The scene is set for a bromance. A picnic on the meadows. Sunlight on the shoulders of Rev Sidney Chambers and Detective Inspector Geordie Keating as they plunge into the river Cam for a swimming race. All good, back-slapping, pec-rippling fun. But this is Grantchester, where every idyll has its serpent. Fans of the ecclesiastical crime drama, now in its second series, are in for a shock.
The unlikely pairing of a clergyman (James Norton) and a cop (Robson Green) is the bedrock of this drama. But later in the series when a murder suspect faces hanging (legal in Britain until 1965), the friendship between Sidney and Geordie is thrown into jeopardy.
For Robson Green, this development demands a step up from both actors and audience.
“I defy anybody not to cry as the relationship really starts to fracture,” he says. “In the first series, we basically wanted to say to the audience, ‘Do you like this?’, ‘Do you like these characters?’ It set out to charm, and it worked. I think the likeability is still there, but what we’re doing with the characters in the second series is quite unsettling. Sidney and Geordie are poles apart on capital punishment — Sidney is against the death penalty, Geordie sees it as justice. Arguments for and against are put forward, and each is equally valid. But it’s never a dry, political argument. The whole beauty of Grantchester is that the politics are implicit in the characters.”
Interlocking storylines, adapted by Daisy Coulam from James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries, subvert viewers’ prejudices at every turn. Sidney is a vicar who has seen active service in the Second World War; Geordie sees beyond villains and victims to the ripple effect of crime on society.
“Geordie wants to know why Sidney always sides with the bad ones,” explains Green. “Is it because Sidney has himself taken lives in the past? And Sidney asks Geordie, ‘Where is our compassion in all this?’ But Geordie’s compassion is not only for the victims, but for the destruction caused to the victims’ families and the people who loved them.
“On the other hand, murderers have families, too. It’s a moral minefield, and it forces uncomfortable choices on the viewer. You understand why the crime was committed – murder in Grantchester is always an act of passion – and then you have to start dealing with it.”
Green’s own views on capital punishment are equally ambivalent.
“Is it justice, or is simply revenge? Does it really solve anything? Personally I don’t think it does. It’s not a religious thing for me, the way it is for Sidney. I don’t believe in the Almighty at all – I certainly don’t think we can solve problems by confiding in an invisible friend. And I don’t think people are born bad, I think they’re made bad–or come to do bad things–by circumstance. But can we make a killer a better person? Is there evidence that rehabilitation works in cases of sexual assault? That debate is still open.
“I know that if someone I loved and cared about was hurt,” he goes on, “I’d want some kind of revenge. But I guess that’s where the justice system comes in, to stop us acting on our basic impulses. Because we all have an objective and a subjective view, and neither can be ignored.”
While the series has been something of an ethical work-out, the Northumberland-born star has scant patience with actors who assume their characters’ ideas and dilemmas.
“I’m not a Method actor, and if I find myself surrounded by actors who take their work home with them, I’ve got a sign I put out – I got myself one of those triangular ones like a roadworks sign – which says ‘Danger: Actors at Work’. Sometimes my fellow actors don’t like it, but it’s my little thing. I’ll go on set and say, ‘OK, everyone, we’re telling a story here. It’s pretend. I’m not a detective and you’re not a victim of crime. So let’s just all enjoy ourselves, OK?’”
He is also the actor least likely to bang on about the “bravery” required for a given role.
“My dad was down a mine for most of his working life, in an industry that just wasn’t designed for human beings. My mum worked in a shop and then cleaned houses in the evening to make sure that her children didn’t go without. I work hard out of respect for my parents, respect for what they sacrificed in order for me to have a better life. But Grantchester isn’t work to me. Dad always said, ‘Work’s not meant to be enjoyed, that’s why they call it work. Find a job you love, and you’ll never have to work again.’ And it’s true. I genuinely love playing Geordie. Grantchester’s one of those series where you look at the characters and think, ‘I wish I could have been there, at that time, with those people’.”
Green is 50. It’s a curious thing, he admits, this nostalgia for a world before his time. What qualities does he see in Grantchester that have disappeared from modern life? “Charm,” he says unhesitatingly. “We’ve lost that ability to connect to each other face to face. Maybe it’s because we’re all so hyper-connected. People are starting and finishing relationships with a text. They’re dating on the internet. Maybe I’m just showing my age, but I mean! Talk to the woman!”
There is, he says, an element of mentoring in his off-screen relationship with James Norton. “Can’t stand the man!” he roars, fondly. “James is the engine of the programme and he’s an absolute joy. He’s on such a wave at the moment, and he deserves every bit of it, because he’s a really creative talent. But there will be ups and downs, and that’s when it can be good to talk to someone who has survived in the industry long-term.”
Green’s longevity is partly down to his willingness to diversify. “I love the balance between acting and presenting,” he says. “I’ve just completed a show on the Flying Scotsman, and I’m about to take off to the Philippines for a documentary on Robinson Crusoe. Tales from Northumberland has been a monster hit for ITV, and now I’m doing Tales from the Coast, travelling round Britain’s islands and talking with people about how they thrive in these unforgiving conditions.”
Then there’s Extreme Fishing with Robson Green, in which our hero goes mano-a-mano with monsters from the deep. “I’ve just been offered the lead in a BBC drama and they wanted me to film in Manchester – but Extreme Fishing want me to go to Nicaragua and Cuba and Alaska and Senegal. Kind of a no-brainer.”
Could some unspeakable deep-sea horror lure Green away from a third series of Grantchester?
“I’d do it like a shot,” he says. “Grantchester is my happy place. If it wasn’t for the body count, I’d move there tomorrow.”