Grantchester star James Norton on stripping for river swim scene: "Poldark made me feel inadequate"
Co-star Robson Green adds, "There were a few gym wars going on between me and James"
Fans of James Norton will need little persuading when it comes to watching the second series of Grantchester. But just in case they were in two minds, the ITV drama has handily included a scene of shirtless swimming in its opening minutes featuring the in-demand leading man and his co-star Robson Green.
It seems that current period dramas are replete with stripped-off stars, from the willy waving in War and Peace to Poldark’s bare-chested scything. So do such scenes intimidate the likes of Norton?
“That Poldark shot made me feel incredibly inadequate and emasculated,” he laughs. “There’s always been a body beautiful thing with television, but the focus has been more on women over the last however many decades. So it’s probably right that the tables should turn, but I don’t know if it’s a healthy pressure. There is now a sort of expectation on men.”
And the danger with having pecs and sculpted abs behind the dog collar of sleuthing cleric Sidney Chambers is that they might end up looking anachronistic. Grantchester is, of course, set in a 1950s inching its way out of post-war austerity and Chambers – like every good TV detective – is a man with vices. So surely the torso has to match both the time period and Sidney’s lifestyle?
“Yes, it can’t run counter to the story. We all know that Sidney drinks whisky, smokes and lives a good life. But he’s also fit and healthy – he cycles and maintains the garden at the church. So it is about treading a fine line.
“You have to acknowledge the expectation. And I can’t deny that Robson and I were in the gym doing press-ups the night before we shot that scene. Of course we were! We were freaking out thinking, ‘oh god, ten million people are going to be watching us in our swimming trunks’. But when vanity supersedes the story, that’s when it comes really distasteful and tacky, if I’m honest.”
At 30-years-old, Norton is a relative newcomer when it comes to winning the hearts of viewers, especially when compared to that veteran smoothie Robson Green, who returns as career copper Geordie Keating. So how did Green feel about taking a dip in the River Cam alongside his partner in crimesolving?
“You get to my age and, you know, it’s all too obvious if you’ve put on a few pounds because everything’s in HD. So there were a few gym wars going on between me and James. A few press-ups on the riverbank! But I do like to keep fit, both physically and mentally. I keep my side of the street clean and live a healthy life.”
So is there a lot of competition between himself and Norton? “Well, you see him running around like a young buck and you just think, ‘calm down man, it’s a marathon not a sprint,” says Green with a twinkle. “There’s a cricket match in one of the episodes this series and, at one point, I dropped a ball in front of everybody and James was like, ‘yes!’ He was so thrilled.”
And yet despite the one-upmanship, the pair appear to enjoy an easy rapport, with Green citing Norton as a “very good friend”, before adding: “You get to a certain stage in your career and you just want to have a good time. I’ve been in this industry for 30 years and I want some fun. I don’t want to be alongside negative energy anymore. If you’re not enjoying it, then what’s the point?”
That three-decade TV CV has seen 51-year-old Green feature in a string of hits from Soldier Soldier and Wire in the Blood to Waterloo Road and Mount Pleasant. So has he offered any advice to Norton, an actor whose star is most definitely in the ascendant?
“I can’t give James any advice. Look at him – he’s amazing! Crikey, he’s six foot tall, he’s charismatic, he’s a superstar. I thought he was the best thing in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, fantastic in War and Peace and amazing in Happy Valley. The man’s flying. But he’s not in any way let all this success get to him. He’s a really rooted individual. And the stuff we have together on screen is a joy.”
Grantchester returns on Wednesday 2nd March at 9pm on ITV