'Better to go from a psychopath to a vicar...than the other way round'

Meet Britain's latest super-sleuth - the bicycling vicar of Grantchester. Richard Barber takes a peep at the new generation of murder-mysteries
Enjoy Call The Midwife? Looking forward to a third series of The Bletchley Circle? Then make a note in your diary to catch ITV’s Grantchester, which begins a six-week series on 6 October.

In 2012, exactly a century after Rupert Brooke set his famous poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, conceived the idea for a series of ecclesiastical murder- mysteries based in the village near Cambridge in post-war 1950s Britain.

For all its backdrop of dark doings, here is a slice of what now seems a bygone age in a timelessly beautiful setting. Refreshingly, the violence is implied rather than rammed down your throat. But then, as executive producer Diederick Santer is at pains to point out: ‘Grantchester is more a whydunnit than a whodunnit. The stories are driven by the characters involved.’

Clearly, this came as something of a relief to James Norton who plays our hero, Sidney Chambers, the bicycling vicar of Grantchester. The last time we saw him on the small screen, he was cast as the black-hearted psychopath, Tommy Lee Royce, who so memorably terrorised Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley.

‘Better,’ says James, ‘to go from a psychopath to a vicar rather than the other way around.’

It’s not long before Sidney locks horns with tough-talking detective, Geordie Keating – Robson Green in a pitch-perfect performance – who would prefer the man of God to stick to what he knows best, thank you very much, than muddying the water with his theories on how various parishioners met their maker.

Inevitably, the two gradually become friends and drinking partners, often found hunched over a backgammon board in the pub with Sidney explaining how the game is played and Geordie picking up the rules rather too quickly and impressively.

Robson knew about the James Runcie novels, he says. Three have been published so far: the first, Sidney Chambers And The Shadow Of Death, is newly available in paperback from Bloomsbury. Three further books in the series will appear over the next couple of years.

‘I read them when I got the role,’ says Robson. ‘Then James Runcie gave me some good advice. He told me: “I want you to remember what the Second World War did to these characters.” We all know what it is to love someone and how it feels when you lose them.

‘I think people in the 1950s were still hiding the scars from the war. It was only in the 1960s they were told they’d never had it so good. Everything looks beautiful on screen – everything seems joyous. But there’s this underlying insecurity and darkness.’

Granchester-Oct03-01-590Robson Green as PI Geordie Keating, with his wife, played by Kacey Ainsworth

It’s no accident, of course, that the action begins in 1953.

‘It’s very tempting to talk about post-war Britain starting in 1945,’ says James Runcie. ‘But, for me, the key year is 1953 because it’s the beginning of the end of rationing, the year of the coronation of Elizabeth II and the discovery of DNA.’

James’s father was once, like Sidney, a village priest who’d served in the Scots Guards during the war. ‘I wanted to talk about the social history of Britain through the eyes of a clergyman, loosely based on my father’s experiences,’ James explains.

Like the rest of the cast, Robson Green loved filming on location. ‘The villagers of Grantchester were really welcoming. I think they’ll be pleased with the end result.’

As it happens, this happy outcome was far from left to chance. Producer Diederick Santer, alongside scriptwriter Daisy Coulam – the two had worked together in the same capacities on EastEnders – made it their business to attend a meeting of the local council before the cameras started rolling.

‘We knew the show would share a name with the real Grantchester,’ says Diederick, ‘so we spent a bit of time and effort early on getting to know the people who lived there, rather than just turning up out of the blue in a load of trucks with a parking permit and start filming in their village.’

He thinks he knows why Sidney Chambers will resonate with an audience of all ages. ‘Sidney’s a flawed character,’ he says. ‘He’s got a strong faith and sense of duty but he doubts himself – he has a permanent crisis of self. He continually asks himself whether he’s a good enough priest, a good enough man.

‘That combined with his war history – he’s killed men in his time – makes him a complicated character a real mix of dark and light. He falls in love with women, he drinks too much. Like all of us, he’s flesh and blood and suffers from human weakness. And yet, at heart, we know he’s a good guy.’

By the purest chance, James Norton read theology at Cambridge. ‘That was a fortuitous coincidence,’ he says, ‘which I was then able to talk about in my audition. It was a great opening gambit. You could see their ears prick up when I told them although, in truth, my degree was mostly based around Hinduism and Buddhism rather than Christian theology.’

He loved his time filming Grantchester. ‘I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more. The weather was kind. We’d spend days lying back drinking ginger beer – doubling for champagne – in a punt on the Cam with the sun shining out of a clear blue sky. It was one of those jobs with a lot of “pinch me” moments.’

Granchester-Oct03-02-590James Morton and Morven Christie, who plays heiress Amanda Kendall

Robert Runcie went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury and James has been inspired by his father’s early career as a village priest.

‘I read Robert Runcie’s autobiography,’ says James Norton, ‘and it was fascinating. You could see all the parts James had taken from his father’s life.

‘It meant, of course, that when James visited the set, I was only too aware of the fact I was playing a version of his dad. That felt quite strange although, while Robert inspired Sidney, the Grantchester novels aren’t biographical.’

By coincidence, Diederick’s father, Mark Santer, was also a bishop and a friend of Robert’s so it seems the Almighty was smiling on the production production. Then, just before filming was to take place, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke at the local parish church.

‘I was told he gave us his blessing,’ says James Norton.

James was also able to rope in the help of his own father, Hugh Norton. ‘Dad had recently retired from being a teacher and he loves being an extra. He was in the adaptation with me of PD James’s Death Comes To Pemberley last Christmas.

‘None of my family is from the world of acting but now he likes to go around saying that I inherited the performing genes from him. In Grantchester, he played a passer-by outside the police station and looked great in a three-piece suit. The crew all called him Papa Norton!’

Everyone, it seems, had the best time. ‘In 30 years in the business,’ says Robson, ‘this is my favourite job; a joy from start to finish.’

So, like everyone else, he’s hoping that Grantchester becomes a recurring fixture. Given Diederick’s attention to detail, that doesn’t appear to be in much doubt. For example, he arranged an exclusive screening of the first episode in the village hall ahead of it being broadcast on television. And, before that, on the last day of filming, a cricket match was held, with the cast and crew versus a team of villagers.

As it happened, James Norton, Robson Green and the rest were beaten soundly by the locals. Clearly, a case of divine intervention.

Grantchester begins on ITV1 on Monday 6 October at 9pm.