Grantchester isn’t Heartbeat in the Fens

Robson Green talks about his new ITV drama, tax, socialism...and why acting is a tough business

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Inspector Geordie Keating is a no-nonsense police detective who reckons he knows where all the bodies are buried (and there seem to be quite a few, considering his patch is 1950s Cambridgeshire). Then, one day, he’s up to his eyes in smalltime burglars and fraudsters when the man who is destined to become his new crime-solving sidekick sheepishly tiptoes into his office. It’s the local vicar. Canon Sidney Chambers has information suggesting that the death of a local solicitor – which everyone assumes was a suicide – was, in fact, murder.

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Cue the beginning of a weirdly engaging crime-solving duo. A partnership made all the more plausible once the Inspector realises something that makes perfect sense – witnesses and suspects will open up to a vicar in a way they won’t do when confronted by a weary, grizzled police officer like Keating. 

“And that,” says Robson Green, who plays the policeman, “is a really handy tool for a detective.” Is the kind-hearted vicar, played by James Norton — last seen in a very different role as Happy Valley’s murderer and rapist Tommy Lee Royce – being cynically manipulated by the copper? Probably. But if it brings villains to book, who’s to worry?

Based on the bestselling crime novels of the same name by James Runcie (son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie), Grantchester is a new six-part ITV drama that ticks a lot of the boxes that makes a ratings hit. It offers nostalgia, pretty countryside and the colleges of Cambridge University provide an elegant backdrop – and there’s also a healthy dose of grit (think Endeavour crossed with Father Brown). This is a slice of 50s Britain that doesn’t shy away from the fact that this allegedly carefree decade was also a time when racism was commonplace, gay people went to prison and the country hadn’t even begun to recover from its war wounds.

“Those themes are sewn in, we don’t shy away from that at all,” says Robson Green proudly. This isn’t Heartbeat in the Fens? “Oh God no!”

It’s a thoroughly meaty part for Green who most recently, as viewers might have noticed, has been as busy appearing in television programmes about the pleasures of extreme fishing as he has been acting. He is a little greyer than he was when he shot to fame in the ITV drama Soldier, Soldier (above) – is it possible that series
began nearly 25 years ago? – but, at 49, his face is still boyish. His voice is generally quiet and gentle, but that can change, as I soon discover.

We get to talking about his family, and the values that were instilled within him as a child. Green grew up, one of four children, in a village called Dudley in the heart of what was then the north Tyneside coalfield. His father, also called Robson, was a miner – as were his grandfather, his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather. It was a working-class household, though not a conventional one. 

In one breath, Green explains that the politics discussed around the dinner table “bordered on Marxism”, but in another explains how his grandfather saved enough money to pay for his boys to have a private education, so that they could escape life underground. (Robson’s uncle took up the offer, but “my dad went no, I want to go down the mine with my mates.”)

Green says he is thinking of his dad when he plays Inspector Keating. Robson senior, who died five years ago, was, like the detective in the series, “someone who had a sense that work is not meant to be enjoyed, that is why you call it work. He had a great sense of community…and a chip on his shoulder about a certain class of folk who have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth and done nothing with it.”

This year is the 30th anniversary of the start of the year-long miners’ strike. Robson’s memories of that bitter dispute are stark – though surprising. Robson junior was working in a local shipyard by day, and at night touring pubs and clubs raising money for the striking miners. 

“I sang with an a cappella group called the Working Tickets. And we toured with the Flying Pickets, the Hank Wangford Band, Jimmy Somerville.” (Little known fact: Green was later briefly part of the later 1980s Red Wedge touring group of Labour-supporting musicians led by Billy Bragg.)

So what does he recall when he thinks about the events of 1984?

“My overriding memory is – you’ve just triggered it now and I’ve never spoken about it before – is that, for the first time, the black mark around the bath disappeared. Because dad wasn’t covered in coal dust any more.

“The miners’ strike was the first time I saw my dad happy. Everyone goes on about the fight and the struggle, but what I remember is my dad being happy. I remember the guys being clean. Relationships were buoyant. They’d all come out from underneath the ground – that’s why the strike lasted so long.”

Many people have no idea what it’s like working in a coalmine, he says. “A lot of southern people think there were toilets in the mine. People think you went to the loo. No, you went where you worked. That’s how it was. And
you worked 12 hours underneath the ground.”

Yes, there was an amazing sense of camaraderie and belonging among the miners, but “they worked in an industry that you and I would think isn’t designed for human beings.”

The irony is that his dad was delighted that he didn’t have to go to this job that he was fighting to protect. But in the Green household, the strike was about a lot more than pit closures. 

“My dad had a definite sense of justice. We practised our socialism and I still practise it today.”

Socialism. It’s a word that keeps coming up in our conversation. How do you – most certainly a
millionaire – practise your socialism, I ask.

He gives an answer that, I suspect, would also warm the hearts of any Conservatives in the Grantchester audience. You could call it socialism – or, more accurately perhaps, compassionate capitalism. Green explains that he’s invested his income in improving the lives of kids growing up in the North East.

“I don’t have flash cars or massive mansions or anything like that and I’m not decadent with my money. I started a film company with the money I got from Soldier, Soldier and invested in the area – we started producing drama that was shown around the world, in 140 countries, and employed hundreds and hundreds of people.”

He adds: “I’m quite savvy. You ignore the business side of this industry at your peril.”

Indeed his company, Coastal Productions, backs up his claim, having made hit series such as Wire in the Blood and Grafters. Also among their drama credits are Place of Execution (for which Juliet Stevenson won a best actress award), Rocket Man and Me and Mrs Jones.

But acting is a tough line of business. Some years, you make a fortune, other years things are sparse. Has he never been tempted to put his money somewhere where the taxman can’t get hold of it?

And this, dear reader, is the moment softspoken Robson Green goes off on one. He raises his voice. There’s real anger on display.

Because Green most certainly does not approve of tax avoidance. And he is extremely cross about high-profile
celebrities who have (totally legally) sought to shelter their earnings from the taxman.

“Do you know what, anybody who tells methey’re not going to pay tax… we’ve got an NHS system on its knees… I tell you what, my son was in real trouble when he was young and we took him to the hospital, there were four specialistswaiting for him. That’s why you pay your taxes. We’ve got a police system who protect us, we’ve got firemen who put out fires. We’ve got defence, man. That’s what tax is for.

“Why don’t you want to invest in that? I don’t get it. These f ***ers who try to avoid it should hang their heads in shame. That comedian… What’s his name? Carr? W***er. I mean, just w***er. No, he’s not getting away with it for me. Sorry, there are people dying because we don’t pay our taxes. I’m proud to be a 50 per cent taxpayer, very proud of it. Sorry, you’re not getting away with it. Shame on you… because you didn’t pay your tax.”

Jimmy Carr apologised and changed his tax arrangements in 2012. I think we can take it as read that Green’s fee
for Grantchester isn’t currently in a bank account in the Cayman Islands.

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Grantchester is on ITV tonight at 9.00pm