Grantchester's Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green, left) and Sidney Chambers (James Norton)
London, Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow — these and numerous other places in the United Kingdom have for the longest time provided the ideal settings for some of the most well-written as well as atmospheric TV crime stories. Recently, a certain Cambridgeshire village has experienced an uptick in criminal activity, much to the delight of small screen audiences. Set in the 1950s, the popular ITV series Grantchester—based on The Grantchester Mysteries series of books by James Runcie—follows the crime-fighting exploits of Sidney Chambers, an Anglican vicar who moonlights as an amateur sleuth, and Detective Inspector Geordie Keating. For actor Robson Green, the opportunity to play DI Keating proved irresistible, and pretty much for one reason.
“The writing, simple as that,” says Green. “Without writing, actors are speechless, but it was first and foremost the relationships that were set out in this drama. The premise is a simple one — a very charismatic, inquisitive member of the clergy teams up with this honest, no-nonsense detective who has a very definite sense of right and wrong, and together they solve crimes. Now, as a [story] pitch, you might initially think, ‘Yeah, right, what have you been smoking?’ However, as the narrative unfolded in the first script that I read, I was hooked, not because of the plot, but because of the relationships. The thing is, your characters don’t have to be a member of the clergy or a police detective. They can be firemen, doctors, lawyers or whatever. Ultimately, it’s the way that they relate to one another and live vicariously through one another.
“I’ve been suspending disbelief and pretending to be other people in front of the camera for 30 years now, and over that time, I think this is one of the best things that I’ve been involved in. It helped, too, that as I read the script, I kind of saw myself playing Geordie. I’ve been miscast many times; believe it or not I tried, without success, to get out of a project where I played Jesus. One critic wrote, ‘I don’t know what Robson Green was playing at, but it was hard to believe that anyone would follow him across the stage, let alone Israel,’” says the actor with a chuckle. “This time, though, the critics have got it right, because I got it right. Again, I saw myself in the part, and I loved the writing and the relationships, the latter of which is everything in all good drama. It’s the relationships that shine through in the end.”
Grantchester made its U.S. debut in mid-January as part of PBS’s 2015 Masterpiece Mystery! line-up. In its opening episode, Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is approached by the mistress of a suicide victim who asks for his help in proving that her lover was, in fact, murdered. Sidney’s curiosity is piqued, and his inquiries eventually lead him to the local authorities, specifically the office of Police Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Already stretched to the limit with an overflowing caseload, Keating politely but firmly dismisses the vicar’s theory of murder. However, as Sidney continues to dig deeper below the surface of the so-called “facts” of the case, Keating cannot ignore the possibility that the clergyman might be correct. Stepping into his character’s shoes was, at first, slightly jarring for Green, given a prior acting job he had just finished.
“I had been playing a lieutenant colonel [Philip Locke] in the SAS saving the Western world from dissident rogue elements of North Korea, the IRA, the Yakuza and Office 39 who were trying to launch a nuclear attack against Britain as well as America in the TV series Strike Back,” says the actor. “Twenty-four hours after finishing that project in Thailand, I arrived home in the UK, put on a 1953 costume and walked straight onto the Grantchester set where I met my co-star James Norton.
“I remember being horrendously jetlagged, the type of which I describe as the wheel is still turning but the hamster is dead,” jokes Green. “Honestly, I was in real trouble. I thought, ‘What have I done?’ There I am waxing lyrically about the script and everything, and the script is one thing, but actually taking it and relating the material on the lens is something else. However, as soon as James Norton appeared, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s got it.’ James has that unquantifiable thing called star quality that is only inherent in a star, and that’s precisely what he is. James is one to watch, and as soon as I met him I knew I was going to be okay and that the project was going to work.
“James is delightful, charismatic, intelligent; for God sake, when he first read for the part, he was asked, ‘So what can you bring to this member of the clergy who preaches the word of the Lord in the little village of Grantchester in Cambridge?’ James replied, ‘I have a first in theology [equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree in the U.S.] from Cambridge University.’ That came across immediately when I met him behind the lens, and within 20 minutes, the two of us were bonding. It was very much an immediate bromance. James kind of got what I wanted from our characters’ relationship and I got what he wanted. The two of us have been friends ever since. James and I got along really well behind the lens, and that also showed in front of the lens.”
While Green slipped quite comfortably into Geordie’s shoes, he still found challenges with the role. “As with any character, I have to suspend disbelief enough for the viewer to believe that, in this case, I am a detective who has this definite sense of justice, but who is also living in the shadow of death,” notes the actor. “World War II has just finished, and Geordie Keating knows what it’s like to lose a comrade and a loved one. Because he was in that environment, my character knows the reasons why people kill in certain situations.
“The challenge for me was kind of putting myself in the world of World War II, and, luckily, a lot of my relatives, including my grandparents and their brothers and sisters, fought in the war. In fact, my grandfather fought in both world wars. So I was able to talk with them at length about the horrors of war and how long it stayed with them. It stayed with Grandfather Matt until he passed away. He surrounded himself with the men and women he fought alongside in both world wars, and spoke so fondly of the comrades he lost. I took that same sense of integrity, decency and honor with me into the character. That gave me a good base to work from with Geordie, but, again, the main [acting] challenge was convincing viewers that I fought in World War II. If you get that right and get the audience to believe that this man has served in the army, then that helps tremendously with the integrity of the character.”
