runcie’s autobiography, which was fascinating. You could see all of the parts that James had taken from his life. On the days James visited the set I was aware of the fact I was playing a version of his dad, which was quite strange, but while Robert obviously inspired Sidney, it’s not biographical.

Sidney Chambers is a very different role to psychopathic killer Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley.

Sidney is a good man. He sees the world as essentially a benign place, which is completely the opposite to Tommy, who saw it as a very hostile place. I was warned I would be bashed about the head with handbags, but I wasn’t. Maybe because I was filming Grantchester when Happy Valley was on screen, so I wasn’t actually out in public very much. You inevitably get members of the public watching filming of Grantchester and occasionally I could see people who were looking at me, thinking, “Where have I seen him before?” Then the penny dropped and they would go, “You’re the psychopath!”

Why does Sidney want to work solving murders with Geordie Keating?

Sidney is distracting himself from both his baggage and slightly mundane life of a vicar and Geordie realises Sidney can find things out where the police cannot, particularly in those days when a vicar was such a powerful person in society. They are total chalk and cheese and both quite wary of each other at the beginning, but then very quickly they realise they can be useful for each other. Eventually, they become close friends, drinking beer and playing backgammon in the pub, which was fun to film. Robson [Green] doesn’t play backgammon and I love it, so he took a lot of pleasure in saying, as Geordie Keating, “I won!”

It’s a kind-of 1950s bromance between Sidney and Geordie …

We were aware the series required a really good chemistry between us. Meeting Robson for the first time was funny, because I’ve been watching him for years on screen, but we’d never met. I walked in, gave him a big bear hug and immediately regretted it. I thought, “I’ve stepped way over the mark,” but of course, it’s Robson Green. So he gave me a big hug back and it was completely lovely.

In the opening scene of Grantchester, Sidney is seen doing a very un-vicar-like dive into the River Cam with his friend Amanda. What was that like?

We shot that in April and it was quite chilly, but I enjoyed it, because I love wild swimming. I have a thing for swimming in lochs, lakes and rivers, so I was really keen, but because of the insurance, I wasn’t allowed to do Sidney’s dive into the river. That’s a stunt double. I couldn’t get enough of filming in the river and it’s a great start to the series.

Why doesn’t Sidney tell Amanda that he loves her?

He is dealing with depression due to his war experiences and his work in the village and the constant duties of being a vicar are a way of distracting from that. She’s such a free spirit and a young, modern woman who releases him from all of the knotted up tension, so she is very good for him, but he doesn’t think he is good enough for her. He says there was never a moment to tell her and she says, “Yes, there was”.

In season one, there’s also a romance with a young German widow called Hildegard.

There’s definitely a spark between them. Sidney realises Hildegard is a very different energy and person from Amanda, but equally is very good for him. She calms him down. I think our screenwriter, Daisy Coulam, intended for the audience to be split. Not to all want him to end up with one or the other. There should be an Amanda camp and a Hildegard camp.

Sidney’s dog Dickens has become quite the fan favourite …

I had a black labrador from the age of three called Ella and I’ve never had a dog since. So when Dickens arrived, it was back to my childhood. Originally we were meant to have three different Dickens in order to show the passage of time, but Dickens grew so quickly that we ended up having him the whole way through and the owner called him Dickens for real.

You father, Hugh, has famously worked as an extra in your shows.

My dad has recently retired from being a teacher and he loves being an extra. He was in Death Comes to Pemberley first of all and has been in my last three telly jobs. None of my family are in this world at all, so he’s very proud to say that I got the genes from him. For Grantchester he was a passer-by outside the police station and looked great in a three-piece suit. The crew all called him Papa Norton.

Although Grantchester is set in the 1950s, it’s made a point of having storylines that resonate today.

It’s so much more than a bog-standard murder mystery, because it doesn’t shy away from the issues of the period that are also relevant now – for example, a story about euthanasia. It also reminds people how things have changed. This is a time when homosexuality was still illegal; you could be sent to prison and spend long periods in solitary confinement. It’s good to remind people how recent that kind of prejudice was, how far we have come and how positive that is. Also, the murders are never meaningless. They’re murders of passion, love, loss or jealousy. You’re always watching a story about real people and real lives at a time when the death penalty and hanging was still in force.

GRANTCHESTER, UKTV (Sky 007), Wednesdays from May 23, 8.35pm

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