Interview with Grantchester star James Norton, who plays crime-solving vicar Sidney Chambers
Grantchester is returning to our screens next week and James Norton, who plays the charismatic, jazz-loving clergyman, Sidney Chambers, will make his final appearance during the series. Here he reveals some of his favourite memories from filming the show and why he's finally decided to ditch the dog collar
Having filmed your final episodes, how do you look back on Grantchester?
“A lot has happened since we filmed the first series of Grantchester in 2014. It has been a fast few years. I definitely owe a lot to the show. No-one anticipated it would do as well as it has. I was fresh and green and like a bouncy labrador, hoping it was going to catch the public’s attention. But I could see that people like Robson Green and executive producer Diederick Santer, who had more experience, also sensed we were on to something quite special.
Why did you decide to leave in this fourth series?
“It was a combination of things; the Amanda storyline tying up as it did with her and Sidney breaking up and him choosing the church in the third series felt like a natural conclusion to Sidney’s story. Then when the possibility of a fourth series came along, the decision was whether or not to start a whole new journey for Sidney. Rather than do that it felt like it would be better to hand over the baton to someone else and give Grantchester a fresh injection of energy.
“A lot of Grantchester has been seen through Sidney’s eyes and his conflicted soul, so you have really got to know him which is a wonderful blessing for me, but there is only so much you can delve into his soul.
“It’s been a privilege to play such a wonderful character, but I feel like there are other vicars, other conflicted souls to explore. So it’s time to introduce Tom Brittney as Reverend Will Davenport.”
Did you have any say about how Sidney would eventually exit?
“I had a couple of light-hearted conversations with some of the producers offering my dramatic, absurd, far-fetched versions of his exit. Inevitably they weren’t picked up. I wanted Sidney to be the victim of a gruesome murder and then the new vicar would have to investigate the crime.”
What’s Sidney’s state of mind at the start of this new series?
“Sidney is still feeling the shock and heartbreak of Amanda’s departure. In typical Sidney fashion he is distracting himself, deferring the pain and confusion by diving head first into other activities, including his detective work with Geordie. Sidney is pretty reckless when we meet him again, looking for ways to keep himself occupied, entertained, excited and distracted. And most of that time is spent drunk. Not paying particular attention to his responsibilities as a vicar.
“Sidney has certainly turned quite fatalist and has slightly given up caring for himself. He still has incredible empathy and compassion and will always care for the people around him and his parishioners, but his self-respect and his self-love is definitely waning. There is a bit of a death wish. He has lost control and people around him are starting to recognise that.”
There’s a chase scene at the beginning of the first episode. How was that to film?
“I won’t miss the chasing, running and jumping with Sidney, because I have to do it all in these really flimsy period shoes. The wonderful costume department would always try and bolster them and give them rubber souls, but the older you get the more that hurts. Running on Cambridge cobbles in period shoes ain’t great so I won’t miss that, but that scene was really fun to shoot. In our Grantchester way we achieved our ‘Point Break’ chase at the beginning of the series.”
Do you attract a lot of attention when filming on location?
“Inevitably we do now draw a few more eyes during filming - the public and photographers. Especially when you’re doing these action scenes outside on location, but it’s lovely because it’s always really affectionate and warm. Grantchester attracts a certain type of fan, including those who identify with this warm and affectionate world. It’s testament to the success of the show and the love people have for it that many more now gather round to watch us film.”
The first story in the new series, yet again, has a modern day relevance. Do you agree?
“It’s wonderful how our writer Daisy Coulam is able to interweave the 1950s with the present day. Right now the world is in slight disarray with lots of very confused and scared people. With fear comes, often, hostility, aggression, prejudice and bigotry.
“It’s amazing how apt some of the lines and themes are in the first story and how relevant they are to today. There is this sinister side to the populist right which we are, unfortunately, experiencing the world over.
“That’s what I love about Grantchester. While it’s incredibly warm with that escapist quality, it is always accompanied by a provocative and challenging edge, asking the right questions. And, usually, with Sidney and his incredibly secure and admirable compass giving us some sort of guidance and answers to those questions.”
How does Sidney react when he meets an American woman in the new series?
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that Sidney finds himself again entangled in a complicated romantic mess. This presents itself in the amazing magical form of Violet Todd (Simona Brown) who is from an evangelical Christian background, very much front and centre of the civil rights struggle.
“She is this powerful, enigmatic, formidable woman who has a wonderful twinkle in her eye and an incredible sense of humour. Understandably he becomes intoxicated by her.”
Sidney goes punting again. You must be an expert by now?
“It was a beautiful morning during the summer heatwave. We had to film it really early in the day from 6am to 8am. But it was a heavenly two hours because we had the river to ourselves and Cambridge is beautiful at that time of day. It was very hot because I was punting in my full vicar’s outfit. Luckily my misspent years of being a student, spending far too much time punting and not enough time studying, finally paid off.”
Was it emotional filming your final scene as Sidney?
“Obviously things are shot out of sequence so it’s not the last scene you will see on screen. It was a very lovely scene and I’m pleased they scheduled it the way they did. Sidney is talking to the new vicar Will Davenport about Geordie. It seemed apt.
“The final scene I did with Robson was really very sad. We didn’t need to do any acting because Daisy (Coulam) wrote it so beautifully. My personal investment in Grantchester and in the character is so strong that, actually, you don’t need to do any work in a scene like that. The lines between the reality and the story are so blurred.
“It’s no secret that Robson and I are very good friends. I have so much love and respect for that man. The relationship Sidney and Geordie had was largely informed by that. And so when you have two very good friends having a version of a goodbye, both Robson and James and Geordie and Sidney were all in this big emotional self-indulgent mess. It was very sad, but very easy to act because it felt very true to the reality of the situation.”
What can viewers look forward to with Tom Brittney as new vicar Will Davenport?
“I couldn’t be happier to be handing the dog collar on to Tom who is going to be great. I know Tom is going to have a great time. He is oozing with charisma, horribly attractive with the best teeth in the industry. And, of course, I will continue to watch Grantchester as a viewer. It’s been a real joy to play Sidney. I’ve loved every minute of Grantchester and owe a lot to the show, to Robson and the rest of the cast and crew. I envy Tom because I know he’s going to have a really fun time. Good luck to him.”
Grantchester returns to ITV on January 11 at 9pm.
More by this authorAlex Spencer
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