At first glance, Sidney and Geordie seem to be very much like chalk and cheese, but a pint or two of beer along with a game of backgammon at the local pub soon breaks the proverbial ice between them. From there, a professional relationship as well as a friendship begins to take form.
“I think one of the reasons why this unlikely, unique and endearing relationship evolves is because they both want what each other has,” says Green. “Geordie lives vicariously through the Sidney character. He’s single, yet flamboyant, and very intelligent. Geordie picks up on everything Sidney says because the words that Sidney uses are so precious, they’re so economic, and my character loves that. So he envies his life and the flirting Sidney does. I mean, he has women falling at his feet. At one point, Geordie’s wife even finds him incredibly charismatic.
“Sidney, on the other hand, desires what Geordie has, namely stability, security, and the collective love of a family. He wants that in his life, whereas Geordie secretly wants the kind of wild side of Sidney’s life and envies his education. He lacks the vocabulary that Sidney has, but also realizes through the series that Sidney is a dependable and important ‘tool.’ Let’s not forget that everyone confesses their sins as well as darkest secrets to members of the clergy, and that is a really handy tool for any detective to have. So any breeches of confidence on Sidney’s part are most definitely Geordie’s gain when it comes to investigating a case.”
Besides seeing Geordie at work, Grantchester viewers are also given a look at life at home with his wife and their children. “My character’s family is everything to him,” says Green. “When I sat down to talk with Daisy Coulam [who wrote season one of Grantchester], she asked me, ‘Are you a religious person, Robson?’ and I told her, ‘No. I personally don’t believe we can solve anything by confiding in an invisible friend.’
“Geordie lost faith during World War II, but he does believe in the Almighty. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the feature film Inherit the Wind, but my character also believes in the notion that, ‘He who troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind, and that fool shall be servant to the wise at heart.’ Therefore, if you have an insecure marriage and choose to have affairs rather than commit to a relationship, you will inherit the wind, which means you will inherit nothing. So the love of one’s wife and family unit will be reciprocated from this as well. That is Geordie’s entire world and everything he holds dear, but what if that sense of love, security and endearment is jeopardized? I think they’re going to do that in the second series, which was commissioned a month or so ago. Doing so will, of course, create conflict, and we’ll get to see how Geordie handles that.”
Born in Hexham, Northumberland, England, the actor grew up in Dudley, a small mining village a few miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne. Before he ever decided to pursue an acting career, Green had his sights set on a very different type of profession.
“I wanted to be a pilot for the Royal Air Force, but I soon learned that if the Royal Air Force and I were to survive, we would have to part,” he explains. “I went for officer training, but opposed the kind of class system as it was in the early 80s. I’m from a mining background and I never believed that I could make a living out of acting, but my dad always said, ‘Work is a word that is not meant to be enjoyed. That’s why you call it work. Find a job that you love, and you will never have to work again.’
“I’ll always remember being at the cinema with my mum and watching Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be a part of,’ mainly because every woman in that cinema was drooling over Paul Newman, and I figured that it [acting] was one way to get a girlfriend,” he says with a laugh.
Casualty, The Gambling Man, Soldier Soldier, Reckless, Touching Evil, Grafters, Northern Lights and Wire in the Blood are among Green’s numerous other TV credits. The actor also reprises his recurring role of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Locke in the fifth and final season of the aforementioned action-packed UK series Strike Back, which will air later this year in the States on Cinemax.
“I know I don’t look a day over 35,” jokes Green, “but I’m 50, and when Strike Back came along I thought, ‘They really want me to hang out the side of a helicopter with a grenade launcher and take out a rogue element of the Islamic State and then rescue two of the greatest action heroes in the world, all while there are explosions going off north, east, south and west. I jumped at the chance, and it was just plain old fun,” he enthuses. “I got to see special effects, the likes of which I never thought I’d see in my career, and then there was also just the action side of it and being able to do these things that were required in the scripts. That meant getting up every morning and going to a two-hour boot camp workout. While I was quite fit at the age of 21, at the age of 50 I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. That’s purely because of Strike Back and a guy named Adam Sheppard, who I worked with and got me in shape for the part. I loved every minute of Strike Back, I truly did.”
After all this time, what does Green feel makes a career in this industry rewarding for him? “I’ve been very lucky of late to have economic stability, but that’s not what makes this rewarding,” he says. “What makes it rewarding is that I’ve been able to invest that money into a film company, and for a period of ten years we were the tenth largest independent producing company in Great Britain. Over the years, I’ve employed hundreds of people and given young people an opportunity to get involved in this industry, where such opportunities weren’t around when I was starting out. Not only did we invest in people, but also the region of Newcastle upon Tyne, which is where the company was, and the dramas and documentaries we were selling were seen around the world. That investment was and is the greatest reward for me."
Grantchester airs Sundays at 10:00 p.m. EST (check local listings) on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! Please note, all Grantchester photos copyright of Masterpiece/ITV, and Strike Back photo copyright of the BBC/HBO.