James Norton Talks 'Grantchester': 'Slightly Unattainable and Taboo'

Brit James Norton (Happy Valley, Mr. Turner, Rush) started prepping for his role as Sidney Chambers — a jazz-loving, World War II-weary, progressive vicar who unexpectedly falls into crime solving alongside an overworked, hardened police inspector in his quaint Cambridge-adjacent village — years before Grantchester, which premieres Jan. 18, was ever greenlighted. Masterpiece's newest tormented hottie, who spoke exclusively to Yahoo TV in December from his home base in England, just didn't know it.

Quite the coincidence that like the character, you studied theology at Cambridge.
Yes. That was a great opening line to be able to drop in the audition. "Just to let you know, I, like Sidney, read theology at Cambridge." Maybe that helped them remember me. But unlike Sidney, my study was a purely academic pursuit. I studied theology from, I would say, an outsider's perspective because I was fascinated by religion. I grew up in the church and went to quite a traditional religious school. I was a chorister back in the day, so I'm familiar with wearing a Catholic skirt. What I don't share with Sidney is his very, very devout faith, and his faith is a big, rich part of the story.

But this isn't just a story about a stuffy old priest preaching and quoting biblical verse.
His faith is a big part of who he is, but it isn't all he is. He's a vicar, but he is also a young man dealing with stuff that lots of young men and women deal with — love, jealousy, career, ambition, drinking too much, loving a woman who is engaged to someone else. It also takes place in the period just following the Second World War, and he fought and maybe did some things he is not proud of, so he is dealing with what we now know is PTSD. His baggage and guilt are accentuated because he also judges himself in the eyes of God. That is also a fascinating period in British history. It was a time of such great social and political change, and Sidney is at the forefront of that change and is more modern than most of his contemporaries in the church. There's an enormous amount to play with.

Tessa Peake-Jones as Mrs. Maguire and James Norton as Sidney Chambers
Tessa Peake-Jones as Mrs. Maguire and James Norton as Sidney Chambers

There's something scandalous and racy for viewers to be privy to his private life. He spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathtub, at the pub, listening to jazz, getting dressed for church, pining away for a woman he can't have.
It's that thing about being slightly unattainable and taboo. It makes the idea of the guy more alluring.

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And we haven't even touched on his side gig, moonlighting as a mystery solver.
I have to admit when I first heard about [Grantchester], I wasn't entirely interested because of the way vicars [are commonly] portrayed in television and film as the comic guy or a little bit bumbling. When I heard that this was a crime-fighting vicar, it obviously changed my mind, completely played with my preconceptions, and fascinated me. Then I read the script and realized there were so many layers to Sidney. I liked that they were playing with this concept that there are things people would confide to a priest that they wouldn't necessarily divulge to the police, and his entrance into crime solving happens quite naturally after he performs a funeral of an apparent suicide. He's inquisitive, fascinated by people, and he has a very different way of reading situations and people than the inspector, Geordie Keating [Robson Green]. And I really liked the developing relationship between him and Geordie because they are so different.

James Norton and Robson Green in 'Grantchester'
James Norton and Robson Green in 'Grantchester'

 So much of the show revolves around that partnership.
When we met for the first time, I was terrified that we weren't going to get on, and it's essential that we did because that chemistry is at the very center of the story. But luckily

he's very, very easy to get on with. I hate the term, but we had a bit of a bromance on set. He's an amazing man, Robson. He's the most humble, down-to-earth, self-deprecating man. And we've just now been commissioned for the second series. Three more months with Mr. Green is a happy, happy prospect.

It must be fun to have a job where you have to spend a decent amount of time filming in a pub.
It was a really, really happy shoot. Those days planting in the pub were really fun. We're drinking warm ale, playing backgammon. I usually have Dickens, the little black puppy, at my feet. We banter and chat in between takes and turnarounds. Then the other days, we'd be cycling around in Cambridge, one of the most beautiful towns in the U.K. The only problem was the ale was fake. It's so unglamorous. It's all sugar water and fake herbal cigarettes. Maybe now that we're going into a second series, we can demand real pints as a reward.

Grantchester will air between Jan. 18 and Feb. 22 at 10 p.m. on PBS Masterpiece.